Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Welfare reform and the end of DLA - why it matters to everyone

Guest Blog: Maggie Kelly, Policy and Campaigns Officer, Poverty Alliance

The potential impact of the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms, set out in recent Welfare Reform Bill, are huge impacting on practically every aspect of the benefit system and threaten to sweep away many of the safeguards that we all rely upon.  Disability Living Allowance  (DLA) is just one benefit which is under threat. Unless you are getting it or know someone who does, most people don’t really know why it matters – not just to those who claim it, but to everyone.  

Disabled people are far more likely to be living in poverty than others. Official figures put the proportion of disabled people living in poverty at 23.1% (as opposed to 17. 9% of the general population). Yet this is misleading because official poverty measures fail to  take into account the additional costs which disabled people incur as a result of living with a disability. When these costs are factored in estimates of the proportion of disabled people who live in poverty rise to between 40% and 60%. In other words disabled people are doubly disadvantaged by having significantly higher living costs and being at greater risk of living in poverty than others.

The key aim of DLA is to compensate disabled people for these additional costs.  It is not means tested and you can claim whether you are in or out of work.  To qualify you have to show that because of your physical or metal condition you need help with care and/or have mobility difficulties. Once you qualify you can spend the money on what you need. People spend their DLA on all sorts of things such as extra heating bills, taxis, specially adapted cars or a personal assistant to enable them to communicate at work.

The Welfare Reform Bill abolishes DLA and replaces it with a new benefit - Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which, we are told, will be less complex and better targeted at those who need it.  The truth is that it is will be neither. The main purpose of reform is to slash budgets. The June Emergency Budget set out the Government’s intention to cut expenditure on disability benefits by around 20% and the DWP’s recent impact assessment of abolishing DLA and replacing it with PIP, put expected savings at  £2.1 billion. In real terms a cut of this magnitude is likely to result in hundreds of thousands of disabled people losing entitlement.

DLA is by no means perfect. The eligibility criteria are complex and the application process is often difficult, depressing, and the outcomes sometimes inconsistent. Yet the proposed PIP doesn’t address these problems. Instead, it is likely to make them worse.

At the moment most people claim DLA based on their claim form and medical evidence from their GP, or hospital consultant etc.  Around 50 % are also required to undergo an additional assessment carried out by the multinational ATOS, on behalf of the DWP. Some categories of people with more severe disabilities are exempt from these additional DWP tests and are automatically passported on to benefit. They include for example people who are both blind and deaf or those who are quadriplegic (i.e. having no arms or legs).

Many disabled people already have very negative experiences of these assessments. Yet despite this, under the new PIP the UK Government intends to introduce mandatory testing for nearly everyone and even those with the most severe disabilities will no longer be exempt. The proposals set out so far suggest that the new test will be similar to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) (also conducted by ATOS) which those making a claim for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) currently undergo.

Many who have been through the WCA have described how they have been treated with a lack of dignity and respect, they were not listened to, the evidence they gave misrepresented and the interviews cursory and/or not relevant to their condition or disability. Their accounts are borne out by a growing number of independent reports  which document these problems in detail. Those who attended the recent Scottish Assembly on Tackling Poverty heard of two recent cases from Clydebank. Both people had been refused ESA on the basis that they were fit for work following a WCA and both died whilst waiting for their appeal to be heard.

So how is entitlement to disability benefit going to be restricted under the new test? The consultation paper DLA Reform suggests that the new assessment will focus on those activities that “are most essential for everyday life”. The approach appears to be one of restricting entitlement so that many current claimants, who are considered to face less serious barriers, would no longer be entitled.

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities sets out the rights of disabled people to engage in all areas of life, including mobility, health, education, work, recreation, cultural activities and equality before the law. In other words, it sets out the right to live a full and independent life as possible, not just to be able to engage in those activities “most essential for daily life”.

Disability benefit entitlement should be based on respect for disabled peoples right to live a full and independent life and so should be available to all disabled people, set at a rate, which is appropriate to the barriers, they face.

The UK Government claims that cuts are needed because the rising levels of expenditure on DLA are unsustainable.  Yet even from a purely financial perspective introducing massive cuts in disability and ill health benefits makes no sense. If disabled people are forced into greater poverty and social exclusion as a result of benefit cuts this will inevitably lead to greater demands on spending elsewhere, including health and social care.

If more and more people are becoming sick and disabled we need to ask why and then focus on prevention and early intervention. For example, if increasing numbers of people are suffering form mental ill health as a result of bullying at work what are we doing to improve employee’s rights at work?  Cutting benefits and harassing sick and disabled people is not the answer. Benefits are not a panacea but they are an essential part of any civilized societies approach to talking poverty and inequality.

But even if we are spending more on disability benefits is that such a bad thing? We need to reframe the debate and look upon expenditure on welfare benefits - which reduce poverty and promote equality - as something which we should be proud of as a society. Its time that we prioritised spending to support these kinds of aims, rather than squandering billions on bonuses and tax loopholes for the rich.

The provisions in the new Bill would have a very serious impact on many disabled people, plunging many more into poverty and making the lives of those already struggling to make ends meet increasingly difficult. They would restrict peoples independence and increase social exclusion. Yet while the lives of many disabled people would be make very much more difficult, it is very likely that private contractors such as ATOS, will be looking forwards to a massive increases in profits as a result of the introduction of mandatory tests.

For many the cuts are justified by vague and unsubstantiated talk of “scroungers” and the need for a new contract between those who are only too to keen to opt for life on benefits at the expense of the hard working taxpayer. The fact that there is very little evidence of systematic abuse by DLA claimants is conveniently ignored. As is the fact that many taxpayers also claim benefits, including DLA, and even those that don’t currently claim, could find that they need to rely on benefits at some point in their lives because of redundancy, sickness or disability.

These proposals undermine the key aim of DLA, namely to compensate disabled people for the additional costs of living with a disability. They also cut across the wider aim implicit in such compensation - that of promoting equality and social justice for all disabled people.  Regardless of whether or not we are currently claiming benefits we all have a big stake in this debate. What kind of society do we want to live in? One which aims to ensure that no one is left in poverty, one which values and promotes human rights and equality, or not?  Whether we are claiming benefits or not we need to speak out against these proposals, in solidarity with claimants now.

Maggie Kelly, Policy and Campaigns Officer, Poverty Alliance

The STUC is holding a rally on welfare reform at the Lib Dem conference on 5 March in Perth. For more information visit: 

No comments:

Post a Comment