Monday, 30 April 2018

Charging for support: a tax on disability and old age

In 2017 the Independent Living Strategy Group - an informal grouping of disability organisations and activists, chaired by Baroness Jane Campbell - put out a request for examples of where people had tried to challenge how their local authority was implementing the Care Act.  The most common experience we were told about was where people challenged the amount they were being charged for community care (which could also take the form of a charge against their direct payment).

This is a long-standing and much contentious issue. We are talking here, not about residential care but about the support people need to carry on living in their own homes. Local authorities do not have to charge for community care but, as their budgets have been progressively cut back, they have increasingly been opting to use their discretionary powers to charge. Nevertheless, there remains a great deal of inconsistency across the country as to how much they raise in charges - ranging from 4% of the total spent on adult social care by one local authority through to 46%.

The current political and public debate about funding for social care is too often confined to the issue of whether older people should have to sell their homes in order to fund residential care.  But more people (of all ages) receive social care support to live in their own home and many will have been subject to a financial assessment to determine how much they should contribute towards the cost of their support. 

There is a dearth of up to date information about charging and its impact: a 2008 survey found evidence of people giving up social care support because they couldn’t afford the charge, and almost a third said they didn’t feel their disability-related expenditure was taken properly into account in the means-test their Council applied.  If the impact of charging was significant 10 years ago it is likely to be even more so today, given that more local authorities are now charging and that disabled people have been considerably disadvantaged by the impact of various welfare reforms. 

Most disabled people will tell you that they have additional costs directly related to their experience of impairment/illness and/or disabling barriers.  A 2014 Scope survey found that on average these additional costs amount to £550 per month.  These costs stem from not only the costs of extra heating, specialist equipment, diet, transport etc but also, as the report found, from the fact that goods and services marketed to disabled people commonly cost more than those aimed at non-disabled people.  Daily life just costs more if you’re disabled.

Disability living allowance/Personal Independence Payments and Attendance Allowance are an acknowledgement of the additional costs of being disabled - which is why they are not means-tested - but the level at which they are paid is nowhere near the actual costs.  In addition, local authorities are allowed to include the care component of DLA/PIP, and Attendance Allowance in the means-test for social care. 

Since the late 1990s, earned income is not taken into account in the means test for social care - or at least it shouldn’t be - but savings and pension income is.  This means that, not only can disabled people be penalised if they have been able to build up savings, but that they can experience a dramatic ‘cliff edge’ in their standard of living once they retire or are forced to give up work because of illness or impairment.  Households with at least one disabled adult are more likely than non-disabled households to be in debt and unable to build up savings, less likely to be able to pay for an unexpected but necessary expense, and more likely to be living in poverty.  Small wonder that many people (we don’t know how many) never get the care that they have been assessed as needing because they can’t afford the charge made by their local authority.  As one person told One Place East, a disability organisation in Redbridge: 

So there I am, Mrs Smith, desperate for this care, I can't wait for the financial assessment because I don't know when this is going to be and at the same time I'm scared about what the true cost of that care is going to be and that assessment officer who is there to put all these things in place can't advise me so I'm going to go, no thank you dear. 

One local Council, however, has bucked the trend and abolished charges for social care for its disabled and older residents.  The Labour opposition in Hammersmith and Fulham had made a commitment in run-up to the 2014 local elections that, if elected, this is what they would do….and they kept their promise, arguing that this was “getting rid of what was in effect a tax on disability”. 

If one Council can do this, why not others?  Is it really worth spending money on means-testing and collecting the charges?  Is it right that a system which is intended to provide the support people need to go about their daily lives is also designed in such a way as to reduce their standard of living to just above the poverty line? Is it right that the often haphazard and inadequate way that charges are calculated means that many face the decision of either falling below the poverty line or refusing the help they so desperately need?  Is the long-awaited Green Paper likely to tackle any of these issues?

The Independent Living Strategy Group is determined to raise the issue of charging for social care when the Green Paper finally emerges.  To help inform the debate we are carrying out a survey of people’s experiences and also seeking information from local authorities (through a Freedom of Information request).  We hope to publish the findings in the summer.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Continuing the #socialcarefuture debate

This blogpost is an attempt to address some of the challenges and draw attention to some of the good ideas discussed in the #socialcarefuture debate initiated by Martin Routledge and In Control. 

Some have argued that we need to reframe our arguments about social care. In his contribution to the debate, for example, Neil Crowther said: “A quick look at recent communications around social care by a selection of public-facing organisations in the field suggests that they are contributing to the problematic way social care is framed”.  Two key characteristics of this “problematic way” he identified as “the demographic time bomb” of older people’s demands on health and social care services, and the accompanying language of a “crisis” in both the NHS and social care. Such language encourages fatalistic thinking he said, and does not help to convince the public that these are important issues.

Yet we desperately need to convince the public (and politicians) of the case for more funding for social care. Although we know that there are better ways to spend current social care budgets, as Richard Humphries says, “The oft-quoted mantra that ‘it’s not just about the money’ doesn’t mean that it is not at all about the money….Social care will never work properly without adequate and rising investment”. 

But what would convince the public and politicians?

Should we be using the term 'social care’ at all?
Alicia Wood wrote: “I rarely use the term social care in my work or home life. It somehow feels so broad it is a bit meaningless to me”.

As she also pointed out, there is very little awareness amongst the general public about what ‘social care’ is.  Current awareness is likely to be dominated by recent political controversies over the so-called ‘dementia tax’ and ‘bed-blocking’ in the NHS.  The associated language and individual stories create feelings of hopelessness about how awful things are, of fear of what faces us in old age, and at best a determination that, as individuals, we will do our utmost to avoid such situations. 

The plethora of services that go under the generic name of social care are about so much more than is currently conveyed in public debate. It includes the community organisation that provides a play scheme for disabled children during the school holidays, the PA employed by a disabled woman who works as a solicitor, the equipment supplied to a 90 year old which enables her to live safely in her own home - the range of things which come under the umbrella of ‘social care’ is enormous.

This can mean that when debate focusses on key issues there is often the accusation that one group or another has been left out - for example, recent debate about funding social care has been criticised for focussing on older people to the point of ignoring the large numbers of disabled people of working age; at the same time, disabled people’s own demands for independent living have often been accused of leaving out the concerns and circumstances of people with learning disabilities and people with long-term health conditions. 

In these circumstances, different groups worry that their own particular circumstances and requirements are unacknowledged. Disabled people with physical impairments may argue for support services which enable them to take advantage of education, training and employment opportunities, justifying spending on such services on the grounds that this is an investment enabling them to gain and retain paid employment.  Such arguments may feel threatening and undermining however, to people experiencing chronic illness who feel that, particularly in this current era of ‘welfare reform’, illness as a barrier to paid employment is not sufficiently recognised. 

Or to take another example - recent debate often focusses on the current problems in the provision of residential care.  However, there is little recognition that, from the point of view of the person needing support, precisely what the ‘problem’ is can differ significantly.  For young disabled people with high levels of physical support needs the current problem is the threat of being unwillingly moved into residential or nursing care because of the lack of funding for support in their own home.  Yet for an older person nearing the end of their life, the problem may be a lack of good quality care in a nursing home, resulting in them remaining unnecessarily in hospital or in undignified, lonely and difficult circumstances in their own home. 

But the current language of the ‘social care’ debate not only poses problems for those reliant on such services, it is also problematic because it does not speak to people’s daily lives, their families and relationships.  As Sam Clark , Chief Executive of the Local Area Co-ordination Network, wrote “Social care is all about people, their relationships, and their well-being”.

Instead of engaging in political and public debate about ‘social care’, perhaps we should instead talk about the people, their lives and relationships for whom it caters. We should be asking, as Alex Fox does, how can we ensure that the money spent on ‘social care’ enables “people to choose and build long-term relationships as part of building family and community life”?

How should we be arguing for more resources?
If the wide variety of services which can make such a difference to people’s lives need more resources, what arguments can we marshall to justify increasing public expenditure?  They will need to be strong arguments indeed if we are to argue not just for an increase in funding but also that social care should be free at the point of use - as I argued in my own contribution to the #socialcarefuture debate.

In trying to move the debate beyond the language of a crisis of an ‘ageing population’, as well as to recognise the wider group of people for whom social care caters, it is often argued that expenditure on (younger) disabled people’s support needs should be treated as an investment.  This raises the question of what it is that we are investing in?  What return do we expect as a society?

It is generally the case that talking about investment implies a return of something which has economic value.  Thus a programme like Access to Work is said to be a ‘good investment’ because it enables people to earn an income and pay tax and national insurance, instead of relying on benefits - a move commonly characterised as from ‘dependence’ to ‘independence’.  

Quite apart from the fact that the ‘employment’ argument leaves out the largest group of people who need support - older people - it also plays into a particular frame around who is ‘deserving’ of support.  Do we have to be economically productive in order to be deserving of support?  What does it say about the values of our society if people’s worth is tied to their ability to engage in paid employment?

If we argue that an increase in resources for social care will enable more people to be economically productive, it plays into the argument made by people like Times columnist Matthew Parris, who refers to older and disabled people as “an unproductive overhang”.  He wrote that “Some day soon we’ll all accept that useless lives should be ended” and that “any ageing society will in time question how much those wanting help should demand of those who must pay for it” (the Times article from which this second quote is taken is behind a paywall but is available here.  I wrote an earlier blogpost about his arguments).

Should we not be talking about the type of society - rather than the ‘type’ of individuals - that we might want to invest in? 

  • Wouldn’t we like to invest in the kind of society where what we currently call ‘social care’ services are dominated by what Sam Sly describes as “acts of humanity [which make] a difference to people’s lives”.
  • Wouldn’t we like to invest in the kind of society where parents of disabled children can come together to draw support from each other, at a local Children’s Centre which at the same time provides a point of access to a variety of specialist services and professionals? 
  • Wouldn’t we like to invest in the kind of society where a person in the advanced stages of dementia is cared for in a small residential home, where the high standards of care provided mean that no-one has to be medicated into semi-consciousness and where the environment is so comforting and comfortable that families and friends find it a pleasure to visit?

Wouldn’t we like to celebrate the basic human instinct of kindness by investing our collective resources in making these and many other similar experiences possible?

And at the same time, we could celebrate such investments as wise, ultimately self-interested, decisions for none of us know whether we will be the beneficiaries at some point in our lives.  No-one knows whether they or their family will experience the need for social care support - though the likelihood is that by the last stages of our lives we all will. It is in all our interests, therefore, to invest in the things which will enhance the lives of the ‘least advantaged’, as John Rawls put it when he argued for the ‘veil of ignorance’ principle to guide political decisions. 

Or to put it another way - we should be applying the Golden Rule in all our decisions about how to raise and spend our collective resources: Do as you would be done by.

Visions for the future
Which leads me to my response to Martin Routledge’s challenge issued on Twitter: “If u entered a cave, rubbed a lamp & the Green Paper genie offered u 1 wish 4 the forthcoming paper - what would it be?”.  I’m not going to answer this in terms of the type of language or commitments that are usually in a green or white paper. And I’m not going to limit myself to one wish (sorry Martin).  Instead, I’ll start by drawing you a picture of what an imaginary three households in my village might look like if the Green Paper delivered real change.

In Honeysuckle Cottage lives Mrs Lucy White.  Aged 92, she has been living on her own since her husband died over 20 years ago.  She has a daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren living nearby in new affordable housing (which really was affordable rather than the 80% of ‘market value’ which is the current definition of ‘affordable housing’).  As her daughter’s house was built to Lifetime Homes Standards Lucy was able to stay with her when she recently came out of hospital following a fall, while adaptations to her own home were done by the local Care and Repair organisation, enabling her to return home.  She has help provided by an organisation in the village - a co-operative which is run by and for the community - funded by her personal budget.  

Down the road live Mr and Mrs Green.  They used to provide short breaks to parents of disabled children by having children to stay for weekends but when Mr Green was made redundant from his job they decided to become involved in Shared Lives.  A young man, Oliver, now lives with them.  Oliver had spent three years in an Assessment and Treatment Unit, many miles from his family who live in the nearby town. In order to support Oliver, Mr and Mrs Green received extensive training and continued support from a local organisation specialising in supporting people with learning disabilities and/or autism who also have significant communication needs.

Also in the village lives Laura Brown, a 40 year old mother of three, who has a chronic illness which prevents her from doing much outside her home.  She works part time and remotely, arranging speakers and booking venues for an organisation which puts on various arts festivals all over the country.  She has a personal assistant who supports her in her parenting role, paid for from her personal budget. The personal assistant lives in a village five miles away and does not have a car and there is no public transport.  However, she travels to Laura’s house using a community transport service, which is run by three Parish Councils in the area.

There are three policies which would help make these scenarios possible.

Firstly, the establishment of an Independent Living Fund which would build on the experience of the previous ILF but have some key differences.  It would be open to people of all ages (not just working age adults as the ILF was).  It would use nationally consistent criteria to deliver locally co-produced responses to individual needs. Social care practitioners would work out of community hubs (as described by Jenny Pitts) to develop Support Plans with individuals and their families and friends, sometimes using Circles of Support.  

Secondly, local authorities’ approach to commissioning will need to change radically, as described by Bob Hudson, so that social value dominates the decision-making process. Most importantly, commissioning would need to be done in partnership with people who will use such services, for example, the training and support provided to Mr and Mrs Green as Shared Lives providers would be commissioned by a Panel which included those with lived experience of learning disabilities and/or autism.  These commissioning bodies would set aside budgets each year for innovations in responses to a range of needs and circumstances, for evaluations, and for the continuation of responses which yield good results. 

And thirdly, it would mean the development and implementation of a national housing and community policy which included within it commitments to:
  • build and adapt homes which are to Lifetime Homes Standards
  • significantly expand the supply of low rent accommodation with security of tenure
  • ensure the infrastructure necessary to create and maintain supportive and inclusive communities.

Change must come from local communities and be implemented in partnership with them.
National policies must be generated by local initiatives and government’s role should be to help this to happen and to also provide enabling frameworks for co-produced implementation. Unless such frameworks are put in place, we will just continue the past history of good ideas being generated within local communities only to be corrupted by the disempowering cultures which too often pervade large-scale implementation. We need, as Sian Lockwood wrote, “a very different relationship with public bodies - one where the community has responsibility for determining local priorities and shaping the solutions that will address those priorities”.

This applies to the whole infrastructure which makes good quality lives possible, for example in the field of housing, Jeremy Porteus has pointed out that “Innovative and collaborative organisations or groups of friends have in recent years pioneered a range of new citizen-led housing models”.  He lists a number of initiatives which “are vehicles for giving people greater choice and voicing the opportunity to manage their own care and support”.  The key to the future success of all such initiatives - whether in health, housing or social care - is that they come from groups and communities themselves and that they are made possible by national policy frameworks which are enabling and promote inclusion.

Vidya Alekson argues that we must “build a bedrock of community capacity on which the formal system relies”. I would argue that it is this community capacity which will generate not only the informal support that creates inclusion but also the innovations in publicly funded services which are also necessary.   Unfortunately, as Ewan King says innovations in social care often seem stuck in a “pilot phase”. If I have learnt one thing from my involvement in disability politics and social policy, it is that while good ideas are generated by people who live the experience, once they get taken on by national and local bureaucracies, the original intentions often - far far too often - get lost in the morass of rules and regulations, in professional and service priorities, their principles corrupted by cultures which are by their very nature resistant to change. 

There is a distinct danger that politicians will look for yet another ‘new idea’ to address current difficulties in the funding and provision of social care.  But as Julie Stansfield writes we know, not only what are the things which enhance people’s lives but also what makes economic sense. We certainly don’t need ‘new ideas’ imposed from above, whether from politicians or from professionals.  While we do need national policies to bring about worthwhile investment in what we now call social care, such policies have to be more like enabling frameworks for the innovations which must come from people with lived experiences. And when innovations are shown to be worth investing in - because they improve people’s lives - they must be grown on in partnership with people with lived experience.  That means establishing genuine partnerships.  It means going far beyond token ‘representation’ on boards, panels, advisory groups.  It means sharing decisions and responsibilities.  

It means a radical change in not only how we develop policies, and in how we commission and deliver services, but also in what we mean by ‘services’.  As many people have said “I want a life not a service” - and that’s what ‘social care’ should be for everyone, from the disabled 8 year old who wants to play with their friends to the 80 year old coming out of hospital following a fall.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Independent living and the future of social care

This has been posted on In Control’s website as part of their #socialcarefuture debate, where there are a number of other really interesting posts.


I haven't been able to blog for a while but recently two key questions have got me thinking.

The first was a challenge from Catherine Hale, who leads the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project, put to me and a few others: "The term Independent Living" she said, "does not seem to have resonance for people with chronic illness and has been corrupted by those implementing Care Act in the service of cutting costs".

The second was a blogpost by Chris Hatton posted as part of the #socialcarefuture debate.  He asked: Is social care as we know it fundamentally bust?

Linking the two challenges has led me to ask: Is it time for us to admit defeat and abandon the term ‘independent living’ to describe our aspirations as disabled people?  If so, how can we articulate these aspirations in a way which addresses the current problems with social care?  And what would that mean for what we now call 'social care'?

I don't want to focus on the question of whether the term 'independent living' is particularly problematic for people with chronic illness, partly because it deserves consideration completely separate from the question of the current state of social care. However, the second reason Catherine gives for questioning its continuing relevance - the way the term has been corrupted by those implementing the Care Act - is relevant to all groups of disabled people and is directly related to Chris Hatton's challenge. 

So to start by addressing the challenge to the term 'independent living' (but emphasising this is just my attempt to open up debate rather than my firm conclusion):

1. Maybe we have to admit that talking about 'independent living' is not useful to us at this point because we have failed to achieve general acceptance for our insistence that it should mean 'having choice and control over the support needed to go about daily life'.  Instead, many working in health and social care, and also the general public, still take these words to mean 'doing things for yourself'.  Moreover, too often it seems the terms 'independent living' and 'independence' are used to deny the reality of someone's support needs. The rationing of services goes along with an unequal power relationship between the person who needs support and those responsible for funding and delivering it, and can result in a denial of needed assistance in the guise of encouraging 'independence'.  

2. At the same time, we need to recognise that independent living was never just about social care.  Yes, its origins were in replacing institutional and institutionalising services with direct payments which enabled people to employ their own support workers but this didn't deliver what we meant by independent living unless other barriers were addressed: the barriers to accessible, affordable housing, transport, to employment, to participating in family and community life and so on.  This wider vision is reflected in the last Labour Government's Independent Living Strategy which defined independent living as:

Having choice and control over the assistance and/or equipment needed to go about your daily life; and
Having equal access to housing, transport and mobility, health, employment and education and training opportunities.

That Strategy envisaged:

a single community based support system which focuses on all aspects of what people [of all ages] need to maximise their health and wellbeing and to participate in family and community life. The right of the individual disabled person to determine the kinds of services and support that they need will be at the heart of this reformed system.

3. We need to return to the roots of what disabled people in the 1970s and 1980s were trying to achieve. When I was carrying out research on independent living in the early 1990s, I consulted with the British Council of Disabled People about what the term meant.  The first principle they identified was that "all human life is of value".  This echoes the UN Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights and all life is of equal worth" which is also, of course, the starting point for Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the right to independent living.

As the UN's Committee on the CRPD pointed out, "The foundation [of Article 19] is the core human rights principle that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights and all life is of equal worth".  Article 19, they explain:

has its roots in civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights: The right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose one’s residence (art. 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate clothing, food and housing (art. 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and to basic communication rights form the basis for the right to live independently and be included in the community. Liberty of movement, an adequate standard of living as well as the ability to understand and have one’s preferences, choices and decisions understood, form indispensable conditions for human dignity and the free development of a person.

This makes clear both how comprehensive the concept of independent living is within the international human rights framework, and also how a denial of independent living is a denial of human rights.  

4. In the current context, where the term independent living has - as Catherine Hale says - been corrupted by those responsible for implementing the Care Act, perhaps we need to frame our aspirations and our demands in terms of human rights. Articulating our aspirations in terms of our human rights would enable us, for example, to see the rationing of support to a level which prevents people from even going outside their own home, or which forces them into residential care, as a human rights abuse.  It would also enable us to see a failure to recognise how someone communicates as a human rights abuse.  Segregation and isolation from family and community would be seen as a human rights abuse as would many other features of the current broken system of social care. 

5.  The answer to Chris Hatton's question is that, yes, social care is fundamentally bust.  This is partly because our society has not chosen to put enough resources into what is currently called 'social care'. We used to talk about how the question was not so much the level of resources put into such services but how the money was used. But we are now in the situation where there is widespread agreement that not enough money is going into social care.  The problem is that this is only being brought home to politicians and the public because of the impact on the NHS and the danger is this agenda will only identify solutions in terms of what social care can do to prevent hospital admissions and delayed discharge.  Instead, we need to ensure that this political and public debate includes a wider vision of community support which enables people, whatever their age, impairment or circumstances, to access their full human rights.

6. But it is not just about the level of resources, important though this is. Social care is also fundamentally bust because we have constructed methods of rationing and of delivering such services which mean they cannot be relied upon to protect and promote older and disabled people's human rights.  Direct payments, the original mechanism which aimed to deliver choice and control, were intended to place decision-making powers in the hands of people who needed support to go about their daily lives.  Personal budgets were similarly intended to empower people who did not want to employ their own support workers but who - through being able to control how the resources to which they were entitled were spent - would thereby have choice and control.  Neither have fully delivered on this vision, partly because it is hard to change the local authority culture which relies on bureaucratic processes to maintain control - and this even harder when budgets are cut back so significantly. And partly because the so-called 'market' in social care is dysfunctional - there isn't a real choice of service provider for either local authorities or self-funders, and one in four social care providers do not even provide 'safe' care, according to the CQC.  Social care is just another privatisation which hasn't delivered. 

7. But, as I wrote in a previous blogpost, the answer is not to go back to state provided services - that doesn't address the power imbalance.  Instead, the answer is to develop new ways of delivering support services, such as user-led services and co-operatives - not old style charities run by the great and the good with the values of ‘doing unto people’ but non-profit community-led organisations which are truly accountable to those to whom they provide a service: support which is designed and delivered for the community by the community. Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive of Power to Change, gave some examples of this in her blogpost - and incidentally, Vidhya mentioned that some communities no longer even have a cafe where they can meet “to plan a different, better future” but my community now does thanks to Power to Change part-funding our new community shop and community cafe.

8. New ways of both delivering and commissioning services also require some fundamental changes to how we make decisions about how to raise resources and what level of resources should be put into community-led services. In that previous blogpost I argued that the current system of means-testing social care is unjust because it is a matter of luck as to who needs a substantial amount of care for themselves or a family member. The NHS is funded on John Rawls' principle of the ‘veil of ignorance’ - in other words no-one knows whether they are going to be struck down by serious illness and it is therefore in all our interests that healthcare is funded by a progressive taxation system to ensure that health care is there if and when we need it.  This is the same basis on which community support services should be funded. Community-led, not-for-profit services should therefore be funded out of our society's collective resources, free at the point of use

9. However, decisions would still need to be made about how to allocate those resources.  We therefore need to think about developing new and more democratic ways of commissioning services. Chris Hatton mentioned participatory budgeting in his blogpost, and there certainly seems enormous potential for promoting deliberative democratic decision-making in both the allocation of resources and in the delivery of support. But we haven't been bold enough yet in this country; instead we have only tried to make gains within existing systems and there is inevitably a limit to which this can bring about real change. We have talked about co-production but even where this enables genuine participation it does not enable control over resources and thus does not tackle much deeper issues about democratic decision-making.  We need to be experimenting with mechanisms which “give people real power to effect change in their lives, communities and beyond”. We need to use an idea like participatory budgeting to give local communities real power to determine how resources are used. 

10.  So my answer to both the challenges posed by Catherine Hale and Chris Hatton, is: let's frame our aspirations in terms of our human rights and let's redesign and properly resource a system which is collectively funded, free at the point of use, and where resources are democratically allocated to forms of support which are designed and delivered by and for local communities.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Personal Independence Payments: 'Statistical norms' and the fight to come.

In her recent Guardian article, detailing the high levels of complaints about, and problems with, the assessment system for Personal Independence Payments, Frances Ryan says, "None of this exists in a vacuum".  She's referring to the other attacks on disabled people's benefits and services which  have been waged by governments over the last seven years, but there's also a wider, very worrying context that we need to be aware of. 

There are two factors which are creating a great incentive for the government to continue its efforts to reduce expenditure on Personal Independence Payments.  The first is that, although expenditure on incapacity benefits (Employment and Support Allowance) is now a smaller share of national income since 1990 (partly because the value of such benefits has fallen), expenditure on Personal Independence Payments has grown as a share of national income and is projected to keep growing.

The second is that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports, the government's aim of reducing public expenditure - the drastic cuts to public services and to working age benefits which have happened since 2010 - have only brought public expenditure back down to what it was before the financial crash of 2007/8:  “Seven years of cuts have served merely to return public spending to its pre-crisis level as a share of national income”. This is bad news for a government ideologically committed to reducing public expenditure and, combined, with the first point, should alert us to the possibility of yet another assault on disability benefits. 

In these days when disabled people’s civil and human rights are under such attack in the UK that the United Nations has said that a ‘human catastrophe’ is unfolding in our country, it is crucial to remember that one aspect of our social security system is truly progressive - or at least it was in its origins.  The currently misnamed Personal Independence Payment was originally called a Disability Living Allowance, and when it was introduced in 1992 it was transformative in that it recognised that people with impairments or long term health conditions have additional costs in terms of their mobility and daily living requirements.  DLA provided a contribution towards these costs and what’s more it was not means-tested.  It was, like child benefit, a recognition that society should take collective responsibility for the costs that some of its members incurred because this would benefit our society as a whole.  (The origins of such a progressive approach in fact go back to 1972 when Mobility Allowance was first introduced.  This had the same principles but only covered mobility impairments.) 

Unfortunately following the 2008 financial crisis, DLA was a key target for the ‘austerity’ measures pursued by Tory-led Coalition government. The abolition of DLA and its replacement by PIP was clearly motivated by the intention of reducing expenditure - the then Minister for Disabled People told Parliament that she expected that almost 60% of people who were reassessed would either get a reduced benefit or no benefit at all.The aim was to significantly reduce projected expenditure (the amount that would have been spent on DLA without its replacement by PIP) and the government assumed that by May 2018, 607,000 fewer people would be eligible for PIP in comparison with the number who would have been eligible for DLA (see Tables 7 and 8). 

Many people may have forgotten that initially the government proposed to remove the mobility component of DLA/PIP from people in residential care (the care component is already effectively removed for many by being included in the means-test).  They climbed down from that proposal but, since the full implementation of PIP, when it became clear that it would be difficult to achieve the intended reductions, the government have continued to try and reduce eligibility.  First, they tried - unsuccessfully - to reduce eligibility for people who use ‘aids and adaptations’ and then, following a judge’s ruling which recognised eligibility for the enhanced mobility component of PIP for people with mental ill health, the government introduced a retrospective regulation which removed this eligibility

In 2016, the Office for Budget Responsibility sounded a warning that the government’s intended reductions were not materialising. The original forecasted reduction in eligibility was based on DWP’s analysis of 900 recipients of DLA who were reassessed for PIP.  However, the evidence of actual reassessments was that more people are successfully claiming than the sample suggested and, moreover, more are being awarded increased payments.  This isn’t surprising - as anyone might have told the DWP if you reassess people who were on so-called ‘lifetime awards’, most will not only continue to qualify but many who were on lower rates of DLA will now qualify for higher rates of PIP because their needs will have increased as they grow older. 

Expenditure on PIP/DLA is also increasing because an ageing population means there is a built-in increase in the numbers receiving the benefit (which continues to be paid, though cannot be claimed, after the age of 65) and because increasing numbers of children with significant impairments are surviving into adulthood.

The OBR concluded that the government was only likely to save 5% of projected expenditure instead of the 20% it aimed to achieve.  This follows a familiar pattern in that the Coalition government and this current Conservative government have consistently underestimated the numbers of people eligible for DLA/PIP and therefore the amount spent on this disability benefit.  The OBR warned the government that “The history of optimism bias in estimates of the impact of welfare reform is a real cause for concern”. Worryingly for the government this warning was sounded even though, at the time, the OBR assumed that a further cut in eligibility - which would have reduced the numbers qualifying by a further 290,000 - would take place.  In fact the government was forced to drop this proposed rule change thus reducing the intended savings on PIP expenditure even further. 

In the light of all this, and in the light of the recent publicity given to the numbers of complaints and appeals about PIP assessment, the question needs to be asked whether, having failed to cut back on projected expenditure in the way intended, the government has introduced ‘targets’ or ‘norms’ for assessors which is resulting in some unjust decisions about eligibility.  Appeals of decisions are increasing as are success rates. Some people with terminal cancer are being wrongly refused PIP, and there is increasing evidence of ‘discrepancies’ in assessors’ reports.

These allegations sound remarkably similar to those previously made about Work Capability Assessments. Assessments for Employment and Support Allowance did not initially deliver the intended reductions in people qualifying for out of work disability benefits and this was followed by increasing accounts of people being assessed as ‘fit for work’ who patently were not. Accusations were made that the company who at that time was carrying out Work Capability Assessments had been given ‘targets’ by the DWP.  These accusations were strongly denied by the government but Kaliya Franklin showed, if assessments are carried out in the context of ‘statistical norms’ about expected outcomes, these can become part of a management tool for ensuring quality and consistency of assessment practice.  And if ‘statistical norms’ are determined by government priorities to reduce the number of people assessed as eligible then, as Kaliya Franklin argued, this may well lead to the increasing levels of complaints and successful appeals. 

A recent account by an ex-PIP assessor on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme seems to indicate that there are indeed practices being applied which exert pressure on assessors to reduce the numbers eligible. 

It is to be hoped that the Work and Pensions Select Committee, currently carrying out an inquiry into both PIP and WCA, address the question of whether government priorities to reduce expenditure are directly impacting on assessment outcomes. But in the meantime, we need to be aware that attempts to decrease expenditure on PIP are likely to continue, particularly because, as mentioned above, expenditure on this benefit is increasing as a share of national income.  

In the years to come the government may well try to make more fundamental changes to PIP - such as imposing a means-test and/or linking it to unemployment. Interestingly, one of the questions that PIP assessors ask is: “when did you last work” despite PIP being an additional costs benefit and nothing to do with employment status.  Is being in work taken to be evidence of being able to function without restrictions and therefore not eligible for PIP or only eligible for a reduced award?  This might fit in with what David Freud (at that point ‘welfare reform’ Minister) said during one of the parliamentary debates when PIP was being introduced: ”Sickness and disability are best overcome by an appropriate combination of healthcare, rehabilitation, personal effort and social/work adjustments” - does this mean that if you make enough ‘personal effort’ and ‘work adjustments’ you will no longer experience ‘sickness and disability’? When the government tried unsuccessfully in 2016 to restrict eligibility, much of the public debate was dominated by the misconception that, to qualify for PIP, you had to be judged incapable of working.  This is a dangerous message to give in the current climate - and unfortunately continues to occur in current debates on PIP (as illustrated most recently by the presenter’s questions on You and Yours).

Reforms to disability benefits have been and are still being fuelled by a government priority of reducing public expenditure.  John Pring, from the Disability News Service, states that 2016/17 has seen increasing complaints, particularly of dishonest assessors’ reports. Stephen Kinnock MP is only one of several MPs who are seeing increasing numbers of disabled people in their constituency surgeries, recounting experiences of “how claimants are treated, how they are humiliated, belittled and denied basic human dignity”; and  Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary told the Disability News Service that “Labour is committed to scrapping these harmful assessments and replacing them with a holistic, person-centred approach, under our plans to ensure that, like the NHS, the social security system is there for us all in our time of need.”

In the meantime, there needs to be an investigation as to whether government policy to reduce the numbers of people eligible for PIP is resulting in ‘statistical norms’ being applied leading to disabled people being denied an additional costs payment to which they are entitled.  And we all need to beware that - if the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Office for Budget Responsibility are right - then we may well see yet another onslaught by the current government on the living standards of disabled people.