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theweeksubThe government has backed down and agreed to carry out a consultation on controversial changes that have tightened eligibility for the new mobility benefit, just weeks before it is due to face a court hearing over the issue.

The legal battle is being spearheaded by disabled activist Steven Sumpter, who is fighting the government’s decision to tighten the walking distance criteria for the higher rate of the mobility component of personal independence payment (PIP) from 50 to 20 metres.

He argues that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) failed to consult on the new distance of 20 metres.

Sumpter currently claims the higher rate of the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA), but fears he will lose the right to claim the equivalent higher rate of PIP – and eligibility for the Motability car scheme that goes with it – when he is assessed for the new benefit.

Sumpter’s case is due for a full judicial review next month, but Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, this week announced a further consultation on the PIP mobility component, to be launched later this month.

In a statement – in which she failed to mention the judicial review – McVey said the government had “listened to disabled people and their organisations who wanted a further consultation, so that is what we are doing”.

She said: “We are carrying out the consultation with an open mind and will not decide if changes are necessary until we have fully considered the responses to this new consultation.”

The timing of the decision is embarrassing for McVey, as she began to roll out the new benefit across the country earlier this month, but she said PIP claims would continue to be processed under the current rules “until the outcomes of the consultation are decided”.

Sumpter said he was “really pleased” with the DWP decision, but added: “Much as they would like us to believe that they are a caring and listening department, I am certain that it is in response to the prospect of losing a judicial review.

“I think they jumped before they were publicly shown by the court to be in the wrong. I would have preferred that they admitted fault and ended the case, but this is still good.”

Sumpter said he still did not believe DWP would “willingly change their minds about the 20 metre rule”.

He added: “If they think that this new consultation will show that it is fair then they are very much mistaken.

“I hope that they will receive overwhelming feedback that setting the bar at 20 metres rather than 50 will take support away from people that desperately need it.

“If they then carry on regardless they will have to admit that it is their policy to withdraw support in order to cut costs.”

He also praised the efforts of campaigner Jane Young and members of the We Are Spartacus online network, who played an important role in organising the legal action.

Karen Ashton, from Public Law Solicitors, who is representing Sumpter, added: “We do very much welcome the indication that they are going to consult further on the relevant issue.”

She said they were “clarifying the position with DWP and we will be able to confirm the implications for the judicial review shortly”.

Young said she and fellow campaigners were “relieved” that DWP was reconsidering its plans, because reducing the distance to 20 metres would leave many disabled people “unable to make essential journeys” to work, to see their GP, attend hospital appointments, or enjoy social activities, and so would “effectively become isolated in their own homes”.

The government’s own figures show that 428,000 fewer people would be able to claim the PIP enhanced mobility rate by 2018 than would have been able to claim the DLA equivalent, under the current rules.

Under DLA, a person is entitled to the higher rate if they are “unable or virtually unable to walk”.

Claimants are usually considered to be “virtually unable to walk” if they cannot walk more than around 50 metres, but the alterations to the regulations – which were suddenly announced in December without any consultation – saw the key PIP mobility criteria reduced from 50 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”.

20 June 2013