I recently became a statistic as a mover onto Employment Support Allowance. Despite the form itself being relatively long-winded to complete (and a more than useful scaring tactic for those poor student social workers that mock interviewed me back in March), I was relatively confident that my high care needs and nature of my injury would be more than sufficient to qualify for the support group option. I did get a little sick of repeating the same answer over and over, but it was enough for me to qualify.
My major concern was that a change in benefit name was simply a smokescreen for a real terms cut in the amount of money being paid. I’m relieved to report that the amount of money I get has gone up, albeit slightly. Therein though lies the problem. At a time where budgets are being squeezed, cut, squeezed further and cut again, it is only those with “extreme requirements” that are getting the support they need. For those with (ironically) fewer needs, funding both for care and benefits is becoming increasingly more difficult to fight for.
The other big change on its way is Disability Living Allowance (DLA), being rebranded as a Personal Independence Payment (PIP). On first glance I have no problem with the name. Anything that gets rid of that bloody D Word gets my vote. The closer you look into the stats and what the government are trying to achieve though, you might start to question what they’re doing.
The government is attempting to cut around £2.7 billion from the benefits system for the most vulnerable people. (Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) Maria Miller claimed recently that £600 million of the annual DLA bill is being “overpaid” each year, attacking some perfectly legal payments to people with ‘changeable conditions’. The DWP itself says it would be “unreasonable” to claim back; they struggle to deal with variability, but are right to err on the side of the vulnerable.
It doesn’t help that government information for the general public is so outdated that it’s misleading both general opinion and also those that they are meant to be supporting. The figures for “overpayments” originate from the National Benefit Review of DLA, published in 2005, with data collected a year before. It also suffers from poor quality control; it includes pensioners, doesn’t take into account appeals etc. The DWP concedes that fraud is only around 0.5%, and £12 billion worth of DLA awards not ‘overpayment’ but a ‘necessity’. Given the government wishes to reduce the total bill by 20%, four times more than the supposed ‘overpayment’, some genuine claimants will undoubtedly be denied.
Official statistics claim the number of DLA claimants has risen by 38% over eight years. However, figures in fact show that the growth in the number of working-age DLA claimants was just 13%. When pressed in a recent interview, Ms Miller was unable to backup her claims, including the increase in levels of claim over the past few years. The DWP believe this figure was wrong because it included payments to children and older people, while only working-age DLA is being cut and reformed. Taking that into account and demographics reduces it significantly to that 13% guesstimate.
On assessments, despite reassurances that the widely discredited Work Capability Assessments (WCA) will not be used for PIP, the DWP finally published the proposed points thresholds for getting a PIP award, suggesting that the new assessments will be as controversial, if not more so, than previous ones. There are many examples of why that I could go into here.
The government have claimed that they are working closely with disability charities to ensure that reforms were fair and workable, but don’t acknowledge that almost 75% of expert organisations responding to the government’s DLA consultation expressed significant doubts about the overall proposals, and up to 98% dissented from key elements.
Everyone agrees that the current system needs to be simplified and improved, but that cannot achieved by cuts, and poor statistics. The case for a government re-think on their part is overwhelming, but they’re getting quite good at U-Turns at the moment, aren’t they?