The Government’s proposals for the reform of PIP make for curious reading. The DWP press release explains that the purpose of the proposals “is to restore the original intention of the benefit which has been expanded by the legal judgments.” The fullest account of the rationale for the policy is however given in the Equality Analysis, which covers the detailed arguments without saying much about equalities.
The problem that the proposals are supposedly addressing is that a couple of legal decisions have accepted that people with a range of disabilities might reasonably be said to qualify for support under the rules as passed. Those disabilities mainly relate to people who have to manage a medical condition or therapy, which is expressly provided for in they regulations, and people who suffer from mental disorders that interfere with their capacity to travel. The responsible minister has explained that
The Government continually monitors the effectiveness of PIP to ensure it is delivering its original policy intent and supporting those who face the greatest barriers to leading independent lives. Two recent Upper Tribunal judgments have broadened the way the PIP assessment criteria should be interpreted, going beyond the original intention.
The Equality Analysis goes into more detail about the apparent intention.
PIP is a payment that is intended to be broadly proportionate to the overall need of a claimant. The greater someone’s need, all else being equal, the greater the cost they will face as they go about their daily lives.
The analysis argues that the tribunals’ interpretations of the points schemes go further than the DWP intended.
There are three problems with this account. The first is the question of what PIP is supposed to be about. If PIP is really supposed to be an extra cost benefit, it makes little sense to offer it without reference to people’s ability to pay. The truth is that when the non-means tested benefits were introduced, they had a very different objective. The Disablement Income Group had been campaigning for a recognition that the incomes of people with disabilities were consistently lower than for others. Alf Morris explained, in Parliament (10th and 15th Jul, 1970):
“It is not only a question of finance we are discussing, but also the dignity of disabled people. … This provision must be seen as only part – a very minor part – of an entirely new financial deal for the severely disabled. … This is only one stage towards improving the financial status, and therefore the dignity, of every one of our severely disabled fellow citizens.”
The point of the non-means tested benefits was to introduce a general income supplement, recognising that the incomes of people with disabilities were consistently lower than for others.
The second problem lies in using an assessment of functional activity as the basis of an assessment of costs. This makes no sense – and the Equality Analysis explicitly acknowledges that it doesn’t work. Testing people’s activities is “a proxy for their overall need”, but then it goes to explain that assessing costs is not practical: “it would not only lead to inconsistent outcomes but would also be expensive and difficult to administer.” If there was a direct relationship between need and cost, this would not be true – and the outcomes wouldn’t be inconsistent. As far as I can tell, there isn’t such a relationship, or at least not one at the level there would need to be to make it the basis of an individual assessment.
The third problem concerns the Government’s intention. It’s clear that the Government thought that introducing PIP would save money, and that the benefit would be more restrictive than the Disability Living Allowance. I challenged that assumption more than four years ago, when I wrote this:
the target is a reduction of 600,000 people taken off benefit by 2018. I am not sure how a cut in numbers of that size is supposed to be achieved, but it is most probably made up of three elements: people who will lose the lower rate for the care component, people who fail to turn up for assessment, and people whose conditions have improved sufficiently not to qualify. (There is a fourth element, which is the attempt to individualise assessments more closely – blind people, for example, will no longer qualify automatically for higher rate mobility – but that can work both ways.)
On general principles, I think the predictions are likely to be wrong. The common experience of selective benefits has been that when governments try to impose firmer boundaries, they are liable to discover that needs are deeper, more complex and more difficult to reject than they imagine. The distinction between the lower and middle care rates on DLA has always been confusing, and many people can argue persuasively for higher banding. There are new opportunities to include people with psychiatric disorders. And the PIP rules do not exclude the growing numbers of older people claiming DLA. Short term reductions have to be offset against the general trend, and as time goes on, inexorably, there will be pressure to extend protection. That happened with Single Payments, it happened with Incapacity Benefit, it has happened with DLA, and it will probably happen here, too.
And so it has proved.