The government’s welfare reforms seem to be staggering on, despite the concern from the Lords that they’ll harm those who need help most: children and the disabled. But before the Bill goes back to the Commons, and everyone becomes more agitated, let me put the case for the Bill from the perspective of someone it might affect.
I have a vested interest in the impending changes to disability benefits, because both my brothers are autistic – one severely so. My family depends on the Disability Living Allowance; caring for my brothers is a full time occupation for both my parents, and without support they simply wouldn’t be able to cope.
So I’ve been watching, with concern, the government’s proposal for the Disability Living Allowance to be transformed into something called a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for people over 16 (including both my brothers). To qualify for this, anyone claiming they have a disability will have to be medically examined, even if they were claiming benefits before. This means that both my brothers will have to have their autism independently assessed.
In light of this, some people expect me to be worried and to lend my support to the charities and special interest groups who are agitating for a delay to the Bill, and an NHS-style U-turn.
But I’m actually cautiously in favour of these reforms. So far, I’ve seen no evidence to persuade me that this Bill isn't reasonable, and I have no reason to think that any assessment of a disabled person’s condition will be unfair. My little brother Joe recently had to take a medical examination – in the manner of those required by PIP – to see if he was able to work. He failed with flying colours. The doctor concluded in under ten minutes that he would never be able to cope in the work place, and recommended to the DWP that he was eligible for Employment Support Allowance.
It’s important to remember is that the current benefits that come with support – such as the blue badge – also seem set to remain.
The government has made no secret of the fact that it’s planning to save money and expecting many people to fail the PIP test, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any injustice will be done. Neil O’Brien’s research last week showed that ‘the number of people claiming the benefit has roughly trebled since its introduction in 1992’ and that currently ‘only 6 per cent of claimants have their claim medically assessed by a specialist for the purpose of their claim’. It seems a fair assumption that the amount of fraud is significantly higher than the 0.5 per cent the DWP currently claims. As long as the tests are carried out by reputable and medically qualified people, this new system seems a lot fairer to everybody.
In fact, despite Polly Toynbee's claims, as far as I can see, the government has been cautious and sensible about making sure these reforms do right by the disabled community. Starting from 2013, it expects the process of examining every claimant to take up to three years. It has engaged with disabled groups, amended proposals and recently agreed to halve the time that seriously ill or disabled people will have to wait to receive PIP – to three months instead of six – a massive improvement, especially for cancer patients. The Welfare Reform Minister, Lord Freud, has also proposed an amendment allowing disabled people living in care homes to keep payments worth up to £51 per week.
Yes, there are still some big questions that haven’t been answered. Who exactly will be conducting these medical examinations? How exactly will PIP be simpler to use than the current DLA? Having had to watch my parents endure mountains of forms, constant phone calls, endless letters, tribunals and other problems caused by DLA bureaucracy while trying to care for my brothers, the promise of making the system simpler is very welcome, but I'll be wary until I see the results for myself.
But the fact remains that the government has a duty to spend tax payers’ money wisely, as well as to look after the weakest members of society. The charities and lobbyists who fight for the disabled – and indeed for children – do them no favours by assuming all reform is bad.