Disability minister Maria Miller tells Vern Pitt disabled people are a coalition priority despite astring of benefit cuts
Disabled people have nothing to fear from a Conservative government, said then shadow disability minister Mark Harper in an interview with Community Care in February.
Following the election, it was left to Harper’s fellow Tory Maria Miller to make good on that promise, but it is sounding a little hollow now. The coalition government has announced plans to introduce medical assessments for working-age disability living allowance recipients and claimants, a move it expects to reduce caseloads by 20%.
Like its Labour predecessor, it also plans to roll-out the controversial work capability assessment to existing incapacity benefit claimants, a move campaigners fear will lead to many disabled people being wrongly deemed fit for work.
On its watch, Department for Work and Pensions agency the Independent Living Fund has stopped accepting claims for its care payments for the rest of 2010-11, and the future of the core employment support programme for disabled people is in doubt.
Miller emphasises that all government areas of are cutting back and says she has assurances from David Cameron that disabled people remain a priority.
On DLA, replacing the 59-page claim form with a medical assessment is not a policy designed purely to cut claimant numbers, she insists.
“We want to make sure that the process of applying for DLA is less complex. One of the biggest problems that people have at the moment is applying for it and the time it takes. That’s our priority,” she says.
Pressure on services
When asked if the reforms could put pressure on other services for disabled people, such as social care, Miller says she’s “not aware of that as a possibility”. However, she says she wants to avoid this by working with the Department of Health to implement the policy.
The reason disabled people worry about the introduction of medical assessments for DLA is because of their experience of the work capability assessment. This was introduced in October 2008 to test eligibility for employment and support allowance, the replacement for incapacity benefit.
The WCA has been criticised for not accurately assessing those with fluctuating conditions, those with cancer and people with communication difficulties or learning disabilities, a criticism supported by the high success rate of appeals. In its first six months in operation 29% of WCA decisions were appealed. Nearly half of these were successful. However, following an internal review Miller says changes are underway. She confirms that the first of five annual reviews of the WCA will be complete before the end of the year.
Miller is keen to point out that the WCA will not in any way act as a model for DLA assessments but says the appeals process for both could be the same.
DLA and employment and support allowance are set to become increasingly important for many disabled people following the announcement that the ILF would not take new applications this year in order to stay within budget.
Miller says the decision was “disappointing” but ultimately the right one to protect those relying on the fund. “We have reviewed what led to that decision and measures have been taken to ensure that financial forecasting and the management of the fund are changed so that problem can’t happen again in the future,” she says.
One decision yet to be made is over the future of Work Choice, the specialist employment support programme for disabled people devised by Labour and due to launch in October.
Now this date has passed, Miller says she is aware of the problem but does not give a timescale for an announcement.
However, she says the government “sees it as very important to have separate employment programmes to support the most severely disabled”. This suggests Work Choice – or something like it – will go ahead, alongside the Work Programme, the government’s planned overarching employment scheme for most benefit claimants.
Two months into the life of the coalition government and ideas are beginning to crystallise into policy but Miller is still much more comfortable talking about the big picture.
When asked what her vision for disabled people is she talks fluidly about “opportunity”, “independence” and an end to being “trapped on benefits”.
However, it is the detail of how that is to be achieved that will matter to disabled people and Miller is as yet unable to provide many of these.