Voices: A sinister new Tory plan could be coming for disabled people

Congratulations on being made the fourth minister for disabled people in the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) in the last 12 months, Tom Pursglove. Now Rishi Sunak has finally gotten round to divvying up your department’s portfolios and confirming you in your role – days after sorting out the business department – we need to talk about PIP.

The PIP, or personal independence payment, exists to assist disabled people with the ruinous extra costs they incur simply by living in today’s Britain.

The most recent estimate from Scope, the disability charity, put them at £583 per month. Think of this as Britain’s tax on disability, with PIP serving as a partial rebate.

Except that figure was calculated back in 2019 before inflation re-emerged and gave a convincing impression of a grasshopper in receipt of a shot of uncut speed.

Inflation surging to more than 10 per cent has hurt everyone, but especially those of us with disabilities. Our personal inflation rates are very much higher than the official number because a major component of its rise is, as we are now all painfully aware, energy.

Disabled people are apt to need more of it than their able-bodied compatriots. If you find it hard – or impossible – to move, you’re going to need more heating and more power to produce it. If you rely upon specialist equipment, a ventilator or maybe a mobility scooter, you are going to need extra power to keep it running.

Britain’s tax on disability was rising before the government got around to the other rates. It was rising even as Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng were handing out billions of pounds of now mostly reversed unfunded tax cuts to the rich.

Unlike some other “benefits”, PIP isn’t means tested, partly because every disabled person pays the punitive disability tax other Britons are exempt from. But for how long will it retain that status?

Last week there was a troubling exchange between Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, and Mel Stride, Pursglove’s boss at the DWP. Ashworth asked if Stride could rule out means testing for PIP along with disability living allowance for children (which does the same thing) and carers allowance (not a direct disability benefit but very much on the field of play). Stride declined to answer citing “convention” ahead of a fiscal event.

This could be interpreted as a brush-off to his opponent by a new secretary of state. It could be Stride dutifully kow-towing to the Treasury. However – and this has got disabled people very worried – it could easily be read as a tacit admission that means testing is on the table.

With the announcement of his appointment, Pursglove referenced his ambition “to build on our success in supporting 1.3 million disabled people into work since 2017” and to continue ”to reduce the disability employment gap”. He might also have made mention of the disability pay gap which the TUC has put at 17.2 per cent, or £3,700 a year. It is nearly double that for disabled women.

We’ll leave aside the question whether it is actually government action that has helped disabled people get to work or whether it is simply the natural consequence of an unusually tight labour market. Suffice it to say that there are many disabled people who can only work as a result of the disability tax rebate – sorry, the PIP – which pays for essential equipment, such as transport. Tens of thousands of people might have to give up their jobs without it.

Pursglove’s ambition could thus be thwarted before he’s even had time to put up the “you don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps” poster featuring a cute-looking kitten above his desk. He’ll also find himself in the unpleasant position of spending all his time in the job defending the indefensible.

It isn’t just that PIP helps people work who mightn’t otherwise be able to. It is also a passport “benefit”. Being in receipt of it is required to access other necessary assistance, some of which the government has no involvement in, such as accessible seating at events, some of them it does peripherally, such as the blue badge scheme administered by local authorities.

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Is this how he imagines spending his time in the role? If Pursglove or his boss has five minutes, I suggest that they look at what happened when the former Labour government floated the idea of means testing the old disability living allowance, which PIP replaced (as part of a cost-cutting exercise, but they probably won’t admit that).

Red paint was thrown over Downing Street as part of an emerging crip-rebellion. I ask them, does an unpopular government really want to oversee pictures of burly Met officers manhandling disabled people into police vans and treating them in the same thuggish way as they treated the women at the Sarah Everard protest on Clapham Common? Because that is what they may face.

Everything may be on the table. But means testing or taxing PIP and its peer benefits will see the government making disabled people – a group which includes some of society’s most vulnerable – pay a brutal tax for its own failures and mistakes.

Unconscionable? It really ought to be criminal. The best of it is, such a measure wouldn’t even save that much – means testing has a spotty record. About the only beneficiary from such a move would be the doughty Ashworth, who, if he opposes it with sufficient fire, will do his stock no end of good.