Another mishap yesterday rammed into the back of Iain Duncan Smith’s pile-up of car crashes, as his roll-out of new disability benefits was delayed, yet again. His Work Programme and his universal credit are in intensive care, now joined by his tougher personal independence payments (PIP) for disability.
“The end-to-end claiming process is taking longer than expected,” said the Department for Work and Pensions. New claimants apply for PIP, which means passing stiffer tests than for the old disability living allowance (DLA). Delays for PIP are already shocking. Kate Green, Labour’s shadow disability minister, says terminally ill constituents who claimed in May still receive nothing. Disability claims demand filling in a 55-page online form: how many give up? No one knows how or where 3.1 million people can be tested with adequate disabled access: many need home visits, which take time. Do Atos and Capita staff have the skills to test 3.1 million people? The delay is no surprise.
George Osborne’s first list of cuts in 2010 included a random cull of 20% of those on DLA. There was no rhyme, reason or research to suggest a fifth of disabled people should do without help, but plenty of malevolent accusations poured out from Duncan Smith’s team. He says DLA is “spiralling” out of control as the 3.1 million claimants is triple the number since it was introduced in 1992. Without “reform”, one in 17 citizens will draw it by 2018. Tories point to this “inexplicable” rise in the number of disabled claimants despite improved medical care, which at first sight does indeed look odd.
But the DWP knows perfectly well how this growth is explained. DLA is only paid to those of working age, but when they retire they keep it, so as more people since 1992 move into retirement, numbers rise fast. There has been no change in numbers with physical conditions, despite a larger population; back injuries have declined with the decline of heavy industry. There has been a real growth in numbers with learning disabilities: more premature babies survive but with disabilities, while those with Down’s syndrome no longer die young. More people with mental illness claim DLA now, following changes in case law: there has been no increase in mental illness, with 7% of the population seriously ill enough to be receiving treatment, yet only 1% claim DLA. Psychosis is the commonest DLA diagnosis, hardly a trivial condition. This pattern of disability mirrors the rest of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with nothing exceptional here.
Beyond need for savings, there is no justification in cutting an arbitrary 20% of people from the DLA they need for transport and care. The honest approach to this brutality would be to say money must be saved and to apologise to victims instead of finding devious ways to blame them by implying one in five are frauds. Duncan Smith has overseen an unscrupulous smear campaign using these bogus “spiralling out of control” figures, together with well-placed anecdotes of cheats caught running marathons. (His own figures show a fraud rate of just 0.7%.) This is his one success: public sympathy has turned sour, so now thegenuinely disabled report frequent and growing public abuse.
His team implies many are malingerers. One frequent sneer it repeats is that 135,000 DLA claimants only have “bad backs”. That doesn’t go down well with Kate Green. When I called her yesterday, after she had suffered weeks in agony with a slipped disc, she was in A&E in Manchester with suspected internal bleeding from the painkillers: “bad backs” are not trivial.
Despite winning the public opinion war so far, the government knows the politics of cutting disabled people off from benefits is perilous. No surprise they decided to go slow this week – and even less surprising that existing claimants have been parked until after the election. Labour is well aware of that nasty legacy. Labour will apologise for lacking the money to restore all benefit cuts – but how can they go ahead with a new £2.2bn cut for half a million people within months of arriving in office? Labour’s disability commission is seeking a way round this with savings elsewhere. Why, for example, do so few employers pay statutory sick pay as they should? Instead they tip the sick onto the public purse. Why are so many employers, especially large retailers, avoiding all obligations by hiring most low-paid staff only for 16 hours, below the national insurance threshold? If all but tiny businesses paid NI on part-timers, the savings could avoid this cut.
Britain is quite generous to the disabled, paying more than France but less than Scandinavia. What’s exceptional is that we give help in cash so people can choose their own transport or care, while other countries give more in direct services. That makes our benefits look large, an easy target for those who want them cut. The families regularly paraded in the tabloids for drawing large total sums almost always have one or more disabled children, paying for extra childcare and transport – but that goes unreported. Our jobseeker’s allowance – the dole – is pitifully low by international standards, below subsistence at £71 a week. It’s not designed for long-term living, but that’s all many disabled people will draw after these cuts.
Declan Gaffney, leading policy analyst on benefits, points to the close link between poverty and disability. That happens across all OECD countries, but is far more pronounced in exceptionally unequal Britain. The combination of low qualifications and disability makes our employment record disastrous for that group, though better than many countries for the well-qualified. Among the work programme contractors’ many malfunctions is their failure to find work for the disabled. The accusation is that they park difficult cases – and don’t do well with the “easy” ones either.
Here is the final blunder. A report this week from 50 combined disability charities will show 9% of those due to lose their DLA are in work, using it for transport to their job. Over half will leave their job without that help, so instead of saving £60m from their DLA payments, the state will have to pay them more benefit while losing their NI and tax, costing an extra £200m. Osborne is right to worry that Duncan Smith lacks the brainpower– and the basic numeracy – for this job.
One question: will Atos and Capita still be paid for the nonexistent DLA/PIP assessments that should have been rolled out yesterday? Yet again, I call the DWP, and yet again, they don’t ring back with an answer.