A Briefing: Disability and benefits

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The government has pledged to reform incapacity benefit after an almost fivefold increase in the number of claimants since the late 1970s.

How big are the numbers?

2.4 million people claim sickness benefits. Much of the increase is due to the rise in unemployment since the mid-1970s. Claims also went up following Community Care legislation in the early 1990s, as thousands of patients were released from residential units. The government replaced Invalidity benefit with the more restrictive Incapacity benefit, which New Labour in turn replaced with Employment and Support Allowance. This is even harder to claim, and the Coalition now wants to restrict ESA eligibility to a maximum of 12 months. Recent Department of Work and Pensions figures purport to show over two thirds of ESA claimants are found fit for work or drop their claim.

So why the rows over Work Capability Assessments and ATOS, the private firm conducting the tests?

Comparing benefit cheats to muggers robbing taxpayers, Chancellor George Osborne recently trebled the number of Work Capability Assessment tests from 10,000 to 30,000 a week. The computerised WCA tests have been made harder so as to exclude more people, but almost 45 percent of those denied benefits have them reinstated on appeal. Twelve ATOS doctors are under investigation by the General Medical Council over allegations of improper conduct, and a parliamentary committee accused ATOS of "unacceptable" blunders. The changes have already led to suicides, with more stress and anxiety for claimants with mental health problems. Despite this record, ATOS have been named as sponsors of the 2012 Paralympics.
ATOS Healthcare (despite the name, an IT company) was awarded the WCA contract in October 2008, despite having been banned from operating in several US States. A court found them guilty of operating "disability-denial factories", fabricating medical reports to deny US workers insurance and welfare payments. The last Labour government invited them in under a change of name. According to a study by Sheffield Hallam University, welfare reforms will force 600,000 people off incapacity benefit, hitting poorest communities hardest.

How big a problem is benefits fraud?

A recent report by Glasgow University Media Group found an increase in media articles on disability benefit fraud. Terms such as "scrounger", "cheat" and "skiver" were used in 18 percent of articles in 2010/11 compared to 12 percent in 2004/5. Focus groups believed up to 70 percent of claims were fraudulent, justifying this by saying they had read it in newspapers.

The DWP admits fraudulent claims for sickness benefits are less than 1 percent of the total, and the annual bill for fraud is £1.1 billion. Benefits advisors point out that there is actually massive underclaiming - most people don’t want to be seen as "scroungers". Means-tested benefits worth up to £6.26 billion go unclaimed every year. Osborne announced in his first budget that social security benefits will now increase in line with the Consumer Price Index instead of higher RPI measure (which includes housing costs) - cheating benefit claimants of £6 billion a year.

Aren’t incapacity and disability the same thing?

No. Incapacity and disability are different benefits. Most people don't think that all unemployed people are disabled, but do think all disabled people are unemployed. Most benefits (e.g. tax credits) are paid to people who are actually in work. Disability Living Allowance is a non-means tested benefit designed to compensate for the extra costs of disability (from help with cooking and washing to getting around outside) - and is claimed by many of the almost half of disabled people who are in paid work. The government says it will remove the mobility component of DLA for those living in state-funded care homes. They plan to replace DLA with a new benefit called Personal Independence Payment (PIP), and will reassess every claimant to reduce total DLA costs by 20 percent - removing benefits from up to a fifth of claimants. DLA has the lowest fraud rate of any benefits, and up to 40 percent of those entitled don’t make a claim. Disabled people are already twice as likely to live in poverty as other citizens.

Do we know what impact all the media talk about benefit scroungers and fraudsters has had?

Years of rhetoric about benefit fraud and "dependency on the state" have helped legitimise and reinforce prejudice and ignorance. And it's not just the media. Tory MP Philip Davies recently claimed that disabled workers are "by definition" less productive, so could work for less than the minimum wage.
A report for the Employment and Human Rights Commission in September showed appalling levels of disability discrimination. Another survey found 47 percent of disabled people said attitudes towards them had worsened over the past year. The biggest victims have been the weakest and most vulnerable - the very group the government claims to be targeting as "most in need".