Tuesday 17 January 2012

DLA reform should be PAUSED until TWO key issues resolved

Following on from last week's dramatic defeat in the House of Lords of three proposed welfare reform changes, the debate has now moved on to the reform of DLA. The Lords will be voting tonight on the plans, including an amendment by Baroness Grey-Thompson, of paralympic fame, that there would have to be a pilot before a new medical assessment of DLA is brought in. You can also read more about this at Sue Marsh's great blog. However, for the sake of the taxpayer and disabled people across the nation, DLA reform should be paused until two key issues are resolved.
 1. Do not scrap DLA until the Government can clearly demonstrate that its desire to cut 20% from the budget will not leave genuinely sick people in need
Government statistics show the fraud of DLA is 0.5%, yet in its 'Budget 2010 policy costings document" the Government unveiled its intention to cut the number of those in receipt of DLA by 20% despite the fact it is yet to outline any eligibility criteria for PIP. This obviously raises serious concerns that genuinely ill people will be denied benefit solely to meet a pre-decided budget and that 'eligibility' for PIP will be driven by costs not by need. As Sue Marsh highlights in her blog, the current tabled legislation has so few details in it, which are meant to be decided by MPs under secondary legislation at a later date, that we do not know how these reforms will affect our lives, despite the fact it is being introduced NEXT YEAR.

2. Halt any introduction of PIP medical assessments until the financial and emotional catastrophe surrounding the similar medical for ESA is sorted out
The Government wishes to introduce a medical assessment for all recepients of PIP, despite the fact that a similar assessment process for Employment Support Allowance is currently in a huge mess. Society should be in uproar that 31 people have DIED while awaiting appeals against ESA medicals that found them fit to work.
40% of decisions to deny ESA are overturned at the appeal stage. Appeals have so far cost the taxpayer £80 million and the contract with private company Atos to manage these medicals is worth £801 million over ten years. Atos is yet to have any financial penalities imposed upon it for inaccurate reports resulting from the medicals it has conducted.

That's me done, hospital appointment later and typically the day I need to leave the house my lungs are behaving terribly. Fingers' crossed the vote in the House of Lords helps bring back common sense and support & respect for disabled people across the country.

Friday 13 January 2012

For the taxpayer’s sake, halt the introduction of disability benefit PIP

In response to every criticism of the Government’s austerity drive, the Coalition insists there is no alternative to the cuts and yesterday morning was no different. Speaking on the Today programme, Work and pensions minister Chris Grayling again argued that it was in the taxpayer’s interest for the Government to press ahead with disability welfare cuts despite last night’s dramatic defeat in the House of Lords of three proposed welfare reform changes. Yet as the debate shifts to other aspects of the welfare bill, it can be argued that key elements of the proposed reforms in fact short change the taxpayer.

The Government is intent on scrapping DLA and replacing it with Personal Independence Payments (PIP), despite the fact that only 7% of organisations that took part in a recent DLA consultation were fully in support of this change. The reasons given by the Government for abandoning DLA struggle to stand up under scrutiny, as this week’s excellent Responsible Reforms report by disabled campaigners highlight, but what is clear is that the Government has estimated it will cost £675 million to scrap DLA and introduce PIP.

In addition, despite fierce opposition from disabled people and, at 0.5%, DLA having the lowest fraud rate of all Government benefits, the Government is still intent on introducing a medical test for all potential recipients of PIP. It is suggested it would operate along the lines of the Working Capability Assessment (WCA) administered by private company Atos healthcare for those currently applying for Employment Support Allowance. Frankly, this assessment isn’t currently fit for purpose. 40% of decisions that people are ‘fit to work’ are overturned at the appeal stage, and these original decisions are very heavily based on the findings of the WCA. Atos has not yet been given any financial penalty for any inaccurate report it has produced despite the fact that the hefty appeals process for ESA has cost the taxpayer a staggering £80 million to date. On top of this, the Government is already paying Atos £801 million over a ten year period and one can only presume the contract will increase in size were Atos to be asked to also undertake the medical assessments for PIP eligibility.

In its ‘Budget 2010 policy costings’ document, the Government highlighted a desire to cut DLA payments by 20%. Currently annual DLA payments amount to £12.6 billion, so a 20 per cent saving on this figure would come in at £2.52 billion annually. The up-front PIP implementation costs plus a medical assessment contract similar in size to Atos and any subsequent appeals expenses would eat up half of these savings.

In an age where we are continually told that every penny counts, the Government must justify these costs, including whether it is in the taxpayers interest that 100% of DLA recipients will be forced to attend a medical, even those that have an incurable, end-stage illness. Wednesday's successful House of Lord’s amendment to the welfare bill to exclude cancer patients from being subject to the one year ESA time limit, and therefore implying a medical test for such patients would be redundant, suggest there isn’t the public appetite to impose stressful health tests on the seriously ill who are trying to claim benefits in their hour of need.

The Government also has an obligation to the taxpayer to ensure its money is sensibly spent. The medical tests for PIP eligibility are set to begin in 2013, despite the fact that the latest Harrington report, which examined the practical implementation of the WCA medical test, states it will take at least three years to see if its recommendations have improved the accuracy of the medical test in identifying real need.  Until the Government manages to get WCA appeal rates under control, there is little point adding another hefty bill to the taxpayer’s purse to extend the number of ill people required to undergo similar assessments. Indeed the Government should be obliged to go further and ensure the taxpayer is getting value for money from existing medical assessment contracts by forcing financial penalties on those companies making repeated mistakes for which the taxpayer is currently picking up the bill to rectify.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favour of an arbitrary 20% cut in DLA and I’ve written before voicing my concerns that people who need genuine Government help will be deemed ineligible in order to meet a pre-decided budget cut. But it seems to me that the Government is simply scrapping DLA only to replace it with a similar benefit at great cost to the taxpayer to avoid the PR fall out of being seen to take money away from the long-term sick. In an age of austerity there cannot surely be any spare cash to help the Government save face.

If the Coalition wishes to reform or cut DLA then it should have the courage to makes its case in a fair and democratic manner and make changes within the current benefit. It should not hide its agenda behind a name change or ‘independent’ medical assessments. The introduction of PIP should be recognised as a waste of money which cannot demonstrate any clear benefit to the taxpayer. It should be halted now, before it too becomes a disastrous, administrative nightmare like ESA is now proving to be.