“I am saying, ‘Do not be fearful of this. This could be positive for you’,” said Esther McVey, the former television presenter and businesswoman who was appointed Disability Minister in September, in an interview with The Independent – her first in the job.
“I guess that will happen overtime and we just have to reassure people really.”
Some people would see their benefit cut, she said, arguing that the new payments are “not a static benefit”, adding: “People do come off it, people do get better.”
Ms McVey acknowledged that disabled people would find the introduction of the new assessments “difficult” and “a tough process” but said the Government had a responsibility to reform the current “outdated system”, which was undermined by a “very fixed idea of disability”.
“Our knowledge of what disabilities are is probably greater than it would have been 20 odd years ago,” she said.
“Then it was more about physical disabilities. Now we know about fluctuating illnesses, we know learning difficulties we understand mental health conditions. It is about making sure than our criteria capture all those people who would otherwise be overlooked.
“I know it’s difficult and I know it’s a tough process but we’ve got to get it as right as we can now.”
The Government plans to replace the Disability Living Allowance with a new personal independence payment (PIP) from April – and to cut the cost by 20 per cent over the next three years.
Disability Living Allowance pays between £20.55 and £131.50 a week towards the extra costs of having a disability or terminal illness. Whereas its eligibility is largely decided by a self-assessment form, the PIP will involve face-to-face assessments with a health professional.
Atos, the controversial French company that also runs the fitness-to-work tests designed to move people off benefits and into employment, has won £400m of government contracts to test disabled people and decide whether or not they should continue to receive benefits.
Atos must “get it right” this time, Ms McVey said, adding that she was convinced that the change is a “principled reform” that will ensure that benefits reach the people who need them most.
Ms McVey also revealed new figures showing that only 63 of the 1021 disabled people made redundant by the closure of Remploy factories – or six per cent – have since found work. The closures had been “a seismic shift” in the lives of disabled people, some of whom who had worked at the factories for 30 years and it would take time for them to find work in a “tough” jobs market, she added.
She says she is tracking their progress “daily” and that the personal support given as part of the redundancy package had been refined to tailor it better to people’s needs. Labour has called for a halt to the closures, arguing that despite ministerial promises to help sacked workers find jobs hardly any had found work.
But Ms McVey argued that the Government could not continue to bear the factories’ losses of £68 million a year: “Yes we know the jobs market is tough, that’s why I follow this up on a daily and weekly basis. Rest assured it’s something that takes up part of my day every day to make sure we are doing the best we can.”