On Monday 14th November, the House of Lords Committee on the Welfare Reform Bill will be considering amendments tabled on the reform of Disability Living Allowance (DLA). This may explain the stories in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph on Friday (11th November) claiming that 94% of recent DLA claimants only had to fill in a form to get the benefit.
Other figures in both articles – but not the headline one – seem to originate from DWP statistics. These statistics show that the DLA claim form was the only evidence submitted in 16% of cases, not 94%. By the end of the day, Full Fact had debunked the misuse of these statistics very comprehensively.
But this was just the latest in a whole series of attacks on the integrity of those claiming DLA: the reality of the experience was better represented in the thousands of tweets reacting to the articles.
On Monday Labour and Independent peers will try and improve the Clauses in the Welfare Reform Bill by:
- ensuring that the benefit is available to pay for the extra costs that come with impairment, illness and disabling barriers
- placing the social model of disability at the heart of the assessment process
- requiring the new assessment criteria and process to be co-produced, piloted and reviewed with disabled people and their organisations
- reinstating a lower rate of benefit payment to assist people who need lower levels of support
- ensuring that people in residential care continue to receive the mobility component.
One of the most irritating things about the welfare reform debate is how government ministers are using the language of the disability movement to justify their reforms. A classic example is the corruption of the social model of disability, and of our concept of independent living, in the proposals for replacing Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment.
The social model of disability says that it is not our impairment which disables us but the barriers that society puts in the way; the independent living movement redefines ‘independent’ to mean, not doing things for yourself, but having choice and control over whatever support you need in order to go about your daily life. For people with impairments (whether physical, sensory, communication, cognitive or relating to mental health) the human right of autonomy is denied unless disabling barriers are removed and disabled people have choice and control over the support they need.
In contrast, the government’s use of the words ‘independent’ and ‘independence’ is linked to the notion of not being ‘dependent’ on others or, most crucially, on the state. The disability movement is clear that the ‘problem’ for us lies in the disabling barriers we experience, but for this government, the ‘problem’ lies with our reliance on the state for assistance to go about our daily lives.
For the disability movement, benefits such as DLA are about helping to create a level playing field. For the government, receiving DLA is a sign of being ‘dependent’ and should be reserved for the most ‘vulnerable’.
In its desire to limit access to state support, the government has put a particular spin on statistics and research. Left Foot Forward and others have debunked many of these stories. One further government narrative is that receiving DLA acts as a financial disincentive to getting paid employment.
There does in fact seem to be a statistical link between receiving DLA and unemployment: “even though DLA claimants tend to be older, poorly qualified, on benefits for longer and in poorer health thanother IB claimants, the fact of having a DLA claim, in itself reduces thelikelihood of someone saying they would like a job (now or in the future) bymore than a third”.
However, the same research, and other research also funded by DWP, makes clear that there are two likely reasons for this correlation - neither of them relating to DLA being a financial disincentive.
Firstly, the same researchers, when they carried out interviews with disabled people and those advising them, found that misconceptions about DLA eligibility seem to be a key factor in the relationship between DLA receipt and unemployment: “For many DLA claimants,both applicants and recipients, there was a perception that DLA was a benefit for those who are unable to work, was only payable when someone was not workingand stopped if they went back into work".
Secondly, relationships with, and attitudes held by, health and other professionals also seemed to reinforce the perceived link between DLA eligibility and being unable to work. Being “told by a doctor that they were unlikely to return to work” was “a key trigger for making a DLA claim”.
However, instead of the government recognising its own failure to properly communicate about DLA, it has used this research to justify reforming the benefit, with the aim of reducing the DLA budget by 20%.
DLA is a popular benefit amongst disabled people for very good reasons. Firstly, it is not means-tested and as such is the only aspect of the benefit system which is implicitly based on creating a ‘level playing field’ for disabled people – in the same way that child benefit is intended to compensate for the additional costs of bringing up children. Secondly, DLA enables people to make decisions for themselves as to how best to meet their additional needs and it is therefore empowering in that it promotes autonomy and self-determination.
But an ideology which equates receiving resources from the state with ‘dependency’ can never recognise the benefits of using redistributed taxes to promote a level playing field for those who would otherwise experience significant disadvantages.
We need to challenge the misuse of statistics by the right wing press and government alike. We also need our allies in Parliament to continue trying to mitigate the damage that will be caused if the Welfare Reform Bill goes through unamended. But we also need to champion a vision of a welfare state that celebrates the virtue of using resources raised through a progressive taxation system to help create a level playing field for people who have additional support needs.