Westminster misleads public over cuts to disability benefits

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by a Newsnet reporter

As part of its package of public spending cuts, the Conservative Lib Dem Coalition plans to make radical changes to the benefits paid to disabled people.  According to disability rights campaigners, the changes threaten to reduce the benefits paid to many disabled people by replacing the existing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with a so-called Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

The UK Government has made it clear that they wish to reduce the DLA caseload by 20%  in order to save money.  The changes to the disability benefits system are designed to reduce costs to the government and not to improve the lives of citizens living with disability.  The Coalition intends to introduce the changes for new claimants next year, then gradually transfer existing claimants to the new scheme.

The plans for eligibility for PIPs are far stricter than the already very narrow DLA criteria. Amongst other changes, the new benefit intends to raise the qualifying period from the existing 3 months to 6 months, and to abolish the automatic right to benefit of people suffering from terminal illness and those who are undergoing cancer treatment.  Under the plans wheelchair users who are able to propel themselves will be treated as though they had no mobility problems.   Neither do PIPs take into account the constant supervision required by some disabled people, such as those suffering from severe learning difficulties or mental health problems, or those who are likely to fall or suffer fits.

The government’s plans suffered a setback last week, when the House of Lords rejected key parts of the legislation and returned them to the House of Commons.   However the UK Government is expected to use its majority in the Commons to force the changes through.

Earlier in the week a report by disability rights campaigners showed that the UK government is attempting to mislead the public over widespread opposition to its welfare reforms.  The report, dubbed the Spartacus Report, used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal overwhelming opposition in the consultation responses to nearly all of the government’s proposals for DLA reform.  A mere seven per cent of organisations which participated in the goverment’s consulation exercise were fully in support of plans to replace DLA with PIPs.  Up to 98 per cent of those consulted disagreed with key Coalition proposals.

One key claim of the government is that DLA payments prevent disabled people who wish to work from doing so.  The report found that there is no truth in this at all.  Despite this, the Coalition continues to make the claim.

The report is backed by major disability rights groups including the Disability Alliance, representing over 380 charities. Scope, Mind, RNIB, Sense, the National Autistic Society, ME Action and the Papworth Trust.   

Even prominent Conservatives have expressed their opposition to changes to disability payments.  London mayor Boris Johnston said that he did not support the government’s planned changes, and considered that the new penalties which the Coalition planned to introduce were “excessive” given that fraud and over-payments of Disability Living Allowance are widely acccepted to be a minor problem.  In fact, the report points out, only 0.5 per cent of claims are fraudulent, while £15 billion worth of legitimate benefits go unclaimed.   

The report details how the government has consistently used inaccurate figures to exaggerate the rise in DLA claimants, and has broken its own guidelines on consultation by starting the legislative process two days before the conclusion of the consultation period.  The consultation period was also two weeks shorter than recommended by the government’s own guidelines, and took place over the Christmas and New Year holiday period when many potentially affected by the changes were unavailable.  The UK government  has also repeatedly ignored warnings that the its plans could breach the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.