Disability claims can’t be made on ‘unverifiable assertions’, argues Sunak in benefits crackdown

Rishi Sunak has rushed to defend his disability benefits crackdown, saying only those with “genuine” claims should be eligible for support.

After a massive rise in the number of adults reporting disabilities and claiming help through personal independence payments (Pip), the prime minister said those with “less severe” conditions should be engaged in the world of work.

The government Green Paper, published on Monday, proposed a reform of scheme payments through changes to eligibility criteria and assessments, including options to require claimants to get clinical diagnosis and a switch away from cash payments.

Rishi Sunak told ITV’s Robert Peston that the UK needed to stop ‘medicalising the everyday challenges and anxieties of life' (ITV)
Rishi Sunak told ITV’s Robert Peston that the UK needed to stop ‘medicalising the everyday challenges and anxieties of life' (ITV)

The number of monthly Pip awards for mental health disorders has doubled since 2019, from 2,200 to 5,300, in line with an increase in overall awards through the benefit scheme to 33,000 a month.

The annual cost of the payment system is currently at around £22bn, and is forecast to rise by 50 per cent over the next four years as more people, including those with mental health concerns, qualify for the support.

But critics have accused the PM of using mental health as a political culture war ahead of Thursday’s local elections, which are set to see the Tories lose hundreds of seats on local councils.

In an interview with ITV’s Robert Peston, Mr Sunak said: “The broad thrust of what we’re trying to do is say, hang on, you can’t be making claims based on unverifiable assertions. There needs to be some objective evidence, perhaps medical, so that we can say you are genuinely someone who’s in need of support.”

He added: “What we shouldn’t be doing is medicalising the everyday challenges and anxieties of life, and ... if they are less severe, they should be expected to engage in the world of work.”

When pressed on the hardship that vulnerable people on low incomes would endure without Pip, he said: “That’s why it’s so important that we stick to our plan that’s easing the burden on the cost of living.”

Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride and Rishi Sunak have been pushing reform to Pip (Reuters)
Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride and Rishi Sunak have been pushing reform to Pip (Reuters)

His comments came as the work and pensions secretary Mel Stride published the Green Paper proposing to reform the payments.

The plans, which will be consulted on over the coming months, include proposals to “move away from a fixed cash benefit system”, meaning people with some conditions will no longer receive regular payments but rather improved access to treatment if their condition does not involve extra costs.

Vouchers for shops could also be given out instead of cash. And benefits could be given to claimants based on their individual condition, only with proof of their clinical diagnosis from a healthcare professional.

Alongside the paper, Mr Stride also addressed the Commons, saying: “This government’s priority is to make sure that our welfare system is fair and compassionate. Fair on the taxpayer, by ensuring that people of working age who can work, do work, and fair on those who are in most need of the state’s help.”

He added that the consultation will be “exploring whether people with specific health conditions and disabilities can be taken out of Pip assessments altogether”.

“We are also consulting on whether we should make fundamental changes to the way we provide support to disabled people and people with a health condition,” he said.

“We know that any additional cost arising from a disability or health condition, which Pip is intended to help with, can vary significantly and is unique to the individual circumstances.”

He argued that changes to the current “one-size fits all” system will offer “bespoke support tailored to individual needs”.

Acting shadow work and pensions secretary Alison McGovern accused Mr Stride of talking out of both sides of his mouth.

She said: “In recent weeks, the secretary of state has decided to speak out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand he says ‘I am grateful for today’s more open approach to mental health’, and with the same breath he tells us ‘there is danger that this has gone too far’.

“He wants it both ways, he thinks that openness about mental health is good but then says the very thing that brings back the stigma. Every time [Mr Stride] speaks, he makes it less likely that people will be open about their mental health.”

Ms Govern added: “He says some health conditions can be taken out of Pip assessments, which conditions are we talking about?”

Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the charity Mind, said the proposal would “only make things worse” for millions of people struggling with mental health.

She said: “Taking away crucial financial support from people with mental health problems is not going to fix anything, it will make things worse.

“We will not allow the government to paint people with mental health problems who are not well enough to work as somehow taking the easy route.

“And we will not allow people with mental health problems to carry the can for failures of the system. If the government is serious about supporting people with mental health problems back to work, it would prioritise investment in our overstretched mental health service.”

Are you worried about a change in eligibility criteria and assessment for Pip payments? Email tom.watling@independent.co.uk