Several papers have run with a story today about Disability Living Allowance, the numbers of people receiving it and what they receive it for. Unfortunately that coverage has been highly negative and has largely complained about the increase in people claiming DLA (from 2.2 million to 3.2 million – The Telegraph) and about DLA being paid out for back pain, addiction, and mental health problems. Interestingly, the papers all cite “new figures” but give no indication of where they came from. As far as I can tell there has been no new press release from the DWP on this subject.
First of all I want to address the rise in claimants. There are many reasons for this, but the claims process has definitely not got easier. A large part of the reason is simply more awareness of eligibility for the benefit. In the early days of DLA far less people knew that they could claim it. Another reason for the increase is that medical science has advanced, and we are now able to diagnose and name many more health conditions than before. Once these problems have been recognised, people are more likely to apply for help in dealing with them.
The statements made in The Sun, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and particularly in the Daily Express appear to be highly misleading. Here are some of the statements made from the Daily Express.
“Between May 2000 and May 2010 the overall number of people being paid Disability Living Allowance soared from 2.1million to 3.1million.”
All of these people have had to go through the existing highly rigourous and extremely difficult application process, including a 50 page form, letters from doctors and specialists, and an examination by a doctor on behalf of the DWP. No one without a crippling disability or illness would have received DLA, and in fact many more that could claim have not done so through lack of awareness or through fear of the process.
“The benefit is designed to help disabled people who cannot walk, have difficulty walking or need help getting around.”
This is true, but not the whole truth. DLA has two components, mobility and care. It pays for wheelchairs, scooters and cars, walking sticks, taxi costs for those that cannot drive, and also pays for the expense of getting someone to care, lost income, pays for more food that a disabled person can actually access, e.g. pre-prepared meals or ready peeled and chopped vegetables.
“Yet, astonishingly, the number of people claiming DLA for back pain shot up by more than 80 per cent during the decade.”
There are several problems with this one. First of all, DWP doctors often write “Back pain” as a simple summary for much more complex problems. One person that I spoke to was claiming for Hypermobility type EDS, Dural Ecstasia, rib impingement and nerve damage in hips affecting legs. This means she suffers frequent dislocations, has blinding headaches, can’t move her legs properly, severe pain in hips and… has mild back-ache. The doctor wrote down “Back pain.”
Secondly, many problems with the back seriously affect ability to walk. Crumbling spine, missing vertebrae, fused vertebrae, damaged discs and trapped sciatic nerves can all prevent a person from walking or make walking intensely painful.
“Furthermore, there was a 250 per cent increase in those getting the benefit for drug and alcohol abuse.”
That favourite of the tabloid newspapers, drugs and alcohol. In many of these cases, drugs and alcohol is a secondary problem and addiction or use of them is a result of a primary health problem. Where NHS medicine is inadequate to treat pain, desperate people may turn to cannabis or drink. Some of these cases, therefore, might well be misreported as addiction rather than the original problem, or addiction might have become a bigger problem than the original health conditions. I believe it is unfair to look down on these cases as undeserving of help. Someone also commented “I volunteer at a charity, most of whose clients are poly-addicted. Many of them *do* get DLA, but not for the /addiction/ but for, inter alia, collapsed veins, Hep C, HIV, renal failure etc. Most of them either use street drugs or have a methadone regime, which is meant to wean them off heroin. Alcohol is used either as a replacement when heroin is too expensive/crap quality or because they are street drinkers: the street drinkers along with heroin addicts, are often given diagnoses of severe chronic depression.”
“There was also a 200 per cent rise in the number of people claiming for allergies over the same period.”
There has been a massive increase in allergies full stop. Is it so surprising that people need help with them? We are not given any indication of the actual numbers claiming for allergies, but I suspect the numbers of people so severely affected as to have care needs or mobility problems is low. For example, 1,000 people increasing to 3,000 people would be a 200% increase, but would still only represent a tiny part of the cost of DLA.
“Figures unveiled by the Daily Express earlier this year showed that 19,400 alcoholics and drug addicts claim the mobility component of DLA, which is meant for the severely physically disabled. It also goes to 30,900 people with asthma and 128,300 with back pain.”
I am astonished at the inability of the writer to make the connection between these conditions and severe disability. Drugs and alcohol is given as the primary reason for the claim, but there could be one or many more other health problems that are not reported in the summary, and there could be severe disability as a result of drugs and alcohol. There is also a serious mistake or an outright lie here; DLA is also NOT just for the physically disabled, it covers mental health conditions too if those conditions cause care or mobility needs.
“The handout is paid at different rates depending on how the disability affects the claimant. Many get the higher rate of £51.40 a week, which is meant to be paid to those who have the most severe difficulties walking.”
This is loaded emotive language that implies that higher rate claimants should not be eligible, but gives no reason for this implication.
“Under strict new rules, claimants will get a face-to-face assessment to ensure the benefit goes to the people with the greatest need.”
As face to face assessment already happens as part of the application, it is nothing new. Claiming DLA is already incredibly difficult, as I said at the start of this article. The DWP already sends doctors to assess those who are claiming. The new PIP benefits include a test administered by ATOS Origin instead of a doctor sent by the DWP to people’s homes. (The test is seriously flawed, but that is another article.)
“Disability Living Allowance will be replaced by the Personal Independence Payment. It will remain a non-means tested, non-taxable cash benefit paid to disabled people whether they are in or out of work.”
I am glad that they mentioned that DLA is not an out-of-work benefit. DLA is paid to people whether they are working or not. In both cases, there are extra costs incurred through disability, and DLA pays for these. In many cases, DLA allows the recipient to arrange care and transport for themselves, thus saving the local government from having to provide for these needs. DLA also provides support that allows people to work. In many cases, the loss of DLA would mean dropping out of paid employment, new requirements for care provision paid for by the local authorities, or both.
“A source close to the reforms said: “There has been a huge increase in cash payouts for things like back pain over the past decade and too often people are left on benefits without further contact with the department. We are going to bring in a new assessment and regular checks to make sure support is getting to those who need it.”
I am worried by this “source close to the reforms.” We are not told where this information has come from, and yet it has appeared in several newspapers at the same time. I have been unable to find a press release that correlates to this information, and therefore I must assume that the figures have been leaked to chosen newspapers with a particular political agenda in mind.
Finally, I should also point out that there are indeed people who are left on DLA without further checks. These are people with missing body parts, permanent deformities, degenerative diseases, and worse. They are NEVER going to get better. They will probably get worse. What point is there in dragging these people through more assessments which will often damage their health further and cause severe stress and worry?
The Daily Express: Anger as disability benefit claimants soar by one million
The Sun: Allergic to work
The Telegraph: Numbers paid benefits after claiming to be hyperactive rockets
Daily Mail: Drink and drug addicts on disability benefits soars by 250% in a decade to almost 23,000
Related blog posts
My dad, working through the pain
The benefit claims ordeal
Invisible illness, invisible benefits
Diary of a benefit scrounger: ESA assessments pushing mentally ill to suicide.
Existing on benefits
People on benefits? They’re all scroungers aren’t they?
Compare and contrast