Tens of thousands lose their ESA as welfare reforms begin to bite

Tens of thousands of disabled people have lost all of their out-of-work disability benefits this week, thanks to new rules brought in by the government through its controversial Welfare Reform Act.

The act introduced a new one-year time limit on claiming the contributory form of employment and support allowance (ESA) for those disabled people expected to move gradually towards work.

The new time limit was introduced retrospectively, which meant that claimants began to have their ESA removed on 30 April, even though the act only became law two months ago.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed that it expects 40,000 people from this work-related activity group (WRAG) to lose all of their ESA this week, with a further 60,000 losing their contributory ESA but becoming eligible for at least some ESA on the grounds of low income.

Those disabled people with higher support needs, who have been placed in the ESA support group, are not affected by the time limit.

The one-year limit was one of the most controversial aspects of the act, with the disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low telling the government earlier this year that the measure would be “not only unfair but downright cruel”.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said this week that the time limit would increase the number of disabled people living in poverty, with some losing more than £90 a week.

Neil Coyle, DR UK’s director of policy and campaigns, said the new measure would only penalise disabled people who have worked in the past, as only those who have made national insurance contributions qualify for contributory ESA.

He called on the government to monitor the impact of the new time limit closely.

In its own equality impact assessment (EIA) of the measure last October, DWP conceded that the policy would affect about 700,000 people by 2015-16, with about 280,000 of them losing all of their ESA.

DWP estimates suggest that disabled people hitting the one-year time limit will lose an average £32 per week for men, and £43 for women.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The welfare system must support those with the most need.

“ESA for people who could be expected to get back into work was never intended to be a long-term benefit and the time limit of one year strikes the best balance between recognising that some people need extra help to enter the workplace and that the taxpayer cannot afford to support people indefinitely who could return to employment.”

She added: “Although a person’s ESA has ended they may be entitled to other help such as housing benefit, council tax benefit or working tax credits.”

She said DWP would monitor the impact of the time limit through its “frontline operation” and by “making sure people know what other benefits may be available to them”.

She added: “In terms of helping people, even if you are not eligible for benefit you can continue to claim national insurance credits and be eligible for all the support to help you get closer to the labour market, such as the Work Programme.”

She said this was another way for DWP to “stay in touch” with former claimants.

For more information on ESA, visit the government’s benefits adviser online service.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

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Politicians given New Year rebuke over care funding reform

Four leading disabled figures have backed a call for politicians to “seize” the latest opportunity to reform the funding of adult social care.

The crossbench peers Baroness [Jane] Campbell and Lord [Colin] Low, and Liz Sayce and Sue Bott from Disability Rights UK, were among more than 60 leading figures from the disability, social care and health fields to sign the letter, published this week in the Daily Telegraph.

The letter pleads with the coalition and the Labour party to work together to meet the “unavoidable challenge” of “how to support the increasing number of people who need care”.

They say the failure to meet this challenge is resulting in “terrible examples of abuse and neglect in parts of the care system”, with disabled people “unable to get the support they need to live their lives independently and be part of society”.

As the letter was published, a spokesman for the prime minister said David Cameron had written to Labour leader Ed Miliband “restating his commitment to constructive and open discussions” on social care reform.

Andrew Lansley, the Conservative health secretary, and Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat care services minister, will lead the talks for the government.

Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, welcomed Cameron’s move but said it had taken more than six months for the government to accept Miliband’s offer of cross-party talks.

Following the publication last summer of the recommendations of the Dilnot commission on the funding of care and support, the government is due to publish a social care white paper this spring.

Disability News Service has been raising concerns since last summer that the white paper will exclude any proposals on funding, because of fears over the cost of implementing Dilnot’s report.

Burnham said Labour would “play a full part in talks on the Dilnot proposals” and would “push for them to be implemented in full as a first step”.

Last week, Labour released a survey of care charges, which showed the average annual cost for a disabled or older person who pays for 10 hours of home care a week was now £7,015, or £8,271 a year for those also receiving meals on wheels every day.

The survey also highlighted the huge variations among different local authorities, with home care that was free in Tower Hamlets costing £20.34 an hour in Cheshire East, while the weekly cap on costs imposed by some councils ranged from £105 in Hackney to £900 per week in Brighton and Hove.

The Telegraph letter came as the Department of Health (DH) announced an extra one-off sum of £150 million for local authorities to help people leave hospital more quickly and receive care at home.

DH said the money would “help to get the services in place that people sometimes need to live independently at home”.

DH also announced a £20 million one-off payment to local authorities to boost funding of disabled facilities grants (DFG).

But such funding is no longer “ring-fenced” – following a coalition decision in 2010 – so local authorities will have no obligation to spend the new money on DFGs, which are used to pay for adaptations such as installing ramps or stair-lifts or providing a downstairs bathroom.

Government funding for DFGs in 2011-12 was £180 million.

Meanwhile, social care staff and employers now have access to a government-funded, confidential whistle-blowing helpline for the first time.

The helpline was formerly available only to NHS staff and run by the charity Public Concern at Work, but the new service is operated by the disability charity Mencap.

From 1 January 2012, social care and NHS staff in need of independent and confidential whistle-blowing advice about abuse or patient and service-user safety can call free on 08000 724 725.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Mobility component u-turn: Government accused of ‘incompetence’

The government has been accused of “incompetence” after it finally abandoned plans to remove mobility support from disabled people in residential homes.

The decision was announced today by Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, following months of criticism and campaigning by disabled activists.

The plan to save £160 million by removing the mobility component of the personal independence payment (PIP) – the planned replacement for disability living allowance (DLA) – from 78,000 people in state-funded residential care was one of the most controversial of the coalition’s package of welfare reforms.

Miller had already announced that the removal of the mobility component of DLA would not go ahead as originally planned in October 2012, but she had refused to confirm whether the measure would be applied to the new PIP on its introduction in 2013.

She said she reached the decision following “months of consultation” with disabled people and disability organisations, and had taken into account a review of mobility in residential care that was fronted by the disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low.

Miller had argued that the reason for removing the mobility component was that many disabled people already received mobility funding through their council care packages.

Announcing the u-turn, she insisted that local authorities dealt with mobility in “very different ways” but claimed she had “always been clear” that she “would not make any change that would stop disabled people from getting out and about”.

But Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said: “The change in the government’s position demonstrates a certain level of incompetence in the initial decision to target this bit of DLA for cuts.

“The fear we have is that that same lack of understanding is replicated in the broader cuts to disabled people’s support.”

Ju Gosling, co-chair of Regard, the national organisation of disabled lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, welcomed the government u-turn.

She said: “Without mobility allowance, LGBT disabled people would have faced being completely cut off from their communities.”

But she added: “We are delighted that the government has finally seen sense. However, this underlines the fact that the months of appalling worry caused to both current and future care home residents could have been avoided.”

The disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg also welcomed the announcement as “the right decision”, but added: “They shouldn’t have made the original decision in the first place.”

And she said she feared the energy of campaigners had been diverted from opposing other “quite nasty” measures in the welfare reform bill.

Anne McGuire, the shadow minister for disabled people, said: “This particular issue should never have been included in the welfare reform package. It was obvious right from the beginning that the government’s position was unsustainable.”

She added: “I hope this success will not allow the government to get off the hook on some of the other major issues which will impact on disabled people in the welfare reform legislation.”

Disabled activists will now turn their attention to some of these other deeply unpopular measures in the welfare reform bill, particularly around DLA reform, including cuts of 20 per cent to DLA spending, and cuts to employment and support allowance.

Meanwhile, Miller has been rebuked by the Commons speaker, John Bercow, for announcing the mobility component u-turn in an interview in The Times newspaper, days before informing MPs.

Bercow said that “policy announcements should first be made in the House and not through the newspapers. I understand the very real concern that exists on this matter because it is shared by me…”

The next stage of the welfare reform bill – the report stage in the House of Lords – is due to begin on 12 December.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Low Review given cool reception

A report into one of the most controversial of the government’s planned welfare reforms has been given a cool reception by leading disabled people’s organisations (DPOs).

The review of the government’s plans to remove mobility payments from disabled people in council-funded residential care concludes that the move would be a serious breach of their human rights.

It says that the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) is “key to meeting the personal mobility needs of care home residents” and “helps disabled people to take charge of their lives as individuals instead of being dealt with impersonally as a group”.

The review was led by the disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low, but was funded and organised by two disability charities, Mencap and Leonard Cheshire Disability, which themselves provide residential services for disabled people.

When the review was announced in July, disabled activists argued that it could not be “independent”, because it was led by two charities that could lose out financially under the government’s plans.

Leading DPOs were also angry that they were not told about the review until just before it was announced and were not asked to join the steering group, which instead was made up of a disabled resident of a Leonard Cheshire residential home, the governor of a special school, a local government expert, the director of a think-tank, and an expert in care provision.

Following the review’s publication this week, Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), said it had been the “right decision” for UKDPC not to take part, because the review had not been led by disabled people and DPOs.

She said she was “really disappointed” that the review had been “very narrow in its remit” and had focused on just one small part of the government’s DLA reforms.

She said the review’s priorities would have been “very different” if UKDPC and other DPOs had been involved in setting it up, which would have led to a “more far-reaching and probably a more interesting inquiry”.

Mark Harrison, chief executive of Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, said he believed the Low Review was “divisive” and had focused on just one aspect of the DLA proposals when the government’s reforms were “fundamentally changing the whole nature of DLA and turning it into a benefit that is related to impairment rather than the extra costs of disability”.

He said Mencap and Leonard Cheshire Disability had focused on people in residential care because of their own “business interests” and were “using disabled people and the name of disabled people to do it”.

Lord Low told Disability News Service there had been many submissions from DPOs and individual disabled people, although Mencap and Leonard Cheshire Disability have yet to publish the list of those organisations that gave evidence.

Although he was not involved in setting up the review, Lord Low said he was “extremely sorry” if DPOs had felt “excluded” from that process, and that the review team subsequently made “extra efforts to contact DPOs and tell them their evidence was most welcome, and a lot of people have responded”.

Lord Low met Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, last week to pass on the report’s main conclusions.

He said: “I am hopeful. I don’t want to put words into the minister’s mouth, but I got the distinct impression that she was taking this very seriously and really thinking carefully about the conclusions of their review.”

The government’s own internal review has not yet been completed.

Miller said: “I have always been clear that I will not make any changes that stop disabled people in care homes from getting out and about.

“My officials have spent the last few months gathering information and evidence, including visiting disabled people in care homes to find out from them and their families about their mobility needs.

“The Low Review has also been looking at some of the same issues and so we will reflect on the outcome of this work before I announce the final decision soon after that.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Government’s policies ‘are putting independent living at risk’

Government policies risk “turning back the clock” on independent living by 40 or 50 years, according to a disabled peer.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell told fellow peers that three key policies meant the government was breaching its duties under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

She said the coalition’s “treatment of essential independent living support for disabled people has become alarmingly unwise and potentially even dangerous”.

She was speaking during a Lords debate, secured by her fellow disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low, on the impact of the government’s policies on disabled people.

Baroness Campbell pointed to the government’s refusal to ringfence the extra £2 billion a year it is giving local authorities to fund social care support, its decision to close the Independent Living Fund to new members, and plans to cut spending on disability living allowance by 20 per cent.

She said the three policies were “having a cumulative effect of putting independent living at risk” and “could really take us back to the 70s or even the 60s, when basic needs were not properly met”.

Lord Low described the government’s decision to impose a 12-month limit on disabled people receiving “contributory” employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit – as a “particularly savage” policy that went “far beyond anything that was contemplated in the Thatcher era”.

He said the policy – which will affect those in the ESA work-related activity group – would “cause great hardship and have a devastating effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people”, while there “simply aren’t the jobs to enable someone on ESA to get a job within 12 months.”

An estimated 700,000 people will be affected by 2015-16, while 280,000 of them could lose £89 a week, he said.

He added: “To people forced to live on benefit, these figures are mind-boggling. Disabled people see this as a betrayal of the citizen by the state.”

The disabled Labour peer, Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, said cuts to benefits were falling “unfairly and disproportionately” on disabled people, while many were reluctant to claim the support they needed in case they were seen as “scroungers”.

She said Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff who were “rubber-stamping” obviously incorrect decisions – made by medical staff working for Atos Healthcare – that disabled people were “fit for work” were “acting illegally”.

She said she believed DWP staff were working to government targets to reduce the number of people claiming incapacity benefits.

The Conservative peer Lord Taylor of Holbeach, responding for the government, claimed the coalition’s policies would help “all disabled people to fulfil their potential and participate fully in society”.

He denied there were targets for forcing people off incapacity benefits, and said ESA was only intended to provide short-term support for those in the work-related activity group.

Lord Taylor said the government’s welfare reform policies were about “doing what is right” and “not about reducing the benefits bill”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Government ‘should copy DPTAC, not scrap it’

The government should rethink the decision to scrap its accessible transport advice body and even set up similar committees in other departments, according to a disabled peer.

Lord [Colin] Low said the Department for Transport (DfT) had “lost its focus” on disability issues, and abolishing the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) would be a further backward step.

He told fellow peers that DPTAC was one of the first such bodies representing disabled people in which at least half of its members had to be disabled themselves, and that it had won over senior figures in the transport sector.

During discussion of the public bodies bill – which will give ministers powers to scrap organisations like DPTAC – Lord Low also called on the government to rethink its plans to abolish the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board.

He said the board would have saved government “red faces” over the much-criticised plans to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from most people in residential care.

He added: “Axing the body risks undermining the government’s ability to understand the benefit and provides ammunition to those who suggest that the government’s plans are unfair.”

The Labour peer Lord McKenzie said the government seemed to want to abolish DPTAC because it “has a degree of independence and takes forward areas of work that reflect its own priorities and not necessarily those of the government”.

And he questioned how the government could now ensure that disabled people’s voices were not “drowned out by those of transport providers”.

Other peers also called on the government to reprieve the two disability bodies.

But Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, said he could “see no circumstances in which this would be desirable” because they “no longer reflect the world in which they operate”.

He said the DLA board had not been asked by the government to provide advice since November 2008 and had “outlived its useful life”.

He said that Equality 2025, the government’s advisory network of disabled people, was “well placed to provide personal insight into the effects of policy initiatives”, while the Office for Disability Issues now organises “a much wider range of channels from disabled people’s organisations and groups”.

But he admitted that abolishing the DLA Advisory Board would not save any money.

Lord Freud said access to transport had been “transformed” over the last 25 years, while disability equality was now a “core element” of the DfT’s work.

He said there would be a consultation on how to replace DPTAC “in the coming months”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Government ‘will do more’ on academies’ SEN obligations

The government has agreed to do more to ensure that academy schools set up under proposed new laws will have to match existing obligations to pupils with special educational needs (SEN).

The pledge came after concerns raised by the disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low, which received widespread backing from fellow peers during the committee stage of the academies bill.

Lord Low said that, despite previous government commitments, there were still areas that were unclear and gaps that “need to be plugged” in the SEN obligations of academies – independent schools that receive government funding.

He called for “further assurance” that the academies expansion programme would not lead to a “weakening of the requirements that govern SEN provision in schools”.

He said he been told of cases heard by the SEN and disability tribunal which showed existing academies were “driving a coach and horses” through their SEN obligations.

Lord Low said there was also “room for real concern” that a local authority’s ability to arrange SEN provision “will be hampered by the independent status of academies”.

The Bishop of Lincoln added: “There are some issues where it is too risky to leave matters simply to good will or mutual understanding, and special educational needs is one of them.

“We need to ask the minister if he will look at ways in which that dimension of academy life can be secured clearly in the bill.”

Lord Hill, the Conservative junior education minister, laid out a number of measures that would ensure academies met their SEN obligations.

But he pledged to “think about how best to achieve parity” between the SEN obligations of academies and those of maintained schools – those funded by local education authorities – and said he would produce new proposals at the bill’s next stage in the Lords.

News provided by John Pring