Has Amber Rudd fixed the DWP’s disability assessments?

It’s been a while since a DWP Secretary of State made a major speech on disability assessments – and given the WCA’s continuing failures (not to mention those of PIP), we should be grateful that Amber Rudd has devoted her speech to it today. Her announcement has been mainly positively received so far (at least in the BBC, Sky, Daily Mail, Mirror, though with more reservations by the Graun and Indie), but in this post I want to ask: how far should we welcome Amber Rudd’s policy changes today?

Change #1: A change of tone

There are four key things that Amber Rudd said (if you want to see this in her own words, you can read her speech in full, alongside her announcement in Parliament). The first is a  change of tone, most tellingly revealed in the fact that Rudd’s speech was titled, ‘closing the gap between intention and experience’. That is: Rudd is saying that the DWP’s heart is in the right place in wanting to provide a good experience for claimants as they go through disability assessments, but in a change of tone from previous Secretaries of State, she admits that people don’t always feel this way in practice.  Apparently she was invited to apologise for the tone of previous Secretaries of State, which she declined. It’s too early to know how far-reaching this change of tone will be (the proof of the pudding is in the eating), but this is still a welcome shift in the short run.

Change #2: Ending repeat assessments for pensioner-age PIP claimants

This was the announcement that got many of the headlines – the DWP will now “no longer [undertake] regular reviews of…PIP awards for claimants at or above State Pension age unless they tell us their needs have changed.”  This is a good move, pure and simple (it will probably save the DWP money as well as improving people’s experiences) – but it’s a relatively minor policy that won’t change what happens for most people.

Change #3: Trying to bring together the WCA and PIP assessments

This announcement seemed to be misinterpreted by quite a few people. My understanding is that Rudd was not saying that the WCA and PIP are going to be merged into a single set of criteria for getting both benefits – as Neil Crowther among others quite rightly said, the WCA tries to look at your disadvantages in the labour market, and the PIP assessment tries to look at the extra costs you face in daily life, and these are simply different things. (This criticism isn’t blunted by the fact that both assessments are pretty terrible in meeting these aims…).

Instead, Rudd talked about two changes:

  • An integrated service for PIP and WCA assessments: this seems to mean that a single company will do both assessments, using a ‘single digital platform’, and this will try not to ask you for the same information twice. A side-effect of this is that the Maximus contract for the WCA is being extended until 2021 so that it’s on the same timetable as the PIP assessment contract. Some people weren’t happy about this as they don’t like Maximus, but to my mind, this is a side issue whatever you think of Maximus – it’s a really good idea to allow these two systems to speak to each other, and this is the only sensible way of doing it.
  • Testing the feasibility of doing a single assessment for PIP and the WCA: this seems to be about doing a single, longer assessment that covers everything you need to decide BOTH if you are fit for work AND if you have extra costs for daily living. It’s unclear whether this is a good idea or not – it might be less draining to only be assessed once. On the other hand, it might be more draining to have a single, really long assessment process; and if the assessment is bad – as too many of them currently are – then the consequences will be more catastrophic as they affect both benefits rather than just one (as Scope and Frances Ryan both pointed out). It also won’t work for people that apply for the benefits at different times, so even if this is rolled out, it probably won’t be applied to that many people.

There is a further issue here though, about whether this is a first step towards fully integrating the extra costs payments (in PIP) and the out-of-work disability payments (in ESA/UC, via the WCA), at extremes by scrapping the latter. As Claudia Wood and Kaliyah Franklin (tweeting at BendyGirl) both pointed out, this is a potentially dangerous path that could lead to benefits being cut for a huge swathe of disabled people – so this is a danger that everyone must keep an eye out for. But this isn’t what Rudd wasn’t proposing today, thankfully.

Change #4: Trying out much weaker conditionality for disabled people

Finally, the DWP is starting to consider radically scaling back the extent of conditionality that most disabled people face. This is actually a re-announcement of something that was in the Government’s response to the Work & Pensions Select Committee last month:

“36. The Department will explore the possibility of a Proof of Concept (PoC) for a general policy that conditionality would not be imposed on claimants before their WCA and those assessed as having Limited Capability for Work. It would remain the responsibility of the work coach to consider each case individually to decide whether to follow the general policy or whether relevant work-related requirements should be imposed… The Department will aim for this PoC to take place in Summer 2019.”

Many people might have missed this first time round, and Rudd described it more straightforwardly: “the Department agreed to carry out a small test where work coaches start from a point of no conditionality and scale up where appropriate, focusing on what claimants can do. This contrasts with the current approach, which starts at full conditionality and then tailors down accordingly.”

This is really welcome – I’ve repeatedly written (e.g. here and here) about the ineffectiveness and unfairness of the current sanctions regime for disabled people, so it’s fantastic to see the DWP starting to move away from this. (A fellow outsider who has temporarily been inside the DWP, Tom Pollard, has said likewise).

But…

This is happening very slowly. My understanding is that the first Proof of Concept testing is unlikely to result in a change of policy in the short-term, as it would be the first step on a long and tortuous path of actually changing what work coaches do. Indeed, there is a danger that this is simply a way of kicking a difficult issue into the long grass. Many of us will be paying close attention to what the DWP does (and how quickly), for evidence that this is a genuine commitment to change.

So how should we react to Rudd’s speech?

On balance, most of what Rudd announced was very welcome as far as it goes – even if the fantastic policy change on conditionality is disappointingly slow. The biggest problem, though, is that these changes don’t go far enough. As almost all everyone said, the assessments are currently a disaster area, and these announcements don’t really do anything to overhaul them (see e.g. Scope, Disability Rights UK, the MS Society, Frances Ryan, Tom Pollard, and Frank Field).

Yet realistically, this is perhaps all Rudd can do at the present time. Our politicians are absorbed in Brexit, and no-one has any time or political capital to get legislation on anything else through Parliament. And given that legislation is what we need, this makes it very difficult to do anything in the short term. The hope is that today’s positive changes are the precursor to a better system of disability assessments, to be taken forward as soon as the political climate allows – and without a moment’s further delay than this.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbgeiger.co.uk
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