The Impact Of Changes To Disability Benefit – How Inaccurate Are Inaccuracies?

by richardhutton

As proclaimed by the DWP’s Press Office on twitter “The Minister for Disabled People has written to The Guardian newspaper to address a number of recent inaccuracies”, with regard to disability benefit reforms. The letter in question was written by Justin Tomlinson, and published in the Guardian on 11th June 2015; in response to an article by Aditya Chakrabortty, which had discussed the impact of benefit policies upon disabled people. Did Tomlinson’s letter “set the record straight”, as the DWP aver? Was Chakrabortty’s article providing “inaccurate coverage”?

To be succinct, the answer to both of these questions is no. Tomlinson bemoans a “catalogue of inaccuracies” – which amounts to three key claims. Firstly, Tomlinson objects to the “claim that support made available to some disabled people under the independent living fund is to be removed”. As he contends:

“Responsibility for providing this support is, in fact, being transferred to local authorities. Far from being taken away, it will be administered in a way better able to take account of variations in local circumstances and services”.

This is not an accurate depiction of matters. The Independent Living Fund is set to be closed on 30th June 2015 – current users will continue to receive funding through the adult social care system, administered by local authorities. However, this money is not ring-fenced; and local authorities will be subject to continued reductions of their overall budgets – so, it is pretty questionable what will happen to people affected by this reform. The overall total of ILF funding also appears to be set for a reduction of c. £70 million – from £330 million per annum, to £260 million per annum.

Tomlinson continues, however, objecting to the article’s “claim that Atos was commissioned by Iain Duncan Smith in order to test every claimant for employment support allowance and ‘bring down the bill for disability benefits’. In fact Atos was appointed by the last Labour government and under the coalition there has been significant improvement to the process to provide a better experience for claimants. Far from bringing down any bills, the assessment of claimants ensures fairer outcomes, enables employment support for disabled people who might previously have just been written off, and targets financial help at those with the greatest need”

Most of this is beside the point made in the original article – the original piece does not suggest that Atos were appointed by Duncan Smith. However, the substance of the claim made by Chakrabortty was that:

“In an attempt to bring down the bill for disability benefits, Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary in charge of welfare, commissioned the private firm Atos to test every single claimant of employment and support allowance, the successor to incapacity benefit”.

In other words, Smith enacted a specific policy, to reassess people already deemed incapable of working. This is true. In 2011, Atos’s contract was changed – and they began to ‘reassess’ 2.5 million people who were then in receipt of incapacity benefit; while the government revised the framework of work capability assessments in order to make them more exclusionary. Government ministers cannot claim that this did not occur – because they were heralding it themselves. For example, in an article published by the Daily Mail during 2011, the former Employment Minister Chris Grayling referred to the pilot testing of this reform:

“Employment Minister Chris Grayling said: ‘The initial findings from Burnley and Aberdeen serve to underline why it’s right to reassess incapacity benefit claimants and give those who can work the specialist help they need to do so”

They also published an Impact Assessment, outlining the changes they would introduce to these assessments. The policy of re-assessing incapacity benefit recipients had been outlined in detail by the Work and Pensions Committee this same year.

Lastly, Tomlinson criticises the Guardian article’s allegations “that the government has caused an increase in disability hate crime. It is because of efforts to increase awareness of disability hate crime that these types of offences are now more likely to be reported and are finally being treated with the seriousness they deserve”.

Again, the article says something slightly different – that “Some of this must be the responsibility of the government”. So, has the government caused in increase in disability hate crime? The first aspect depends upon what is meant by an increase – the number of recorded crimes can rise, without the number of actual crimes following suit, due to greater awareness of the specific crime, and more reporting to police along with referrals to the prosecution service. They could also be under-reported, however. So, although the level of reported crimes has risen, the actual societal incidence of this is not clear cut. That said, what is more straightforward to assess is whether the government has played a part in encouraging hostility towards disabled people. The reality of this was relayed in the Bad News For Disabled People report published by Glasgow University in 2011. It is not limited to the government – both Conservative and Labour politicians have made problematic comments about disability benefits; while the media arguably plays the most fateful role in fomenting antipathy towards disabled people, with its distorted commentaries on disability benefits.

All told, Tomlinson has no case here. What stands out instead from the Minister’s letter is how evasive his supposed rebuttals are. They don’t address the points raised, so much as carefully avoid them; and rejoin them with spin and soundbites. For instance, ‘targeting support’ means taking it away from people with low-level disabilities, and increasing it to people with high-level disabilities. Even if people agree with the principle of this – which is not free from problems – it is still misleading to word it the way the Minister has. This is something which can change easily, if Ministers are prepared to be transparent about the substance of their policies; and take responsibility for their effects.