Are disabled people swinging the lead?

Posted: October 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

Richard Exell Richard Exell

 We all know the type of story:
  • £33,000 benefits cheat who had SEVEN jobs while claiming he was wheelchair-bound Daily Mail, 24 August
  • 500,000 on sick are fit to work Daily Express, 3 April
  • Two in three benefit claimants are fit for work Daily Telegraph, 11 February
  • A benefits cheat who claimed she needed crutches to walk framed herself with her holiday snaps – zooming down a WATER SLIDE in a bikini The Sun, 23 August

How fair are they? Are stories like this becoming commoner? What effect is this having on disabled people?

This type of story certainly gives the impression that lots of disabled people – perhaps most – are claiming benefits they aren’t really entitled to. In fact, fraudulent claims for disability benefits are very rare: DWP statistics show that fraud accounted for just 0.5 per cent of spending on Disability Living Allowance and 0.3 per cent of spending on Incapacity Benefit.

Politicians and journalists repeatedly say that the number of people getting disability benefits is rising because they are being awarded to people with trivial conditions. This is far from the truth.

Using General Household Survey data, Richard Berthoud found that

most of the growth in the prevalence of limiting long-standing illness, and most of the rise in the disability employment penalty, has affected people at the more severe, rather than the less severe, end of the spectrum. This suggests that the underlying trend is a true one, not simply associated with people’s reports of, or responses to, trivial conditions.

Declan Gaffney has looked at the caseload for Incapacity Benefit. Politicians of all parties complained for years about the growth of IB, which is why it has been subjected to “crackdowns” by Peter Lilley in John Major’s government, successive Labour Secretaries of State, and now by Iain Duncan Smith. Declan has used the caseload data to divide IB claimants into two groups: those who also receive Disability Living Allowance and those who don’t.

Roughly speaking, IB claimants who also get DLA are likely to have more severe health conditions and impairments than those who don’t. And over the years, Declan shows, the number on both benefits has risen, while the number on IB only has fallen:

This chart would be very hard to explain if IB was becoming easier to claim. (There’s more detail on this issue in a briefing available on the TUC website.)

So the newspaper articles (and the comments of many politicians) that give the impression that disability benefits suffer from high levels of fraud and malingering are very unfair. Are articles like that becoming more common? And what effect are they having?

A new report from the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Unit helps us to answer the first of these questions. Bad News for Disabled People: How the newspapers are reporting disability is based on a comparison of coverage of disability in five newspapers in 2004‐5 and again in 2010‐11 and the results of a series of focus groups. They found:

  • The proportion of articles describing disabled people sympathetically fell. The proportion of articles treating disability as an equality issue also fell.
  • There were more articles focusing on disability benefit and fraud –the focus group members thought that fraud was much more common than it actually is and used these articles to justify their beliefs.
  • There were more articles describing disabled people as a burden on the economy.
  • The language used to describe disabled people had deteriorated, with “suggestions that life on incapacity benefit had become a ‘Lifestyle Choice’” and some articles using words like ‘scrounger’ and ‘skiver’. People with mental health conditions and other ‘invisible’ conditions were particularly likely to be shown in a negative light.

Opinion polling for Scope, carried out in September illuminates the effect this is having. Scope found that 47 per cent of disabled people believe that public attitudes have got worse over the past year. Two-thirds of disabled people say that they have experienced aggression, hostility or name calling. Two statistics in the poll suggest that the growing emphasis on fraudulent claims for disability benefits may have something to do with this:

  • 65% thought others did not believe that they were disabled;
  • 73% said they felt others presumed they did not work.

Both figures had risen significantly from the previous poll, in May.

The political assault on disability benefits isn’t just a matter of cuts in the incomes of some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, it’s helping to create a harsher social atmosphere.

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