Major changes to disability benefits for new claimants are being introduced in the north of England. It is the start of the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) by Personal Independence Payments (PIP).
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said the “ridiculous” system under which people were awarded benefit with no further checks must end.
But disability charity Scope says 600,000 people will eventually lose their financial support.
Other critics argue that those losing out will find it harder to be part of their communities.
PIPs will be introduced gradually for new claimants, starting in northern England.
The changes to disability benefits are the latest in a round of welfare reforms introduced at the start of April.
Another change introduced on Monday is that working-age benefits and tax credits will now be increased at 1% annually. Disability benefits, though, will continue to be uprated inline with inflation.
Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that more than 70% of claimants get DLA for life.
But ministers believe the circumstances of some individuals can improve over time, so there is a case for more regular assessment.
Mr Duncan Smith told the Daily Mail: “Seventy per cent of people on it have lifetime awards which means no one sees you ever again. It doesn’t matter if you get better or your condition worsens – it’s quite ridiculous.”
He added: “Taxpayers pay out £50bn in sickness and disability benefits – we’re ahead of pretty much every other major country in the G20.
“So this is not exactly what you would call harsh – this is quite reasonable to get it back under control and stop the unnecessary growth levels and make sure people who seriously need it get better payments and people who don’t will get less.”
DLA was introduced in 1992 by the Conservative Prime Minister John Major, who described it as “the right thing to do”.
But Minister for Disabled People Esther McVey said the PIP would give more targeted support to those who need it most.
“Disability Living Allowance is an outdated benefit introduced over 20 years ago and needs reform to better reflect today’s understanding of disability,” she said.
“At the moment the vast majority of claimants get the benefit for life without any systematic reassessments and around 50% of decisions are made on the basis of the claim form alone – without any additional corroborating medical evidence.
“The Personal Independence Payment will include a new face-to-face assessment and regular reviews – something missing in the current system. This will ensure the billions we spend give more targeted support to those who need it most.”
New claimants in the north of England will now begin face-to face assessments with ATOS – one of two companies administering the process.
From June new claims will begin in the rest of the country, and in October some of those currently receiving DLA will start moving to the new system, if there is a change in their circumstances or an existing award ends.
But it will be two years before most of the 3.3 million existing claimants begin moving over to PIP.
Margaret Allen, from Chadderton in Lancashire, who is registered blind with the hereditary eye disorder Retinitis pigmentosa, is unable to work.
She is worried that the change in the system will cause her to lose money for petrol, which she and her husband need to get around.
“My message to the government would be: ‘Stop persecuting the entire sick and disabled population for a handful of people and listen.
“‘I appreciate there’s fraudsters out there, but they are a minority. People need it, they paid taxes.'”
Disability groups have argued that DLA is one of the most effectively targeted benefits, with an estimated fraud rate of just 0.5%.
Scope says a “financial lifeline is being cut”, but the government says it will continue to spend the same amount on the benefit in 2015 as it does now.
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, said: “In 2013 disabled people are struggling to make ends meet. Life costs more if you’re disabled. But this year living costs are spiralling and income is flat-lining. Disabled people are getting into debt to pay for essentials.
“What’s the government’s response? It is cutting a financial life-line for disabled people, which helps them meet the extra costs of day-to-day living when you have a disability. The reform is fundamentally flawed.
“DLA needs reforming and could be better targeted to meet the extra costs people face. But disabled people are frightened by the government’s plans. They believe it’s just an excuse to cut their support.”
Other changes to the benefits system include the Universal Credit scheme, which will replace benefits including income support and housing benefit with a single payment.
The first trial of the system begins on 29 April in Ashton-Under-Lyne, Greater Manchester.
Other changes came into place on 1 April, including a cap of £26,000 of benefits per household and payment reductions for those deemed to have a “spare bedroom”.