guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 3 August 2010 08.00 BST
“According to the national statistics, there is a benefit worth £8.2bn a year where fraud runs at 1%, twice the rate of both disability living allowance and incapacity benefit. These benefits are the pension credit and the state pension, and a pilot review in 2005-06 estimated the cost to the taxpayer up to £51m a year in fraud.
The vast majority of pension credit claimants make genuine claims for money to support them in old age. Only a few very strange people would suggest that pensions should be cut for everyone, just because a handful of pensioners play fast and loose with the system. And yet, that is the argument made for the sick and disabled. Why? It is all about the tabloid-stoked perception of anyone claiming disability-related benefits as potential scroungers who are able to work. This line of thought suggests that most disabled people are capable of some kind of work – however minimal – and that benefits disincentivise work. Such thinking allows the government to take a hacksaw to the welfare state in the guise of benevolence aimed at reducing fraud.
Incapacity benefit (IB) supports those too ill to work, and disability living allowance (DLA) helps claimants meet the extra costs of their disability whether in work or not. DLA is not – cannot be – a disincentive to work as it is paid to support the costs of disability, whether in work or not, and paid for the most part at the rate of £19 per week. IB could, potentially, be a disincentive, but only if a claimant suddenly recovered and yet managed to fool the already stringent assessment procedures. The only reason why some people with serious conditions would choose to subsist on these benefits rather than work is more about the difficulty of findingsuitable, accessible, and flexible work.
Finding work is difficult enough for the fit and healthy, but if you are one of the 11 million people – from cabinet office estimates – in Britain who is disabled, injured, or suffers from ill-health, then your condition may make it harder to move beyond the interview stage. Enabling most claimants to work means that jobs would have to be tailored to their needs. This means taking account for weeks and months off work, short days, regular shifts in working hours, work days and deadlines, the distraction of severe pain, post-medication sleepiness or sickness, susceptibility to colds, flu and bugs, and the need for home-working.
At least a couples of these issues will affect most claimants, no matter what their level of mobility. This fact makes a poor joke of the idea that most disabled people, even if capable of some work-related task, would be able to cope with employment not adjusted to their symptoms. Employers already complain about statutory maternity leave, so how would they cope with making adjustments to complex and long-term needs, affecting their profitability? And how can people be declared "fit" to work if employers won't give them jobs because of their illness?
The access to work scheme has been partly successful in removing the physical barriers to work, but there is more to true accessibility than a disabled toilet and accessible office. Many more disabled people could work than the current number, but this would require a huge change in the employment market beyond the "reasonable adjustment" required by the disability discrimination act. Such a change would require huge investment by the government. Rather than facilitating the transition of some claimants into work they can do, it is cheaper to cut people's benefits and set them up to fail in a dog-eat-dog labour market.
The "migration" of IB claimants to the new employment support allowance(ESA) is a warning for DLA claimants. George Osborne recently announced a new medical-test for DLA claimants to reduce nonexistent disincentives to work, and to tackle the miniscule level of fraud. It will probably be the same type of unfair programme, run by private contractors Atos, aimed at reducing the caseload for DLA by 20%. This implicit target for throwing people off DLA is easily seen in June's budget.
As for fraud, there is little justification for a catch-all punishment. Atos will get £500m over seven years for kicking people off benefits, while fraud in IB over this period will add up to around £250m: the tests intended to stop the fraud cost twice as much as the actual fraud! This means that the only way Atos can be value-for-money is if they cut £250m off the ESA caseload – so that there is indeed an implicit target, just as there is for the DLA caseload. The real story isn't of cheating disabled people, but of a government with a badly hidden agenda.”