Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Disability Alliance

SUMMARY

    —  Disability Alliance believes that, as a fundamental point of principle, the welfare benefit system should be of a universally high standard that every citizen would be happy and able to engage with, as well as understanding its intrinsic value.

    —  Welfare benefits should not be seen as something for the poorest or the neediest in society, but instead regarded as something that the majority of people will encounter at some point over their lifetime and thus able to respond effectively and efficiently to their often unpredictable need for support.

    —  Whilst the UK benefits system is extremely complex in many ways, and continues to become more complex as seemingly uncoordinated flurries of reform take place, it must be remembered that the system also reflects the complexities of individual claimant's lives and the needs that arise as a result.

    —  Any attempt to simplify this system must strive to minimise the numbers of losers from such a reform. Disabled people face two basic problems: inadequate income and extra costs, and simplicity should not be imposed at the expense of meeting the wide and varied needs of all disabled people.

INTRODUCTION—DISABILITY ALLIANCE

  1.  We are a national registered charity with the principal aim of relieving the poverty and improving the living standards of disabled people. Our eventual aim is to break the link between poverty and disability.

  2.  We are a membership organisation with over 365 members ranging from small, self-help groups to major national disability charities. We are controlled by disabled people who form a majority of our Board of Trustees.

  3.  We provide information on social security benefits and tax credits to disabled people, their families, carers and professional advisers; undertake research into the needs of disabled people—with a particular emphasis on income needs, and promote a wider understanding of the views and circumstances of all people with disabilities.

  4.  We are best known as the authors of the Disability Rights Handbook, an annual publication with a print-run of 30,000, but also have a range of other guides and provide a telephone helpline and a popular website. The Disability Rights Handbook provides clear and concise information on the welfare benefits and tax credits systems, as well as other areas such as social and residential care and a range of other issues relevant to disabled people and their families. We feel this makes us particularly well-placed to comment on the complexities of the UK benefit system.

  5.  Our policy work is informed by our daily contact with disabled people and those who provide services for them. We undertake research into the needs of disabled people, with a particular emphasis on income needs. For example, together with the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, we undertook a major piece of work, into the extra costs faced by disabled people—"Disabled people's cost of living—more than you would think". Other work has covered disabled parents, and families with more than one disabled child.

  6.  We welcome the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry. We have not addressed all the questions but have concentrated on those areas where we feel we have knowledge and experience. We have also added additional comments which fall outside the specific area covered by the formal questions.

GENERAL POINTS

  7.  Disability Alliance believes that, as a fundamental point of principle, the welfare benefit system should be of a universally high standard that every citizen would be happy and able to engage with and to understand its intrinsic value. It should not be seen as something for the poorest or the neediest in society. Whilst the UK benefits system is extremely complex in many ways, and continues to become more complex as seemingly uncoordinated flurries of reform take place, it must be remembered that the system also reflects the complexities of individual claimant's lives and the needs that arise as a result. Any attempt to simplify this system must strive to minimise the numbers of losers from such a reform.

  8.  The needs of disabled people, in terms of financial assistance from the welfare state, appear to be addressed often an afterthought over the last 50 years. The Fowler reforms of 1985, as laid out in the Green Paper, Reform of Social Security, noted that:

    "Disabled people were only partially taken into care of in the post-war structure. Although people with industrial injuries had received relatively favourable treatment, some disabled people who had never been able to work were necessarily excluded altogether from the social insurance scheme [introduced by Beveridge]. Several new benefits were later added to fill obvious gaps in provision."

  9.  Since then, it appears to Disability Alliance that disabled people have been the "fly in the ointment" for regulators and administrators of the welfare benefits system. The Beveridge scheme for social insurance was predicated on the maintenance of full employment, temporary withdrawal from the labour market and stable family formations.

  10.  Accordingly, it has been unable to cope with the growth in long-term unemployment, rise in part-time and self employment, the growth in lone parenthood and the numbers of unprotected full-time carers. And as disabled people experience some of the most unfavourable labour market outcomes of any group, a welfare system predicated on labour market insurance principles will obviously be inherently unsuitable for many disabled people.

  11.  So, for example, in the Labour Government's 1997 welfare reform Green Paper "New ambitions for our country: A new contract for welfare", a key principle of the reform programme was that:

    "those who are disabled should get the support they need to lead a fulfilling life with dignity"

  12.  On that principle, this reform clearly failed to achieve its objective, as the number of working age disabled adults living in poverty has actually increased over the last 10 years, and this despite some percentage point increases in the number of disabled people in employment. This is especially disappointing in light of the fact that this reform also set out to constitute a "truly comprehensive review of the welfare state in all its elements" yet actually delivered very little progressive change to either disability or incapacity benefits in any meaningful way.

  13.  The UK is currently in the midst of an almost unprecedented level of reform in relation to welfare benefits but Disability Alliance is concerned that there is a lack of high-level strategy to coordinate the reforms and proposals in such a way as to reduce, rather than increase, complexity within the welfare benefit system and related areas. To provide some examples:

    —  the Welfare Reform Bill introducing employment and support allowance and local housing allowance is nearly through Parliament;

    —  the Freud proposals, with drastic fundamental changes proposed for welfare delivery, are being opened up for public consultation;

    —  a consultation on the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit scheme closes on 22 April 2007;

    —  a review of Statutory Sick Pay is underway with emerging findings,

    —  new proposals for reducing child poverty have just been announced, affecting many disabled parents and parents of disabled children;

    —  the recent quinquennial review of the independent living fund has made long-reaching recommendations up until 2011;

    —  the disabled facilities grant programme is subject to a consultation closing on 12 April 2007; and

    —  the Lyons review has made various recommendations about council tax and council tax benefit.

  14.  We fear that this scattergun approach to reform will undermine any serious attempt to simplify the welfare benefits system in a meaningful way. We feel that the sheer number of policies emerging from the reforms detailed above mitigate against progress in reducing the burden placed upon disabled people to better understand and enforce their rights and responsibilities.

KEY PROBLEMS

  15.  Low take up: Key means-tested welfare benefits and tax credits often have low take up, due to complexity, lack of information, and stigma. And low take up of benefits will clearly have negative effects on child poverty figures. The burden placed on parents with a disabled child are huge, in terms of making appropriate welfare benefit and tax credit claims, as well as organising social care provision and so on. Parents report feelings of helplessness, fear, and seemingly large amounts of repetition in terms of providing personal information on their children.

  16.  Universal benefits such as child benefit show very high rates of take-up but the corollary of this approach is that assistance cannot be targeted beyond certain basic criteria eg having a child. It takes no account of need. With disability, there is another issue in that it is clearly more difficult to objectively understand the effects of impairment and disability upon individuals, compared to say proving the existence of a child.

  17.  Claimant error: DWP statistics shows that errors are a greater problem than fraud. Yet fraud is often still perceived by the wider general public as being an inherent and enduring problem of welfare benefits, despite the very real progress made in reducing fraud over the last 10 years. With complex claiming processes and inadequate advice or support available, especially face-to-face advice, claimant errors can often lead to other problems developing down the line, for example, non-take up of relevant benefits, underpayments and overpayments, debts incurred, etc. The DWP appear to be institutionally failing with regards to provision of accurate and more importantly complete information to claimants about all of their choices and options when interactions occur.

  18.  Poor decision-making, official error and inconsistency: Further, if civil servants administering the welfare benefit system cannot properly understand this system, it seems clear that official errors will become more frequent. Many claimants require voluntary sector advice agencies to assist with challenges to decisions, from review to appeal and beyond. The well-publicised difficulties of the Community Legal Service, in addition to reductions in local authority funding for advice services, have conspired such that independent advice provision is patchy, erratic and inconsistent with suitable advice often not being accessible to disabled claimants.

  19.  Delays: Delays are a common place feature of the welfare benefit system and can serve as a strong work disincentive to many claimants. We have heard of problems with securing appointments to make claims, delays in claim forms being processed, and delays in payments being made. We remain unconvinced that the increase in the use of telephones in Jobcentre Plus offices is as unproblematic as claimed by DWP. Many stories have reached us about problems with securing appointments, refusals to accept paper claims or to allow claims to be lodged and incorrect or misleading advice being given out.

  20.  Interaction of benefits: Passporting within the benefits system increases the capacity for errors to arise. For many claimants who know about the problems that can and do arise when submitting claims for welfare benefits, often as a result of the issues identified immediately above, there is a very real worry that any interruptions to those claims for any reason will cause many more problems than they are prepared to deal with.

  21.  For example, the immediate removal of housing benefit if a qualifying benefit such as income support also ceases, means that at the point of moving into work, claimants are necessarily required to focus on tiding themselves over in the intervening weeks between securing employment and leaving benefits, rather than concentrating on their new work. The housing benefit run-on is supposed to be paid automatically yet there is still a requirement for claimants to notify Jobcentre Plus in order for these payments to be made.

  22.  Financial security: Disabled people tell us that one of their biggest fears is that trying out work will result in their disability living allowance (DLA) being reviewed. DLA is payable to people in paid employment but for some groups of people (particularly those with mental ill-health or ME) a move into work can be interpreted by the DWP as a signal that their condition has improved, and thus prompt a review of their DLA taking place.

  23.  For some people, this may be true as a sign of improvement but for many others, the first few weeks and months in a new job can be more stressful than remaining on benefit. The potential loss of DLA, during a period fraught with financial uncertainty, can be a huge disincentive, especially if people are worried about their ability to cope with paid employment. We would recommend a six month "settling-in guarantee" under which disabled people are guaranteed that their DLA will not be reviewed. This allows time to settle into a new job, and to ensure that it is going to be sustainable.

  24.  Stigma: This has a negative impact on take up. Government messages often seem to be very negative about the people who are forced to rely on welfare benefits, with high-profile fraud campaigns leading to perceptions that welfare benefit claimants are not to be trusted. We feel that this also has knock-on effects on employer attitudes, with many employers expressing reluctance to consider employing long-term benefit claimants.

  25.  Interaction of systems: Disability Alliance is aware that welfare benefit claimants who require social care or care in the community face exceptional burdens in many ways. Most benefit income is taken into account when setting charges for social care from a local authority under the fairer charging system, whereas earned income is ignored. Whilst we fully support the exclusion of earnings from care charging schemes, it seems to us iniquitous that claimants on the lowest incomes face greater charges than those in work. With moves towards individual budgets seemingly gathering support, we would hope that proposals to simplify the benefits system would also take account of interactions with other relevant social care systems, as well as health care services.

  26.  Social insurance benefits: there are advantages and disadvantages to social insurance benefits, particularly for disabled people. Advantages can include targeting with less stigma, support for labour market principles, individual entitlements and administrative convenience. Against these, disadvantages are the contingency of maintaining full employment and the exclusion of those who cannot work, contribution conditions that are inflexible and somewhat arbitrary, and the failure of benefit rates to adequately reflect the costs of disability.

CONCLUSIONS

  27.  Disabled people face two basic problems: reduced incomes and increased costs. Therefore, they need a secure and adequate income to ensure that they are properly able to play their part as active citizens. The welfare system should ensure that those disabled people who are unable to work, or who are likely to face particular difficulties in securing work due to their illness or disability, must have an adequate income that reflects their needs. Any simplification must not come at the cost of jeopardising or undermining the financial position of disabled people.

  28.  Disabled people receiving welfare benefits do not receive sufficient income to meet their extra needs, as evidenced by the recent report from DWP.[39] The report noted that "Most studies conclude that disabled people's needs are not fully met through services, and the cost of private provision to meet needs is not fully covered by extra costs benefits." This is because of the combination of inadequate levels of benefits, poor take-up and the extra costs associated with disability. We would restate our position that the DWP and Government should carry out research to develop minimum income standards for disabled people, so that we could then begin to understand the complexities of the current situation.

  29.  If more disabled people are to move into employment, Disability Alliance feels that there must be more flexibility within the welfare benefit system to allow people to try out work without fear of losing their benefits, to allow people to work without losing so much of their benefits, and for entries onto and exits from benefits to be much more responsive and prompt. There is a lack of cohesion and consistency currently in benefit linking rules, the permitted work rules and earnings disregards are also inconsistent, and information about making the transition from benefits to work is often inappropriate and incomprehensible.

  30.  Further, any policy to move disabled people into work must take account of the large numbers of disabled people facing in-work poverty as well as the issues of discrimination, and work-place development and support. Many disabled people face discrimination in trying to secure and retain employment, are often paid less than colleagues doing similar jobs, and are denied opportunities to progress onwards and upwards. The Leitch report was a valuable first step in identifying skills development as being a crucial factor, especially as many disabled people face educational discrimination.[40]

  31.  Disability Alliance thinks a key improvement in the welfare system would be some degree of consistency in the assessment of ill-health and disability. Currently, the Disability Rights Handbook notes five main tests of disability:

    —  Incapacity for work, for statutory sick pay, incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance, income support and the unemployability supplement under the Industrial Injuries and War Disablement schemes, with different tests depending on which benefit is claimed;

    —  Needing care, supervision or watching over by another person, used for disability living allowance care component and attendance allowance, with a similar test used for constant attendance allowance under the Industrial Injuries and War Disablement schemes;

    —  Unable or virtually unable to walk, used for disability living allowance mobility component and war pensioners mobility supplement;

    —  Degree of disablement, used for industrial injuries disablement benefit, war disablement pension and vaccine damage payments; and

    —  At a disadvantage in getting a job, used for the disability element of working tax credit.

  32.  There are two further overarching definitions of disability that also apply:

    —  Substantially and permanently disabled, used for registering as disabled with a local authority social services department and for getting a reduction in council tax; and

    —  Physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, used to define who is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act.

  33.  Disability Alliance thinks that there is scope for a rationalisation of these tests, especially if reviewed in conjunction with fairer charging assessments made by local authorities that also include welfare benefit checks. Whilst different assessments may be necessary for different tests of eligibility for different benefits, we feel that the sheer number of assessments that disabled children and adults can be subject to requires serious thinking and improvement.

  34.  In terms of communications with disabled people, we would highlight the recent report from the Office of Disability Issues, "Improving Information for Disabled People". This noted that public sector organisations should apply the following principles to their work to improve services and information to disabled people and meet their obligations under the Disability Equality Duty:

    —  Ensure that disabled people are involved from the start.

    —  Provide information through a range of channels and formats.

    —  Ensure information meets diverse range of users' needs.

    —  Clearly signpost other services.

    —  Always define responsibility for information provision.

  35.  Disability Alliance thinks that issues affecting staffing levels and training within Jobcentre Plus must be an integral part of attempts to simplify the welfare benefits system. Unless there are sufficient staff, trained and knowledgeable in the intricacies of whatever simplified system is eventually decided upon, claimants will always face barriers in accessing their rights and entitlements. Indeed, if the agenda for the welfare system is "something for something", we feel that it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that their responsibilities are met, insofar as ensuring that the administration and bureaucracy are effective and efficient and are not undermined by budgetary savings that actually increase error and spending.

5 April 2007








39   Review of existing research on the extra costs of disability, DWP Working Paper 21, Mike Tibble 2005. Back

40   See, for example, Disability Rights Commission Education Research in England and Wales: Highlights 2004-2005. Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 26 July 2007