By Anushka Asthana/Guardian News & Media
Up to 160,000 people are in line for increased disability benefits after ministers gave in to a high court ruling that said government policy had been “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health conditions.
In a major U-turn, the new work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, said that she would not challenge the December ruling that found changes to personal independence payments (PIPs) could not be justified.
Campaigners called the announcement a major victory for thousands of disabled people who had faced “crude and unfair distinctions” between those with physical impairments and mental health conditions.
McVey’s decision overturns moves by ministers last spring to stop people qualifying for enhanced payments within the mobility component of PIP for reasons of “psychological distress”.
The decision led to an outcry from campaigners and many disabled people who lost money.
Individuals with conditions such as severe anxiety and bipolar disorder warned that they were scared to leave the house and needed support to walk 200m, but were stripped of payments because they did not need a stick or a physical aid.
A challenge to the high court resulted in a judgment before Christmas last year, in which Justice Mostyn said: “In my judgment, the 2017 regulations introduced criteria... which were blatantly discriminatory against those with mental health impairments and which cannot be objectively justified.”
Charities widely expected McVey to challenge the decision but she said the government had decided not to do that, although she said ministers did not agree with some of the detail of the ruling.
“Our intention has always been to deliver the policy intent of the original regulations, as approved by parliament, and to provide the best support to claimants with mental health conditions,” she said.
However, she has now asked the Department for Work and Pensions to begin an exercise going through all affected cases in receipt of PIP.
“We will then write to those individuals affected, and all payments will be backdated to the effective date in each individual claim. I hope that by making this statement it is clear that the government is committed to improving the lives of people with mental health conditions,” she said in a written ministerial statement.
Officials would not put a number on how many people might be affected but a government impact assessment did suggest 159,500 claimants could be affected by the change to the mobility component of PIP.
However, not all will have gone for a reassessment during the period since the changes, so will not all receive backdated payments.
Mark Atkinson, chief executive of disability charity Scope, said: “It’s absolutely right that the government has accepted the high court’s ruling over the ‘discriminatory’ changes made to PIP last year.
“This announcement is a victory for the many disabled people who have been unable to access support they are entitled to.
“The regulations introduced last March made crude and unfair distinctions between those with physical impairments and mental health conditions.”
He argued that thousands relied on PIP to live independently and meet “often substantial extra costs” as a result of their condition or impairment.
“While those affected by these misguided changes will now receive the payments they are entitled to, the fundamentally flawed PIP assessment process still needs radically overhauling so it accurately identifies the extra costs disabled people face,” he added.
Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said that the government was wrong to bring in the new regulations and ignore the view of the courts “time and time again”.
But she added: “Serious questions remain including: how many people have been adversely affected by the government’s reckless decision to oppose the tribunal’s original judgment? How much public money has been spent on lawyers, trying to defend the indefensible? And how quickly will people with severe mental health conditions receive the support to which they are rightly entitled?
“This is yet more evidence of the duplicity and disarray of the Tories’ social security policies.”
Frank Field, the Labour MP who chairs parliament’s work and pensions select committee, called it a very welcome first move for McVey, adding that “hopefully the new broom sweeps clean”.
“I hope she will now put into place the high court’s ruling for past claimants who may have lost out, or are waiting for their appeals,” he said.
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