GP: "It is too difficult for ill people to claim benefits"

"The government withholding funds from sick and needy people through a bureaucratic claim system."

The British Medical Journal has a piece from a GP, Dr Anne Dyson, who writes that it is too difficult for ill people to claim benefits (£):

I have worked in the NHS as a principal and partner in general practice providing primary care for patients since 1986. I have met patients who have told me of the difficulties they’d had claiming sickness benefits, but I had previously had no personal experience of the system. . .

I was shocked by the bureaucracy of a system that is supposed to be a safety net for people who fall sick through no fault of their own and have paid national insurance contributions all their lives. Fortunately, I am not reliant on receiving any state benefits for my living expenses because I have sufficient private provision, but I am sure that many of my patients are not in such a lucky position. Furthermore, I do not feel ill or unwell as such, otherwise I might not have had the strength and perseverance to persist with my claim. And nor do I have hearing loss or a speech impairment, which would make a telephone interview impossible. I am also organised enough to know where to find my birth and marriage certificates and so on.

It is a scandal that the system is so complicated: it is likely to fail the very people who are most in need of help. I suspect this may be a deliberate government ploy to reduce the number of benefit claims and reduce the overall cost of welfare. If so this should be publicised and shown for what it is: the government withholding funds from sick and needy people through a bureaucratic claim system.

It's a view which is rarely allowed into the media, yet this is the natural end point of arguments that we should be more aggressive in withdrawing sickness benefits from people who "don't need them". In order to do that, you have to subject thousands of people who do need them to batteries of tests designed to prove that they aren't fraudulently claiming. And all of this in a system which suffers very low levels of fraud. The DWP estimated that the disability living allowance – no longer granted, due to reforms by the department – had a fraud rate of just 0.5 per cent.

Protestors campaign against ATOS, a company responsible for assessing benefit claimants. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.