For genuine benefit claimants, headlines like this come with an ingrained sense of dread. The Department for Work and Pensions is by no means a flawless organisation and being on benefits is not the easy ride that is so often depicted in the media.
Admin errors are commonplace, printing misinformation that can confuse and concern. The threat that your benefit may be affected if you fail to inform them of any change in your circumstances can have you on hold for an hour before you get into a short conversation in which they invariably fail to update your details correctly. The power this organisation has can make people feel very small in comparison, and (unsurprisingly) quite fearful as to what mistake it will make next.
Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is intended to meet the cost of care and mobility aids that are necessary to a disabled person, and the prospect of a decision made by a third-party can be particularly daunting. Much of the time, it is the honest people who are the most nervous about reforms because the impact on them could be devastating. The fear is that by targeting the work shy, genuine claimants may be caught up in the crossfire.
The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, states that “the system is riddled with abuse and fraud and from next year more than 2 million claimants will be reassessed”.
The current disability benefit is set to cost the taxpayer £13 billion by next year, higher than unemployment benefit, and the reform seeks to reduce this sum by £2.24 billion by creating a new system that avoids the pitfalls of the old. When you consider that claims have risen by 30 percent, a figure that does not represent any increase in disability or illness, it’s clear to see that there is an issue here. Inadequacies in the current structure, lack of proper assessment and the generosity of lifetime awards which are never reviewed are very real weaknesses that could explain why claims have increased so easily.
There are however many people who are entitled to this benefit but have never claimed. Perhaps the increase of claims is due to a widening in the awareness of eligibility. With this in mind it is probably a mistake to place such figure focused targets on the reform without more thorough investigation. By being so initially goal-focused there is a temptation to be ruthless in achieving targets, something that has no place in a sensitive and intelligent reform.
Sensationalist headlines such as, “Benefit cuts to wounded soldiers” and “500,000 to lose disability benefit” are always going to invoke panic. But with a bit context we can make some sense of the reforms and ease concern.
For example, when we consider the quality of the latest prosthetic limbs available to people with mobility impairments, it is conceivable that injuries that present themselves as incredibly debilitating can, in time, no longer have such a profound impact on a person's life. Seventy percent of people claiming DLA are given a lifetime award. This means that their circumstances will never be reviewed and that they will always continue to receive the same benefit. It is feasible though, that medical and technological advances have significantly improved the quality of life for some of the disabled population. Because of this, some people may no longer have the same expenses as they did at the time of the original assessment.
However, if a person's disability is deemed to be chronic and progressive by a doctor then it seems ridiculous to pay Atos, a company that offers independent medical advice, to have said individual reassessed. For someone who is suffering with a degenerative condition it is an unnecessary stress, particularly if they have mobility problems. There are many people with a condition that will progress throughout their life and as such, are very deserving of this lifetime award. These awards do have their place for many; and in these cases, it seems continual reassessment is a needless expense.
We must not also forget that DLA is not the only benefit available to the 500,000 that may lose out. It is not a benefit that people are supposed to live on, it is available whether or not you work and is intended to cover the extra expenses that comes with a severe disability; such as the cost of a wheelchair, taxi fares to medical appointments, the cost of a cleaner or care staff.
Iain Duncan Smith explains: “It’s not like incapacity benefit, it’s not a statement of sickness. It is a gauge of your capability. In other words, do you need care, do you need support to get around. Those are the two things that are measured. Not, you have lost a limb...”
The two components to DLA are care and mobility, both with different levels of rate. People who are eligible for care must suffer a condition that is severe enough for them to require supervision or help in some or all daily tasks. The mobility part of the allowance is only available to people whose disability means they need significant assistance to be mobile. However in May last year there were 22,800 claimants with a disability of alcohol or drug abuse in receipt of this benefit and the majority of them received a higher tier of benefit compared to the blind.
Considering the potential backlash, Duncan Smith is at the very least being brave. The radical protests of May 2011 saw hundreds of disabled protesters head through central London, some throwing fake blood on the pavement. Prior to this, under Blair's government political activists chained their wheelchairs to railings outside Downing Street provoking the Labour government to abandon the cuts. But just because some of the most vulnerable people in society are part of a system does not mean that the system as a whole is perfect.
It is extremely hard to believe that there are 500,000 people out there who are scamming the system. Although fraudsters do exist, the majority of this figure is likely to be made up of claims that were originally poorly assessed; people who have seen their condition improve over time and stolen identities. Iain Duncan Smith wants to tighten the definition of disability and assumes that everyone who really needs it, will receive the same benefit as before.
Most of us know reforms are necessary but don't trust the government to make the right decisions, and this is why many of us react to such headlines with anger and fear. If the system works as it should then there is little reason to panic. When the reform begins next year, the hope is that it will leave the genuine claimants well alone.
What do you think about the allowance reforms? Do you think the government can be trusted to get it right next year? Tell us your thoughts in the comments box below.
Written by Jasmine Kluge