Speaking on BBC Radio 4's World at One, ahead of the House of Lords Welfare Reform Bill (WRB) debate today, Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Maria Miller sought to sound reassuring and reasonable. But the key points she made were either highly debatable or plain wrong. And the stakes are high. The government is attempting to move from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to an untried Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and to cut around £2.7 billion from the benefits system for the most vulnerable people.
First, Ms Miller claimed yet again that £600 million of the annual DLA bill is being "overpaid" each year. What she is attacking are some perfectly legal payments to people with changing conditions (who may be 'improving' but nevertheless disabled), and which the DWP itself says it would be "unreasonable" to claim back. The system struggles to deal with people with variable conditions, but is right, within current constraints, to err on the side of the vulnerable.
The figures for "overpayments" originate from the National Benefit Review of DLA. This was published in 2005. It is already seven years old. But the data was actually collected a year before. So that's eight years. Many changes have occurred to DLA since then.
The data also suffers from poor quality control, critics aver. It includes pensioners. It does not take into account appeals. Most significantly, it does not factor for more than one DWP decision-makers arriving at different conclusions in relation the same claimant.
Ms Miller fails to mention that her figure is a woolly estimate with up to a 50 per cent variability attached to it, that under the current system the government is in fact making a £80 million 'profit' out of wrong payments, and that there are some £300 million worth of DLA underpayments, again according to DWP figures. [See notes below]
Actual fraud, as the DWP concedes, is very small indeed (0.5 per cent), and even on Ms Miller's dubious stat - which masks a much more complex situation and seems designed to scare the public and parliamentarians into backing inadequately thought-through reforms - £12 billion worth of DLA allocations are not 'overpayment' but necessity. Yet the government wishes to reduce the total bill by 20 per cent, four times more than the supposed 'overpayment'. Ms Miller is therefore effectively conceding that quite genuine claimants will be denied. That's at least £1.8 billion (allowing for discrepancies) being taken away from people who really need it.
Next Ms Miller has re-iterated official statistics that she claims show the number of DLA claimants has risen by 38 per cent over eight years. The Mail and the Sun parroted that line yesterday, too. But the available figures in fact show that the growth in the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding demographic factors – was just 13 per cent, as disability campaigner Sue Marsh pointed out.
When pressed by interviewer Martha Kearney on the World at One, the Under Secretary of State was unable to justify her assertion. (Dame Anne Begg, the disabled MP who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee, said in December 2011 that Ms Miller's evidence to the Committee on this and other statistical issues had been “evasive” throughout the entire session.)
The Under-Secretary also plucked a figure out of the air in asserting that the increase in levels of claim over the past few years was not primarily due to demographic factors. But the DWP has previously admitted that such factors – including the general growth in the population – are an important consideration in determining the true rise in DLA claimants, and that Ms Miller's claim that DLA spending had grown by 38 per cent over the eight years to 2010-11 was wrong because this figure refers to total spend, including payments to children and older people, while only working-age DLA is being cut and reformed. That reduces it to 28 per cent - and this gets significantly lower when further taking into account demography. By how much? A DWP spokesperson said at the end of last year that the adjusted percentage increase for working-age spending “does not exist at the moment”. But 13 per cent would appear to be the outcome on what's available.
On assessments, the Under Secretary of State sought to side-step the problems by saying that the discredited Work Capability Assessments (WCA) will not be used for PIP. This is disingenous. She could have pointed out that, as Ekklesia has reported, it was only yesterday, on the day before the House of Lords debates the issue, that the DWP finally published the proposed points thresholds for getting a PIP award. And the document ‘Personal Independence Payment: assessment thresholds and consultation’ (which most peers will not have had the chance to read) is hardly reassuring. It suggests that the new assessments will be as controversial, if not more so, than previous ones (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16093 ).
For example, claimants who cannot walk more than 50 metres, but who do not use a wheelchair, will no longer be entitled to the enhanced (higher) rate of the mobility component, on those grounds alone. Instead they will get only the standard rate. Many blind claimants also look set to lose their higher rate mobility award, only recently won after years of campaigning. And that is just the start of the problems.
Likewise, on WCA, the latest report from Citizens Advice suggests that the ESA assessment, in spite of changes brought about by the Harrington Review, is not "fit for purpose". That is also the conclusion of harrowing experience-based evidence submitted to crossbench peers by Ekklesia on behalf of disabled activist-researchers.
Last but not least, the Under Secretary of State said that the government was working "hand in glove" with disability charities and disabled people to ensure that welfare reforms were fair and workable. But she did not acknowledge that, as the 'Responsible Reform' (#spartacusreport) research discovered, almost three-quarters of expert organisations responding to the government's DLA consultation expressed significant doubts about the overall proposals, and up to 98 per cent dissented from key elements. The government was also defeated three times in the Lords last week and is facing a call from major charities not to "go ahead regardless" - but rather to pause legislation in order to come up with better data, better analysis and better proposals. That is hardly the "support" Ms Miller claims.
Everyone agrees that the current system needs to be simplified and improved. But that is not achieved by cuts, shoddy statistics, late reporting, attempts to subvert parliamentary process (Lord Freud's procedural tactics last week) and statistical evasion. The case for a significant re-examination and re-think on the government's part is overwhelming.
* 'Government caught out on DLA statistics… again' (DisabledGo News) - http://www.disabledgo.com/blog/2011/12/dla-statistics/ 
* Polly Curtis: 'Is £600m really being paid in disability living allowance to people who don't qualify?' (Guardian) - http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/... 
* Benefits & Work, 'PIP losers revealed' - http://www.benefitsandwork.co.uk/news/latest-news/1512-pip-losers-revealed 
* 'Responsible Reform' report - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA 
* DWP: 'Disability Living Allowance and Work Expectations' (*.PDF) - http://tinyurl.com/86z7h9j 
* Fact check: Disability Living Allowance: are benefits being paid “without checks”? (Nov 2011) - http://fullfact.org/blog/DLA_benefit_claims_without_checks-3112  Inter alia: "According to the latest report on the subject - 'Fraud and Error in the Benefit System: Preliminary 2010/11 Estimates' the total amount of money that was overpaid as a result of DLA Fraud and Error was £220 million, of which £60 million was fraud [and £160 million error]. Total underpayment was £300 million."
* Welfare Reform Bill live blog and discussion - http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/blog/2012/jan/17/disability-welfare?fb... 
* Ekklesia on the Spartacus Report - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/spartacusreport 
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, which is among the charities and NGOs calling for a legislative pause and significant change to the Welfare Reform Bill. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16088