500,000 could lose their disability benefits

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

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.
 

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

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital