‘Concessions offered over disability benefit changes’, BBC News, 16 January 2012

January 16, 2012

From BBC News, 16 January 2012.

Ministers are set to make further concessions over controversial proposed changes to disability benefits.

The government have agreed to halve the time seriously ill or disabled people will have to wait to be eligible for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) from six to three months.

The move came after peers defeated the coalition over other welfare changes.

No 10 said the government had listened to disability groups' concerns but campaigners wanted further changes.

Peers are currently debating the government's welfare bill, one of its flagship pieces of legislation, which ministers want to become law by the end of parliamentary session in May.

Ministers say the changes will substantially reduce the multi-billion pound welfare bill – helping to cut the deficit – while also increasing incentives to work and targeting support for the vulnerable more effectively.

But the government was defeated three times in the House of Lords last week over proposed changes to eligibility for employment support allowance (ESA), formerly known as incapacity benefit.

And ministers are set to come under further pressure when peers discuss changes to disability benefits on Tuesday.

Lords pressure

Under current proposals, the qualifying time for PIPs – which are replacing the longstanding disability living allowance (DLA) – would be extended from three months to six.

But it emerged on Monday that Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud has added his name to an amendment tabled by other peers that would revert the waiting period back to three months.

Lord Freud has tabled another amendment removing a clause that would have prevented disabled people living in care homes receiving a payment – worth £51 a week – to help with their travel and transport costs.

Ministers first signalled a U-turn on this policy in December. However, the mobility component of PIPs will still not be paid to people receiving treatment in hospital.

All 3.2 million people receiving DLA at the moment, both those in work and out of work, are due to be reassessed.

Ministers have insisted the benefit, introduced in 1992 to help disabled people cope with the extra costs they face in their daily lives, is complicated and inconsistent and needs to be simplified.

While the PIPS remain a non means-tested cash payment, ministers say they will be easier to apply for and administer.

The government says spending on DLA has risen by 30% in the past eight years and, even after the changes, projected spending in 2015-2016 would be equivalent to 2009-2010 levels.

‘Big changes'

Downing Street said the government had listened to concerns about aspects of its proposals but would continue with its central objective of reducing welfare spending.

“We are making some big changes to welfare policy and you would expect us to have discussions with the groups that are affected by these changes,” a No 10 spokesman said.

“But the fundamental point remains that we have a very, very big welfare bill and we need to bring it down and implement the policy that we have set out.”

Macmillan Cancer Support said the government's “change of heart” would “protect the most vulnerable”.

“Cancer patients experience the greatest costs in the first six months following their diagnosis,” its director of policy Mike Hobday said.

“They will often have to give up work to undergo gruelling treatment and still find money to put food on the table. Extending the waiting time would have been devastating.”

But disability charity, The Papworth Trust, said they were worried that people would now have to demonstrate they were likely to be afflicted for a further nine months – rather than six – to continue receiving the benefit.

“We believe it will be difficult for a disabled person or the new PIP assessment process to predict that they will be affected for nine months, especially for fluctuating conditions such as Crohn's Disease,” said Matthew Lester, the charity's director of operations.

“This change to nine months means more disabled people will be unable to get financial support when they need it most, and risks pushing more people into poverty unfairly.”

ANALYSIS by Robin Brant, political correspondent, BBC News

Welfare reform is a major part of the government's programme for two reasons.

Cutting the spend at the Department for Work and Pensions, the biggest spending department, is essential to try to balance the books.

The government also wants to tackle what it thinks is a partly dysfunctional system that is being abused.

But it is controversial. It involves cancer patients, young disabled people and people in care homes.

The government has been forced to reconsider after peers rejected parts of the bill last week.

One of the most contentious elements is coming up; a cap on total benefits per family.

The government has signalled it is willing to make concessions.

It is not going ahead with plans to increase the time people must wait before they qualify for the successor to the disability living allowance.

There is pressure to have a ‘pause' in the legislation, with a longer assessment time.

The government will resist that, aggressively.

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