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People Think Disability Benefits Are Too Low, New Polling Shows

The government announced its desire to reform its core disability benefit in April. (Alamy)

6 min read

Exclusive: A significant majority of people think disability benefits are in need of reform and that current payment levels are too low, according to new polling by Savanta for PoliticsHome.

In the survey of 2,280 people, conducted after the government announced its intention to reform Personal Independent Payments (PIP) last month, 39 per cent of people said disability benefits were in need of "major reform", with 37 per cent responding they were in need of "some reform". 12 per cent of people said they were "not in need of much reform", with just 4 per cent responding they were "not in need of reform at all". 

Respondents also believed that the current rates of disability benefit were too low, with 17 per cent saying they were "far too low", and 21 per cent saying they were "slightly too low". 10 per cent said current levels were "slightly too high", with 8 per cent feeling levels were "far too high" - with 28 per cent saying they believed they were "about righ". And 42 per cent of respondents said claimants should be paid more, with 22 per cent claimants should be paid the same, and just 15 per cent saying claimants should be paid less. 

Despite Government seeking to make claiming PIP more difficult, most respondents said current PIP assessments "should remain the same" (20 per cent) or "should be more lenient" (27 per cent). 39 per cent felt assessments should be stricter.

PIP, which replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in 2013, was set up to support people facing extra costs as a result of living with a disability, with the maximum weekly payment £184.30.

However, the rising number of claimants of PIP, particularly since the pandemic, has been described by Government as "unsustainable", with spending on the benefit set to increase by 52 per cent to £32.8bn by 2027/28. 

Among suggested reforms in the government's Green Paper on PIP, released at the end of April, is the tightening of eligibility criteria for the benefit, offering treatment options instead of payments, and alternative forms of support instead of cash payments, such as vouchers. The government has also indicated it wants to make it more difficult to claim PIP for conditions like anxiety and depression. 

"It’s clear that our disability benefits system isn’t working in the way it was intended, and we’re determined to reform it to ensure it’s sustainable for the future, so we can continue delivering support to those who genuinely need it most," Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said last month. 

In March PoliticsHome reported Downing Street's plans to focus on cutting benefits in a bid to change their electoral fortunes and shift attention away from persistent Tory party infighting and towards the party's economic agenda. 

PIP assessment centreChair of the work and pensions committee and Labour MP Stephen Timms, told PoliticsHome that PIP "was introduced to save the government money, and it hasn't", which he believed was one of the driving factors behind the reforms. However, Timms said the proposed reforms "[don't] appear to have been properly thought through" and was doubtful about how practical they were. "In [a] conversation I had with the PIP assessment provider, they said a big driver of the reason that more people are applying for PIP is delays in NHS treatment," said Timms.

"I think we've got to get that sorted out, rather than trying to cut back on the benefit. That's the problem: the NHS isn't working properly at the moment," he added. 

"I've got no idea what they're thinking of, it just makes me think the whole thing is very half baked, and vague. It's very hard to decide what they really want to do."

Stephen Crabb, Tory MP and former work and pensions secretary, defended efforts to reform sickness and disability benefits due to the growing cost, and said that it was an issue successive governments had struggled with. He added there was "real concern amongst colleagues with a wide spectrum of views about human and social impacts".

But Crabb felt it was important that the government got the language on benefit reform correct following criticism from campaigners, particularly on proposed changes to PIP eligibility based on mental health conditions. 

"When it comes to doing difficult welfare reforms, tone and language is extremely important," Crabb told PoliticsHome. 

"The government, and whoever's going out and making the arguments, need to take great care with that and there needs to be that note of compassion that runs through everything.

"Because what will guarantee failure, particularly when it comes to the sickness and disability, and of the welfare budget that's requiring reform is a perception, this is just being driven by the Treasury as cost cutting.

"The government's got to be able to show there is a broader moral and social purpose to the reforms."

Iain Porter, senior policy adviser at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, told PoliticsHome the government's approach to reform of PIP, particularly its language on mental health conditions, was concerning.

Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride
Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride has said he is "determined to find ways of making the system work better for those with the most severe disabilities and health conditions". (Alamy)

"We know that kind of hardship, poverty, sort of being unable to afford food and insecurity itself, for example is linked to poor mental health," he explained. 

"Just trying to get by, not being able to even afford to eat, it naturally adds stress and deteriorates your mental and physical health making it harder to kind of get back on your feet.

"These are the kind of drivers which are not going to be made any better by simply cutting people's eligibility for payments that do form a lifeline."

Porter also expressed particular concern about some of the proposals on vouchers in lieu of benefits, describing the proposal as "particularly worrying". 

"There's already too much admin and stress involved in claiming, it's actually a very hard process to go through that causes people a lot of stress," he added. 

Tom Pollard, Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation, told PoliticsHome that the proposals from the government on PIP "underestimates how much disabled people are struggling to get by in general". 

"In reality, people use PIP to kind of cover their living costs, partly because the kind of benefits system as a whole is inadequate for lots of people," Pollard said. 

A DWP spokesperson said: “We are modernising our disability benefit system to overhaul the ‘one size fits all’ approach and better target it towards those who need it most – enhancing support for people with health conditions and disabilities while ensuring the system is fair to the taxpayer.

“We’re encouraging everyone to have their say and respond to our consultation which includes questions on how our assessment process can be changed.”

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