The government's targeting of the disability living allowance reveals a lack of compassion, writes Sharon Brennan in the Guardian
“Yesterday, the government finally showed its true colours. Ever since the election this year, disabled people have watched with increasing dismay as the rhetoric against us has become increasingly vitriolic; tabloid papers can barely write the word disabled without coupling it with "workshy". The waters have become so muddied with talk of fraud on one side and the government's promised support for those most ill on the other, it was hard to prove that the coalition had categorically decided to make the lives of disabled people much harder. That was until yesterday.
With the publication of their disability living allowance (DLA) reform paper, it is now written in black and white that the government believes supporting the disabled is, using their own word, "unsustainable".
In the comprehensive spending review in October, the coalition said there would be a review of DLA: these plans have now become clearer with its announcement that it intends to scrap the benefit and replace it with personal independent payment (PIP). DLA, and its proposed replacement PIP, are not an out-of-work benefit. It is a non-taxable cash payment to disabled people to help them pay for the higher costs of living, care and mobility associated with their illness. In the executive summary of its DLA consultation document, Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, claims the reason for change is that "the rising caseload and expenditure is unsustainable".
Let's be clear: this increased DLA caseload is not because of fraud. DLA has one of the lowest fraud rates of any benefits. In fact, government figures published by the House of Commons work and pensions committee suggest that benefit fraud for DLA, carer's and attendance allowance among others has reduced since 2001 from 2.2% to 0.8% between 2008-2009 (the most recent year for which statistics are available).
But in June, the government declared in its Budget 2010 policy costings document that it hopes to save 20% from its DLA budget by changing the way it is allocated: with fraudulent claims less than minimal, the only way to cut the budget by a fifth is to redraw the boundaries over who is eligible. Miller says as much in her executive summary on the consultation, stating: "We will prioritise support on those individuals who face the greatest day-to-day challenges". This question of priority is a worrying one. It effectively means that those people who have a disability that is less severe than someone else's will no longer receive help, regardless of whether that extra support is vital to them. That is like saying that only 80% of those currently receiving housing benefit will be deemed to be eligible to continue having a roof over their heads.
Using the government's own data, currently 1.8 million people of working age claim some form of DLA (it comes in two components, care and mobility), which rises to 3 million claimants if the under 16s and the over 65s are included. These changes are currently aimed at those of working age, although the proposals state that the government is still considering whether to reassess children and pensioners. In their current form, these cuts could see up to 360,000 people losing out on money that they use to help with the higher costs associated with living with a disability. If all 3 million claimants are reassessed this would rise to about 600,000 people.
A disabled person's disability will not go away just because the government has decided to save 20% on its DLA bill. The only change will be that those affected will have to fund the higher costs of living out of their own pocket. And these pockets are already threadbare. These cuts will affect a sector of society that the Disability Alliance UK states is already twice as likely to live in poverty as other citizens.
I know that in response to these criticisms, the government will roll out its usual defence, arguing the UK's deficit is huge and savings have to be made. But to that I would like to say that if pound signs ultimately obliterate our sense of compassion, then we will truly be in a poorer state than that caused by a deficit of any size.”