People with learning disabilities, mental health problems, autism and fluctuating health conditions could be at increased risk of hardship under coalition plans to restrict access to disability living allowance, experts have warned.
Plans in yesterday’s Budget to save £1,075m from the DLA budget by 2014-15 by introducing a medical assessment for existing and new claimants of working age from 2013, replacing a system where most people access DLA through a self-assessment form, backed by supporting medical evidence.
With the DLA budget for working-age adults worth £6.2bn in 2009-10, this could see about one-fifth of the existing 1.8m claimants lose eligibility. However, the government’s own budgetary watchdog said the precise impact of the change is uncertain.
The Department for Work and Pensions said it did not have details of how the assessment would work but there are concerns it could be similar to the controversial work capability assessment.
This determines whether people receive jobseeker’s allowance and are required to seek work, or are given employment and support allowance (ESA), which is worth £25 a week more and involves more support. However, campaigners have warned that many people have wrongly been placed on jobseeker’s allowance after being has deemed fit to work.
Gary Vaux, head of money advice at Hertfordshire Council, said around 70% of new claims for ESA were being refused through the work capability assessment, and that if this example was followed with DLA, many people could be denied payments.
He said that those most at risk included people with mental health conditions, those with fluctuating conditions such as multiple sclerosis, or people with learning disabilities.
Esther Foreman, Mencap’s campaigns and policy manager, also raised concerns.
She added: “Strong safeguards must be put in place to ensure that people with a learning disability, who desperately need the support, do not miss out because of these assessments.”
The National Autistic Society (NAS) warned that the changes may exclude people affected by autism from the support they need, as had happened through the work capability assessment.
Chief executive Mark Lever said: “We know that many people with autism currently encounter huge problems with the medical assessment for out of work support. We want to work with the new government to ensure this doesn’t happen to DLA.”
Carers UK also voiced concerns about the shift, citing the fact that carers’ eligibility for carer’s allowance is based on the person they care for receiving DLA or attendance allowance.
Chief executive Imelda Redmond said a “poor medical assessment could spell financial disaster for carers and their families”.
She also raised concerns about the government’s plan to save £6bn a year by indexing most benefits to the consumer price index (CPI) measure of inflation rather than the higher retail price index (RPI) measure.
She added: “Making savings in this way will hit the incomes of some of the most vulnerable people in our society particularly hard, people who are already struggling to make ends meet.”
Vaux said that had carer’s allowance been indexed to the CPI rather than RPI over the past decade it would be worth £48.64 rather than its current level of £53.90 a week.