Personal Independence Payments, a Peer and Paralympian

By Bernadette Meaden
October 8, 2016

Is anyone in the UK more equipped to deal with the benefits system than Tanni Grey-Thompson? As a very active Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords, and the winner of eleven Paralympic gold medals, Lady Grey-Thompson is confident, capable, and extremely well informed. Yet even she is finding the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) system demanding and frustrating.

On Twitter last night Lady Grey-Thompson revealed that she had received a letter from the DWP asking her to phone them about her PIP, which she did. The call lasted 57 minutes. The person at the DWP said there was a problem confirming her identity, and "Gave me impression it was going to stop #PIP.". She went on to say "I sat through just about all this legislation going through the Lords #PIP and I struggled to understand two of the questions."

Now imagine this happening to someone who is seriously ill, weak, exhausted, and relying on PIP to heat their home this winter. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how distressing and frightening that call would be.

A quick search on social media reveals comments like, "My husband feels utterly humiliated – as if he made up his disability and health conditions. Heartbreaking." and  "Is it a coincidence that I haven't had anything even resembling a good night's sleep since this whole #PIP nonsense began? I doubt it."

Damien Green, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has said that people with certain conditions (yet to be specified) which aren’t going to get better will no longer have to undergo repeated Work Capability Assessments, which cause stress and anxiety. This is a welcome glimmer of reason and humanity, from a Department that has for the past six years often been characterised by dogmatic cruelty. So why not extend the same principle to PIP? Why put people through a demanding and stressful application process, even people who were given a lifetime award of Disability Living Allowance (DLA)because their condition is never likely to improve?

When asked about this, the DWP has insisted that such claimants will not be spared repeat assessments for PIP.  If Mr. Green maintains this position, and insists that everybody must be retested, then he should have the honesty to spell out that the process is really about saving money by removing support.  In 2012 the government predicted that when PIP replaced DLA, around half a million people would lose their entitlement, saving the government over £2billion. Iain Duncan Smith said that people on lifetime awards had been “allowed to fester.”

This negative and demeaning view of people with a lifelong illness or disability was also behind the mistaken belief that when Incapacity Benefit claimants were assessed, half of them would be found fit for work. Yet Chris Grayling, then Minister for Employment and responsible for getting disabled people back to work, had to admit, "We have more people needing long term unconditional support than expected. And those in the middle group, who would expect before too long to be mandated to the Work Programme, have proved to be sicker and further from the workplace than we expected." The suspicion and distrust towards disability benefit claimants was proved to be unjustified, but it still persists, and is being maintained with PIP.

It is early days for the new Secretary of State, and one can only hope he goes further down the path he has indicated, of being hard-headed but not hard-hearted.  Forcing people with serious, permanent health conditions or disabilities through a stressful assessment process, in order to retain a benefit they may rely on for essentials like heating and transport, certainly falls into the hard-hearted category. And now that the new Chancellor has adopted a new fiscal approach, there can surely be no justification for continuing to take support from people who need it, simply to meet a target set by George Osborne.

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 © Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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