The government’s own benefits advice body has warned that last-minute changes made to eligibility for the new mobility benefit could have a "catastrophic" impact on some disabled people.
The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) says in a letter that some disabled people will "almost certainly" be forced to quit their jobs because they can no longer travel to work. Others may have to cut their working hours.
The committee says it is concerned about the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) lack of evidence on the impact of its decision to tighten the walking distance criteria for the enhanced mobility rate of the new personal independence payment (PIP) from 50 to 20 metres.
The letter adds: "For some, especially in rural areas where public transport tends to be less available, it may not be an exaggeration to describe the impact as catastrophic with more disabled people becoming increasingly isolated."
Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, was forced to launch a consultation into the change from 50 to 20 metres after facing a judicial review over her decision to tighten the criteria.
SSAC says in its letter that DWP needs to make a stronger case for the change to PIP, which is gradually replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA).
In the letter to DWP’s PIP assessment development team, the committee also suggests that the consultation document should be expanded to cover the potential impact on disabled people who will lose their Motability vehicles as a result of the changes.
And it calls on the government to consider "in more detail the impact on unpaid carers, the potential shift of costs to other areas (for example employers, health service and social care etc), and the impact on the Motability Scheme".
It also says it is "concerned that the rationale for reducing the threshold to 20 metres may not represent an appropriate gauge for drawing the line on where ‘those with the greatest needs’ lie".
It says 50 metres is "long-standing" and "widely accepted" as an appropriate threshold, so the case for cutting it needs to be "stronger than that currently presented in order to persuade individuals that 20 metres is a fair and more appropriate measure".
Jane Young, an independent consultant and coordinator of the We Are Spartacus online network of disabled campaigners, said: "I am encouraged and delighted that the SSAC response to the consultation is very much in line with our own views on the problem of using 20 metres as the threshold for the enhanced rate of the PIP mobility component.
"We really hope, given this and other helpful responses to the consultation from other organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, that the government will admit that 20 metres really doesn’t represent a basic level of mobility."
Under DLA, a person is entitled to the higher rate of the mobility component if they are "unable or virtually unable to walk".
Claimants are usually said to be "virtually unable to walk" if they cannot walk more than about 50 metres, but the changes to the regulations – suddenly announced last December without any consultation – saw the PIP mobility criteria cut from 50 metres to 20 metres.
The regulations state that claimants who can move more than 20 metres can still receive the higher rate, if they cannot do so "safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period".
A DWP spokesman declined to comment on SSAC’s letter to avoid "pre-empting our response to the consultation".
But he said in a statement: "Disability living allowance is an outdated benefit. Our reforms will make sure the billions we spend give more targeted support to those who need it most.
"It is not a tightening of the rules – the higher rate was always meant to be for those disabled people who are unable to walk or virtually unable to walk.
"We listened to disabled people and their organisations who wanted a further consultation, so that is what we have done."