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500,000 could lose their disability benefits

Iain Duncan Smith to press ahead with plans to cut disability claimants.

People protest against cuts to disability allowances.
People protest against cuts to disability allowances, London, May 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Half a million people could lose their disability benefits under government plans. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph today, Iain Duncan Smith says he will press ahead with radical reforms of the disability living allowance (DLA) that could slash the bill by £2.24bn annually.

The DLA is not a means-tested benefit, so it is paid to those in employment as well as those unable to work. Intended to help people meet the extra costs of mobility and care associated with their conditions, it now costs more than unemployment benefits and will soon cost £13bn per year. Under these reforms, Duncan Smith says that even those who have lost limbs will not necessarily qualify:

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, have you lost a limb?

The government is introducing medical assessments to establish eligibility for the benefit for the first time. DLA will be replaced with what they are calling a “more focused” allowance called – in what sounds like a serious piece of newsspeak – the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

Of course, simplifying is a byword for cutting, and under the government plans (released this month), two million claimants will be reassessed over the next four years, with a quarter of those expected not to qualify.

In the Telegraph interview, Duncan Smith defended this:

We are creating a new benefit, because the last benefit grew by something like 30 per cent in the past few years.

It's been rising well ahead of any other gauge you might make about illness, sickness, disability or for that matter, general trends in society.

A lot of that is down to the way the benefit was structured so that it was very loosely defined. Second thing was that in the assessment, lots of people weren't actually seen.

Third problem was lifetime awards. Something like 70 per cent had lifetime awards, (which) meant that once they got it you never looked at them again. They were just allowed to fester.

While no-one would endorse wilful waste, it is unfair to paint recipients of DLA as freeloaders, and dangerous to cut it without very careful safeguards. The benefit is intended to put the disabled on an equal playing field with everyone else, and clumsy reform could risk seriously reducing the quality of life of people very much in need of support. Government can expect a serious fight from disability organisations, while campaigners have spoken of people contemplating suicide because of their fear of losing the DLA.

So far, there are no signs that these cuts will be responsility executed. It looks as if the medical assessments will be very similar to those currently being carried out for those on incapacity benefits. These tests, run by private companies including Atos, have been criticised for being unfair and geared towards removing people from benefits. In one pilot scheme, a third of people declared fit to work appealed, and 40 per cent of them won. Judges anticipate up to 500,000 cases a year as people appeal the rulings.

It would be foolish to oppose reform for the sake of it, but it is worrying if that reform appears to be motivated solely by a desire to cut expenditure. This looks set to be yet another example of the coalition doing exactly what David Cameron and George Osborne promised it would not: balancing the books on the backs of society’s most vulnerable.