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theweek120by150A minister has refused to admit that her government has tightened eligibility for support for people with the highest mobility needs, even though her own department’s figures prove that it has.

Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, was giving evidence to the Commons work and pensions committee for the first time since her ministerial appointment.

She repeatedly insisted that she wanted to provide “clarity” on the replacement of disability living allowance (DLA) with the new personal independence payment (PIP) for working-age disabled people.

But McVey then claimed that the latest changes to the assessment criteria for the PIP mobility component would not lead to fewer disabled people receiving the enhanced rate, even though she was told by Labour MP Sheila Gilmore that the government’s own document shows the changes would mean 51,000 fewer people eligible by 2018.

Despite the government publishing them last month, McVey refused to comment on the numbers, saying she was only “accountable” for the reforms until the next election in 2015.

She said the government’s 2018 figures were “hypothetical”, because there would be a review of the PIP reforms in 2014, and added: “I don’t think it’s correct to pursue those incorrect [Department for Work and Pensions] numbers.”

McVey claimed the latest changes provided “clarity” to “what was otherwise a very vague criteria”.

Previous drafts of the PIP eligibility criteria stated that a claimant who could not walk “up to” 50 metres without using a self-propelled wheelchair would be entitled to the enhanced rate of the mobility component of PIP, making them eligible to lease a Motability vehicle.

But last month’s final draft of the assessment criteria states that a PIP claimant would be eligible for the enhanced rate if they “can stand and then move more than one metre but no more than 20 metres, either aided or unaided”.

The move from 50 metres to 20 has caused concern and anger among disabled activists, peers, MPs, and a string of disability organisations.

Gilmore told McVey that 20 metres was “a very short distance”, and asked whether it was “purely coincidental” that the numbers who would be eligible for the enhanced rate in 2018 had fallen following the latest changes.

Gilmore said after the meeting that the changes were now “as clear as mud”, accused DWP of being “deceptive” in the way it had consulted people over the changes, and said McVey’s refusal to discuss DWP’s own 2018 figures was “absurd”.

The disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas said the sudden change from 50 metres to 20 had “shaken my faith in the whole process”.

She added: “It’s a terrible mess and just shows how stupid they were to alter the regulations at the last minute.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman again declined to admit that eligibility had been tightened.

Meanwhile, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson has warned fellow peers that the “lack of consultation with disabled people and all supporting evidence from experts in disability access as to what distance enables practical mobility and participation mean that there is a real risk that this issue will be open to judicial review”.

Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, insisted that the change “has made it clearer and simpler” and “has not changed the numbers affected”.

But after Lord Sterling, the Conservative chair and co-founder of the Motability car scheme, said there was “concern among disabled people” at the change from 50 metres to 20 – believed to be the first time he has spoken out over the PIP changes – Lord Freud agreed to consider “further communication with the relevant parties” on the issue.

Lord Freud was also asked by peers why the government had left out from the criteria the need to be able to perform the activities laid out in the PIP assessment “reliably, safely, repeatedly and in a timely manner”, another key issue that campaigners have been raising since the final draft was published last month.

Baroness Thomas, her party’s former work and pensions spokeswoman, said the number of appeals would “rocket” and there would be “such a period of uncertainty in so many ways for so many people”, if the words were not included in regulations.

At present the words are included in guidance, which does not have the same statutory force as regulations.

Lord Freud said the government was “urgently” looking at how to put the words into the regulations “in a way that works legally”.