Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Behind the media furore lies the real cost of disability benefit fraud

It's a bad time to be disabled.

The populist way to solve the massive UK deficit, in large part due to multiple bank bail-outs, is to reduce the welfare budget. And attention has turned itself time and again to the cost of supporting disabled people with the media often misrepresenting or even falsely presenting the facts.

In a recent Telegraph article about the intended government use of credit agency Experian to weed out fraudulent benefit claimants, the paper stated: "The agencies will get a “bounty” payment for each fraudster they identify under government plans to cut the £5.2billion annual fraud bill". Except that this figure is not correct.

When publishing data on benefit monies, the Government bundles erroneous payments and fraudulent payments into one headline figure. In fact, last year the cost of fraud  was £1.5 billion compared to payments made due to error of £3.7 billion. So why the media misrepresentation?

The Sun similarly misreported benefits statistics on Monday. In its campaign against benefit scroungers (surely a campaign against overtly risky banking practices would save this country more money in the long-run) it highlighted the fact that almost 900,000 people have claimed incapacity benefits for over a decade. It went on to say: "A scheme introduced in 2008 by the previous government has so far found three-quarters of those claiming incapacity benefit were able to work". The scheme it alludes to is the Employment Support Allowance medical test that has been heavily criticised by disabled charities, doctors and even the Government for passing too many claimants as fit to work when they are clearly not - one extreme example was telling a man with terminal lung cancer to go back to work when he only had five months left to live.

The Government itself  is surprised at the volume of people declared fit to work by the new ESA medical test and has asked for an urgent review. Labour was previously expecting to cut the incapacity benefit recipients by 20% but instead this new test is so inflexible and basic that more than 60 per cent are being declared fit to work - three times the initial estimate.

The Sun reported none of the controversy surrounding this new test, clearly using the statistics to persuade the average reader that most long-term sick are faking it. Moreover, the paper talks about the cost to the taxpayer but makes no allowance for the fact that many disabled people who find themselves on long-term benefits have worked at some point during their life and contributed taxes like everyone else.

In fact government figures published by the House of Commons Work and Pensions committee suggest that benefit fraud has REDUCED since 2001 from 2.2 per cent to 0.8 per cent between 2008-2009 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). This fraud figure represents housing benefit, Disability Living Allowance, pension credit and carers' and attendance allowance. It does not include data for fraudulent claims for ESA, incapacity benefit, Job Seeker's or Income Support as the Government had not been able to provide statistics for publication! Extrapolating out from this statistic it is fair to say that out of 889,000 long-term disability claimants only 7,192 are tricking the system. Or to put it another way of the estimated £460 million spent each year on incapacity benefit for the 889,000 long-term sick, only £3,600,000 was misspent. I bet you'll never find that statistic printed in The Sun.

The harsh truth isn't that the long-term sick are scrounging benefits but that there are actually many serious illnesses that are incurable and highly debilitating. Medical advances often mean it's possible to keep someone alive but not keep them well enough to allow them to work.

So hiding behind all this anger at disabled benefits is this: Does society want to pay out money to support disabled people whom it clearly sees as no benefit to society as they are unable to pay taxes? Perhaps it's easier for a Government to complain about people tricking the system than to admit that it no longer wishes to pick up the bill for caring for the sick?

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