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The Guardian view on disability benefit reform: the latest proposals are dangerously out of touch | Editorial

The Guardian view on disability benefit reform: the latest proposals are dangerously out of touch | Editorial
The Guardian view on disability benefit reform: the latest proposals are dangerously out of touch | Editorial

The best thing that can be said about the latest proposals from ministers to reform disability benefits is that they are unlikely ever to come to fruition. A consultation closes in late July, so the work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride, can be expected to announce changes in the autumn. Given the imminence of a general election, however, any new policies on benefits should be viewed as fodder for a manifesto rather than a programme for the current government. They will be driven by desperation to limit what are expected to be heavy losses.

This is completely the wrong way to approach the technically and politically difficult issue of benefit reform. Millions of disabled people rely on their personal independence payment (Pip) – or disability living allowance, as some equivalent payments are still known. Like carer’s allowance, this is not means-tested, and is meant to help people cope with the additional cost of being ill or disabled. This can include paying for assistive devices, higher transport costs including commuting to work, heating bills or medical items not provided by the NHS.

The consultation contains weasel words. Ministers want to know “whether there are specific groups of people who have a need of a greater level of support than they currently receive”, it says. In reality, of course, the main aim is to shrink the £15.7bn bill for working-age disability payments – or at least to turn it, and its predicted future growth, into an election issue.

With the higher cost of living and previous benefit changes already causing difficulties, and rising levels of anxiety and depression driving the increase in Pip claims, there could hardly be a worse move than ramping up stress by threatening to withdraw support. The suggestion that claimants could be required to submit receipts in the manner of business expenses is ludicrous. This would massively increase the costs of administration – a bizarre move for a government that is supposed to favour efficiency. Given the current length of NHS waiting lists, the notion that Pip could be replaced by “improved access to mental health provision” sounds dangerously out of touch. This is silo thinking at its worst: offload demands from our department and put them somewhere else.

About one thing Rishi Sunak’s team is right: the rising number of working-age people who are ill or disabled is a serious problem. Currently, almost one in four adults report having a disability, up from 16% a decade ago. What ministers appear unable to accept is that austerity – in particular the failures to invest in the NHS and grasp the challenges of social care and housing – caused this disaster. By making life so much harder for so many people, ministers undermined their physical and mental wellbeing. The downgrading of the post of minister for disabled people last year was symptomatic of a wider failure.

That mistake was rectified with Mims Davies’ promotion. But there is zero chance that either she or the rest of Mr Sunak’s team will repair the damage done. Changing understandings of mental health and illness have coincided with factors including cuts to other benefits and chronically insecure work and housing. What is needed is a cross-government willingness to confront a complex situation. The task is huge, and tackling it will require political courage and imagination.

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