Amber Rudd in new benefits U-turn for disabled pensioners amid leadership talk

Jon Craig, chief political correspondent

Amber Rudd has performed another major benefits U-turn, announcing that 270,000 disabled pensioners will no longer have to undergo repeat tests to claim payments.

In a deeply personal speech, the work and pensions secretary says her move was inspired by her own father, who lost his sight in 1981 and suffered blindness for 36 years.

The move is the latest in a series of policy U-turns by Ms Rudd, who made a swift cabinet comeback last year after resigning as home secretary over the Windrush scandal.

Coming soon after her changes to ease hardship facing claimants of Universal Credit, it will be seen as further evidence that she is positioning herself for a Tory leadership bid.

As well as spearheading a cabinet mutiny against a no-deal Brexit, Ms Rudd has raised her profile in recent weeks with a series of set-piece interviews and speeches outlining her vision.

Earlier this week Ms Rudd launched a powerful attack on Labour over antisemitism, accusing the party in her Hastings and Rye constituency of "baiting Jews with hateful language".

And there is renewed speculation that she may boost her leadership bid by quitting Hastings, where her majority is just 346, for the Mid Sussex seat where grandee Sir Nicholas Soames - who is tipped to stand down - has a majority of nearly 20,000.

In a major speech to the disabled charity Scope on Tuesday, Ms Rudd will announce that from the spring of this year, disabled pensioners will not have their personal independence payment (PIP) awards regularly reviewed.

And she will draw on her own family experience of disability to stress her determination to ensure those who have paid into the system all their lives receive support when they need it most.

"My father became blind in 1981. For 36 years his blindness was a normal part of my family's life. Of my life," Ms Rudd is expected to say.

"I reflected on my father's lack of sight and how it affected his life and the lives of those who loved him, as I considered my role in supporting disabled people in Britain.

"Disabled pensioners have paid into our system for their whole lives and deserve the full support of the state when they need it most.

"This government, therefore, intends to change the landscape for disabled people in Britain: to level the terrain and smooth their path."

Announcing more changes, Ms Rudd will say the government is looking to merge the work capability assessment and the PIP assessment services into one to bring a more "joined-up" approach to claimants.

She will also say that she intends to review the government's goal to see one million more disabled people in work by 2027.

"People with disabilities and health conditions have enough challenges in life; so my ambition is to significantly improve how the Department for Work and Pensions supports disabled people and those with health conditions," she is expected to add.

"Progress has been made, but we need to do more to close the gap between our intentions and disabled people's experiences.

"The benefits system should be the ally of disabled people. It should protect them and ensure that the assistance the government provides arrives in the right place to those who need it most."

The announcements have received a cautious welcome from campaigners, who now want further reforms.

Genevieve Edwards, of the MS Society, said: "While it's good news that older disabled people will no longer have to go through unnecessary and stressful reassessments, millions of others will still be stuck in a failing system.

"The fact 83% of people with MS who appeal their PIP cases win shows how bad the current assessment process is."

Merging work capability assessments and PIP assessments was "like harnessing two donkeys to a farm cart and expecting it to transform into a race chariot," added Mr Edwards.

"If it wants to improve support for disabled people, the government must first fix the flaws so inherent to its assessments."

Scope's Mark Hodgkinson said: "We welcome the announcements on PIP but a more radical overhaul of the PIP and ESA [employment and support allowance] tests is needed and we would urge the secretary of state to commit to this further reform.

"Disabled people also want to see action taken to scrap counterproductive benefit sanctions. They make it harder for disabled people to get into work."