Iain Duncan Smith's flagship disability benefits reforms will now be implemented at a much slower pace because the reassessment system is struggling to cope with the strain placed on it by a test group of claimants, City A.M. has learned.
The decision has been made just days before tens of thousands of people were due to begin transferring off the existing Disability Living Allowance to the new Personal Independence Payment.
But ahead of the intended 28 October start date – this coming Monday – ministers have quietly rushed through emergency regulations that will delay the roll-out. The nationwide reassessment programme will now be implemented at the discretion of ministers.
Official guidance produced by the department concluded delays in the system meant there was an "urgent need" to reign in the programme, just days before it was due to begin. It says the department is now looking for ways of implementing the plan in "a more gradual, controlled and manageable" manner.
Internal analysis of 32,000 cases filed by people requesting disability benefits for the first time has revealed that the assessment process is taking substantially longer than expected. Stages affected by the delays include the medical assessments of claimants carried out by outsourcers Capita and Atos.
Around 25,000 people a month had been expected to have their needs automatically reassessed from this Monday onwards. But as a result of the policy change, reassessment will now only take place “where suitable arrangements are in place” and only existing claimants in Wales, the Midlands and East Anglia are at risk of being reassessed in the near future.
"This controlled approach will allow the department to analyse the reassessment journey before widening the process," civil servants said in the document accompanying the regulations.
The Personal Independence Payment will impose much tougher criteria on benefits recipients than the existing Disability Living Allowance and the government hopes the new programme will ensure recipients do not become dependent on the system for an indefinite length of time.
However, charities have criticised some of the new scheme's tougher criteria, such as removing part of the mobility assistance payment from people who can walk for over 20m unaided. The existing system sets the distance that must be walked unaided at 50m, meaning many people are set to lose access to subsidised cars under the Motability scheme.
The first wave of reassessments were due to include existing claimants who turn 16 after the end of this month, claimants who have a change of circumstances, people coming to the end of fixed-term disability payments and individuals who voluntarily choose to make the switch.
The government insists that these reassessments will eventually happen but not necessarily as soon as originally planned. It has already delayed implementation of rolling reassessments once before, from 7 October to 28 October, following challenges to some criteria.
“DLA is an outdated benefit introduced over 20 years ago, with 71 per cent getting indefinite awards without systematic checks to see if they still need it,” said a department spokesman.
"That is why we are starting to reassess existing claimants - in certain parts of the country - with a new face to face assessment. This will make sure the billions we spend are better targeted at those who need it most.”