What the 'back to work' budget means for disabled people

There’s a lot to unpack from today’s announcements.

Not only has the chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveiled his “back to work” budget.

We’ve also had the long-awaited publication of the health and disability white paper, which outlines the government’s proposals for changes to the benefits system.

These won't happen overnight and many changes to the benefits system won't come in for several years.

Here are some of the main things you need to know about from today.

If you are concerned about any of these issues, you can get in touch with Scope's helpline. We provide free, independent and impartial advice and support on issues that matter to disabled people and their families.

1. Scrapping the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and using the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment for all benefits

This is a big change.

The government has announced it will be getting rid of the Work Capability Assessment. This is the assessment which disabled people have to establish if they are well enough to work when they apply for Employment Support Allowance or Universal Credit.

Instead, there’ll just be one assessment for everything – the PIP assessment.

Although it’s right that the WCA is going, we are concerned about the government’s plans to use the PIP assessment for everything.

The PIP assessment isn’t intended to assess someone’s capability to work. It’s meant to capture the extra costs disabled people face in life. And it’s already not doing a very good job of that.

The Work Capability Assessment is deeply flawed. At Scope we hear from so many disabled people who’ve had to go through stressful, degrading assessments, with assessors who make them feel like they’re lying. The reports produced are often inaccurate and the wrong decisions are made. The same is true for PIP assessments.

The government mustn’t cut corners over this – it needs to work with disabled people to create a benefits system which works for disabled people.

2. Universal Support programme announced

The chancellor has announced a new Universal Support voluntary employment scheme for disabled people.

This will match individuals with existing job vacancies and provide funding for necessary training and workplace support.

It aims to help up to 50,000 people a year with up to £4,000 spent per person.

This is good news. It’s something Scope’s been calling for over many years

It’s great that it will be voluntary – we know bespoke, voluntary programmes without the threat of sanctions work best.

But disabled people face major barriers getting into work, such as discrimination from employers and long delays getting the right support.

There need to be suitable jobs for people to move into, and they need to tackle the wider issues disabled people face in the workplace.

3. Sanctions will be applied more rigorously

The chancellor announced increased work coach support and work search requirements for more Universal Credit claimants to ‘help them move into work and onto high earnings’.

This includes increasing the Administrative Earnings Threshold, which determines how many hours and how much money some people on Universal Credit need to be earning to not face sanctions. This will rise from 15 to 18 hours at the National Living Wage.

The government will also remove the couple’s Administrative Earnings Threshold. It’s the third time in 6 months the AET has been increased.

The chancellor made a point of stating that this strengthening of the sanctions regime would apply to people “without a health condition”.

But we are deeply concerned about this. We know far too many disabled people are wrongly found fit to work. Sanctions and the threat of sanctions push disabled people further away from work.

We want assurances from the government that this won’t apply to disabled people.

4. Keeping your disability benefits while you try out work

In another big change, the government has said they will be making changes to Universal Credit which allow people to try out working without losing their benefits.

This is because it’s getting rid of the limited capability for work and work-related activity (LCWRA) element in Universal Credit, and replacing it with a new Universal Credit health element.

Currently if you get the LCWRA element, you wouldn’t be expected to look for work and may be at risk of being reassessed and losing those payments if you enter work that puts into question your reason for receiving this element.

In theory, giving people the flexibility to try out working is a good thing, but as ever, the devil will be in the detail.

The white paper suggests that receiving the new “health element” wouldn’t automatically exclude people from being required to look for or prepare for work.

We’re concerned this could lead to disabled people facing unworkable conditions and sanctions, which we know make people more unwell and push them further away from work.

5. Specialist benefit assessors to be tested

The government will start testing matching a person’s primary health condition to a specialist assessor.

As part of this, assessors will take part in training to specialise in the functional impacts of specific health conditions.

This is a good first step towards improving benefits assessments. Specialist assessors are something Scope campaigned for as part of our Disability Benefits Without The Fight campaign.

We hear from so many disabled people who have benefits assessors who’ve never heard of their condition, or don’t understand or believe how it affects their lives.

6. Energy Price Guarantee is being extended

The government has confirmed it’s going to extend the energy price guarantee until the end of June. This means the average typical energy bill will stay at £2,500 instead of going up to £3,000 from April, as previously expected.

As a short-term response to crushing energy bills, it’s slightly helpful.

But the Chancellor has missed an open goal by not committing to introducing a social energy tariff – discounted bills - for disabled people.

Life costs more if you are disabled. Scope and Age UK have been campaigning for this, along with almost 100 other charities. Last week we handed in a petition backed by almost 60,000 people.

To tackle the sky-high bills disabled people face, a social tariff is the answer.

7. Extra charges on prepayment meters are being dropped

At the moment, customers who use prepayment meters for their energy - pay-as-you-go energy meters or key meters – have to pay more than customers who pay through direct debit. It means people often on the lowest incomes are being charged more for their energy, which is wrong, especially in the current crisis.

But the government announced that pre-payment meter charges will be brought in line with comparable direct debit charges until the end of June, saving customers an average of £45 a year.

Looking beyond that, they have said they will ensure the PPM premium is ‘ended on a permanent basis.’

This is also welcome news. We want the government to go further and permanently ban the forced installation of pre-payment meters for disabled people.

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