George Freeman, a Conservative MP who chairs the prime minister’s policy board, has been desperately backtracking after mocking as “bizarre” the idea that claimants with severe anxiety should be eligible for personal independence payment (PIP). Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are attempting to overturn the changes to PIP, due to come into force on 16 March.
As we explained last week, following a court victory by claimants just last month, the government is rushing in an urgent change to the law to prevent many people with mental health conditions being awarded the mobility component of personal independence payment (PIP).
The change means that people with mental health conditions such as severe anxiety who can go outdoors, even if they need to have someone with them, are much less likely to get an award of even the standard rate of the PIP mobility component.
The new regulations also make changes to the way that descriptors relating to taking medication are interpreted, again in response to a ruling by judges in favour of claimants.
Freeman appeared on Pienaar’s Politics on BBC 5 Live on Sunday to defend the reversal of the judges’ rulings, arguing:
"These tweaks are actually about rolling back some bizarre decisions by tribunals that now mean benefits are being given to people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.
"We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it."
Following heavy criticism of his comments by charities and opposition MPs, Freeman tweeted that he had experienced anxiety and depression when he was a carer as a child and added:
"I don't need any lectures on the damage anxiety does."
Many claimants with mental health conditions would strongly disagree with that statement. So too would many politicians and disability charities.
Scope chief executive Mark Atkinson argued:
"It is unhelpful to make crude distinctions between those with physical impairments and mental health issues because the kind of impairment someone has is not a good indicator of the costs they will face.
"Many disabled people will now be anxiously waiting to hear as to whether or not these tighter rules will affect their current PIP award.”
And backbench Tory MP Heidi Allen told Radio Four’s Today programme:
“In my view, the courts are there for a reason.
“If they have come up with this ruling, which says that the criteria should be expanded, then I believe we have a duty to honour that. That is their role.”
The Lib Dems have now tabled a motion in the Lords in an attempt to overturn the government’s statutory instrument and are also praying against it in the commons, which could allow a debate to be held about the changes.
At this stage it is not clear that there is sufficient outrage, particularly amongst Conservative MPs, for the government to be defeated.