Please see below a statement from NRAS.
Having received direct correspondence from members, as well as discussion on social media, NRAS is aware of ongoing concern amongst our members and supporters about the government proposals for reform of Disability Benefits. Linked to this has been questioning of the suitability of Theresa May as our Patron. We would like to take the opportunity to address these concerns.
In the last week, several Conservative MPs have been asked to step down as patrons of charities after their vote in favour of the Welfare & Work Reform Bill, with the attendant cut to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) cited as the reason the charities no longer considering them as suitable for that role. We will not be asking Theresa May to step down and hope the reasons for that will appear clear upon reading this statement; we have written to Theresa raising concerns at the government rhetoric around Disability Benefits and to discuss how we will work together in the future.
NRAS has enjoyed and benefitted from Theresa’s involvement in many ways, on a professional and personal basis, from the very earliest days of the charity. As our `local’ MP it has been a welcome and entirely non-partisan relationship. The measures enacted by the current government, or any other, become of concern to us in direct proportion to their effect on our intended beneficiaries and the wellbeing of the sector and the charity itself. That concern has been increasing substantially with the advent of unwarranted restrictions on charities and research bodies in receipt of government grants and the widening impact of austerity on the morale and practice of a large number of healthcare professionals we work with. Irrespective of the rationale informing decisions supported by the Cabinet, the current furore over disability benefits is giving rise to a perspective among our members that this is a government that is either out of touch with, or careless of, the impacts these decisions are having on a growing number of vulnerable people.
On 11th March, the Government announced its conclusion following a consultation on changes to the way in which Aids & Appliances are taken into consideration during assessments for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). In the week following the announcement of this minor reform, the aforementioned Welfare & Work Reform was passed for Royal Assent, and on the Wednesday, the Chancellor presented the Budget. Between all of these events we have shared the concern of our members and supporters about how they will be affected.
Following the passing of the Welfare & Work Reform Bill, there has been particular concern around the cut by £30 a week of Employment Support Alliance (which takes effect in April 2017) for those in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), this and the changes to PIP will affect those with RA and JIA. Since plans for both these reforms were first announced, NRAS has engaged with the government and parliamentarians to ensure the voices of those with RA/JIA are heard. With our support, nearly 100 of our members wrote to their MP to make them aware of how the £30 a week cut to ESA might impact them whilst 3 of our members took part in the Disability Benefit Consortium’s (DBC) mass lobby of parliament in January of this year on the same topic. We are members of the DBC. When the consultation was launched on reform to PIP, our Policy & Public Affairs Officer, Conn O’Neill, was the only charity from the musculoskeletal sector who attended the specially convened consultation session for patient organisations organised by the Department for Work and Pensions.
At NRAS we pride ourselves on being rational and reasoned in our response to government proposals and actions. We have a small but well regarded Policy & Public Affairs team who have worked productively with the Labour, Coalition and now Conservative governments. We believe the welfare system, including specific Disability benefits as discussed above, but also other benefits which are often claimed by disabled people, provide a vital safety net for those who find themselves in need, at no fault of their own. We do however see it as our duty, on behalf of those making legitimate claims that the system be robust and its integrity be upheld. We listened to the arguments from both sides during the consultation on the PIP assessment changes in regard to aids and appliances and came to the conclusion that this particular reform was sensible – see further explanation below. Despite agreeing with the Government on this particular incremental reform, we are still deeply concerned about the wider rhetoric around Disability Benefits.
We were alarmed to hear in the Budget that the Government intended to be spending £4bn less on PIP per year by 2020. Upon first analysis, we thought this was ‘clever accounting’ by the Chancellor but we must make clear that, even if only hypothetical for the sake of balancing the books, we are in agreement with the wider charity sector that it is reprehensible to suggest disabled people take the brunt of cuts whilst the most well-off receive tax cuts. We recognised that if £4bn per year really were to be saved, significant reforms (requiring separate legislation) would need to be made and that there would be separate opportunities for engagement further down the line.
The minor changes to the way in which Aids & Appliances are considered during the assessment for PIP will bring about a small cost-saving but we would be surprised if this were to be even £1m per year, it certainly will not be £4bn per year. We find it disappointing that the media and the Government have allowed the conflation of this completely hypothetical £4bn per year saving in the budget with the separate incremental reform to the PIP assessment process announced on 11th March which are two entirely separate issues. With limited column inches it is easy for the media to blurr these two stories.
An independent review of PIP by Dr Paul Litchfield identified that there were individuals securing their PIP award either mostly or exclusively from points relating to their use of Aids & Appliances (A&A). The government consulted on several options to reform this aspect of the assessment and so ensure the originally intended rigour of the assessment process be upheld – a person’s needs should be assessed holistically and not just based on their use of aids and appliances. We agreed with Dr. Litchfield’s opinion that a thorough assessment for PIP ought to identify an individual’s need without exclusive reference to their use of an A&A, as was the case during Disability Living Allowance (DLA) assessments. We accept that assessments are not always as thorough as they ought to be but do not see it is right to maintain the flawed A&A aspect to make up for failings elsewhere. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Stephen Crabb MP, has now backtracked on this changes and so there will be no changes to the assessment process in the foreseeable future. We continue to work with the government and the private companies conducting PIP and ESA assessments to make them better aware of RA/JIA and of fluctuating and progressive conditions more generally.
In our measured support for some reform to the assessment of PIP with regard to use of Aids and Appliances, we were out of step with the charity sector at large including our colleagues in the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC). We declined to add our name to a letter of condemnation sent to the Rt Hon Justin Tomlinson MP, Minister for Disabled People, on 11th March. We are now seeking to meet with ministers to allow the presentation of the strengthening feelings of our members about the wider reforms.
I hope that the above clarifies our position. As a charity we work very hard for the RA and JIA community and will continue to represent their interests in the most productive way possible.
With best wishes,
Ailsa Bosworth MBE
Founder and Chief Executive - NRAS