A cabinet minister has been heavily criticised after again appearing to encourage national newspapers to run stories attacking disabled benefit claimants.
Last week, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith was criticised by the work and pensions committee for “pandering to the Daily Mail” and sending out misleading press releases about incapacity benefits.
Duncan Smith protested that he was unable to control how the media covered welfare reform stories, but promised that his department would improve the way it dealt with statistics on disability benefits.
Just 24 hours later, he provided quotes to selected news organisations – including the Daily Mail – suggesting that thousands of disabled people were receiving disability living allowance (DLA) they were not entitled to.
He told them: “At the moment, hundreds of millions of pounds are paid out in disability benefits to people who have simply filled out a form.”
The figures actually show that only 16 per cent of successful new DLA claims were awarded on the basis of just a claim form.
The Daily Mail reported that a “staggering 94 per cent of new claimants for Disability Living Allowance started receiving their payments after only filling out paperwork”.
But this paperwork can include a report from the claimant’s GP, their social worker, or a hospital, or even their application for employment and support allowance, the new out-of-work disability benefit, which has been heavily criticised for the severity of its assessment regime.
The newspaper said critics were warning that “thousands of benefits cheats were being allowed to ‘slip through the net’ while changes to the system come into force”.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said many of the “16 per cent” were probably disabled people whose support needs were so high that they needed assistance from social workers to fill in their form, which was why government decision-makers did not need any further evidence of their impairment.
The government’s own figures show that overpayment of DLA due to fraud is just 0.5 per cent of spending.
Campaigners and politicians pointed out that the government’s release of the figures – and Duncan Smith’s comments – came just four days before the House of Lords was due to discuss plans in the coalition’s welfare reform bill to replace DLA with a new personal independence payment (PIP), and cut spending by 20 per cent.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, said she was “very, very disappointed” with the apparent behaviour of Duncan Smith and his Conservative ministerial colleagues.
She said: “Chris Grayling did it, Iain Duncan Smith did it on Wednesday. They are apologetic, and say that it is not them who are doing it and that they can’t control the press.
“Inevitably, a day later a press release comes out that manages to be interpreted by the media in a negative way as far as disabled people are concerned.
“I don’t know if it is coincidence or not. It has happened on more than one occasion. I am very, very disappointed that despite constant ministerial assurances that they are not doing it, this keeps happening.”
Dame Anne said she would be discussing the issue with colleagues on the committee.
The disabled peers Baroness [Jane] Campbell, Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins and Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson all mentioned the Daily Mail story during debates on the bill in the Lords this week.
Baroness Wilkins, a Labour peer, called on the government to “rebut” these “wildly inaccurate press reports which are helping to stoke disability hate crime”.
When approached by Disability News Service, a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman declined to provide details of how the DWP and Duncan Smith had briefed the media on the DLA figures, although she did email his statement.
She declined to say whether the release of the figures was connected to this week’s discussion of the bill in the Lords; whether Duncan Smith would be taking any action to correct the Daily Mail story; whether he had personally briefed journalists on the figures; whether the latest press release cast doubt on the sincerity of his comments to the work and pensions committee; and whether he was concerned about a possible increase in targeted hostility towards disabled people as a result of the DWP’s media briefings.
Coyle said the government’s proposals to impose new regular assessments of all disabled people receiving PIP were “nonsensical”.
He said: “If you have a genuine medical condition backed up by independent medical evidence, why should the government waste tax-payers’ money and cause stress and anxiety to disabled people and their families, which can aggravate health conditions?”
Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat MP who accused Duncan Smith last week of “pandering to the Daily Mail”, declined to comment on the latest DWP press release.
17 November 2011