Tuesday’s Budget contained the not-entirely-unexpected announcement of cuts to benefits. There was a general expectation that Incapacity Benefit (IB) and its new incarnation, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), both of which are claimed by many disabled people, would be targeted. IB is frequently in the news for its renown as a benefit that is relatively easy to make a fraudulent claim for and there has been much governmental chatter over the last couple of years about getting people off IB and back into work. So it was a surprise to hear that Disability Living Allowance (DLA) was to be targeted.
I’m not going to cover the issues around the last government’s proposed “fitness to work” scheme, which was to be aimed at IB claimants. Much has already been written about the problems with the proposed medicals, for example.
DLA, though, is non-means-tested and can be claimed by disabled people who work, as well as those who don’t. It’s a benefit that recognises that disabled people have higher living costs just because they are disabled and is meant to help counterbalance that. Indeed, many people with disabilities find their living costs rise when they work simply because when they get home they may be more tired to deal with household chores and so they need to buy in additional help. DLA, paltry as it is, helps disabled people maintain independence, freeing up council care services and residential services for those who really need them. It’s also really difficult to claim.
The Arbitrary Constant blog by Rich Watts (who is the director of the Essex Coalition of Disabled People) has made some excellent points about the motives behind the government’s decision to target DLA claimants, while Bendy Girl, on her brilliant disability blog, Benefit Scrounging Scum, has pointed to some interesting figures about benefit fraud that show DLA is the least likely benefit to be claimed by those intent on defrauding the welfare system.
But enough of the stats and the speculation. I’ve spent much of the last 48 hours wondering how I personally will be affected and I’ve concluded that I may be forced to give up work.
As a worker with a disability, I generate wealth for the state in the form of the taxes and national insurance I pay. I put vastly more into the pot every month than I take out in DLA. And I’m self-employed so I sometimes end up paying national insurance twice over (for example, if a client puts me on their PAYE scheme temporarily), which I can’t claim back so the state does quite well out of me. If my DLA is withdrawn, the effect on my ability to earn and stay independent would be catastrophic for me.
It’s hard to quantify but about a year ago I worked out that my monthly cab spend is £250-300. Some of that obviously is personal travel, such as getting home safely in the evening after going out with friends, but I often work evenings attending events, even if I’m just there to network and make contacts. On those nights I still need to get a cab home because my walk home from the bus stop at night is lengthier and less safe than the walk I’d take in daylight.
In the daytime, I’m out and about almost every day for at least some of the time in my job as a freelance journalist. I use my concessionary bus pass as much as possible (which also means I can use the trams and local trains in Greater Manchester for nothing) but I still have to pay before 9.30am, which is quite often. And the public transport routes in Manchester are largely designed to get people in and out of the centre from afar – getting *around* from neighbourhood to neighbourhood is a lot more complicated. So often it’s simply quicker and easier for me to use taxis.
Some examples. A couple of evenings ago, I attended a meeting in Hulme, about 3 miles from my home. It took 3 buses and an hour to get there and I still had to walk half a mile. The cab home at 11pm was a tenner. The week before, I went to the police authority AGM, right on the other side of Manchester. That took a bus and two trains to get there, all of which I had to pay for as it was pre-9.30am. It took 75 minutes. By car, I could have done it in 20-25 minutes but I’m not allowed to drive. It took me more than 90 minutes to get home again. That was nearly 3 hours of travelling for 20 minutes of GMPA meeting. By car, I’d have spent less than an hour travelling.
To look at it another way, I spent an extra almost two hours travelling that I could have spent earning money like any other freelance able-bodied person. I have calculated that I lose 5-8 hours a week every week in extra travel time – that’s the loss of a commercial day rate that’s roughly double my monthly DLA. That’s also 5-8 hours of earnings I would have paid taxes on too, so the state also loses out in a way, but not as much as I do.
DLA is basically a recognition that being disabled carries extra costs just to put you on a par with the able-bodied, as I have shown. I have to plan every trip I make with military precision and choose whether I can wing it by bus or order a minicab. I wish I could just jump in a car and go but I’m not allowed to hold a driving licence because I have epilepsy.
I live alone. When I lived with my former partner, I had care on tap. Just over half my monthly DLA is awarded for personal care assistance but I can’t actually afford to buy in care on a daily basis on the amount I receive for it. Even something as simple as cooking a meal on the hob is a risk that I take daily. The rest of my DLA is for lower-rate mobility costs. In practice I spend pretty much all my DLA on taxis so I can get around and actually work. The terms of DLA allow me to do this.
So what would happen if I failed the proposed medical test in 2013? Tuesday’s Budget statement said DLA would be targeted at those in most medical need, in an effort to slash the benefits bill. By most standards, I’m not severely disabled because my seizures are fairly infrequent. But I pass all the current critical tests for DLA because my seizures come with no warning and I’m at constant risk of injury as a result. That amount of risk doesn’t change according to how often I have a fit. It’s always the same.
If the bar is raised so DLA is only targeted at those the government considers to be in most “medical need”, I would almost certainly no longer qualify for DLA. Without it, I’d probably have to stop working as a self-employed journalist because I’d no longer be able to afford to get around, or afford to go to only a very small number of meetings and sources because it would take so much longer to travel around purely on the buses. And if I had to reduce the amount of work I can take on, I wouldn’t be able to support myself any more. Then I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay my rent on the private tenancy where I live, or the bills.
The result would be me making a claim for at least Income Support and Housing Benefit. I’d end up taking far more out of the benefits pot than I do at present. Probably at least triple. Maybe more. And of course, I’d no longer be creating wealth for the state in the form of taxes. Is forcing the disabled out of work really a good way to help plug the public deficit?
I can’t begin to describe the freedom that my DLA gives me. Or the amount I save the state overall by being able to keep working as a result of receiving it.
Yet not even three years ago, I had my DLA withdrawn. It took me 14 weeks to get the decision overturned – 14 weeks in which I first made a telephone enquiry as to why I had lost my benefit, then applied for a formal review (which I lost), then applied for a formal appeal at a tribunal, at which point the DLA office realised they’d lose the case seeing as they broke their own rules when they cut my money off so decided to reinstate my award. It was 14 weeks of constant stress and worry for me. I was given a lifetime award when my DLA was reinstated. That seems fair, given I can’t be cured of this particular disability and it’s unlikely to improve. Indeed, my epilepsy has worsened since then.
So I worry about what will happen if I have to undergo a medical test in 2013. I still won’t be any less disabled than I am now, but the government’s stated aim is to target DLA to those in highest need and to get the rest back to work. Except I’m already in work and paying more into the pot than I take out. DLA is not like IB – many people on DLA do already work. Many, like me, will now be wondering if they’ll be able to continue working, and by definition contributing to the welfare state, if they lose their DLA after being compulsorily reassessed.