“Astonishing” figures released by the government show that the number of older disabled people receiving benefits to help with their daily living costs has plummeted since 2011.
The figures show that the number of recipients of attendance allowance (AA) has fallen from 1.6 million in August 2011 to 1.435 million in August 2017, a fall of about 165,000 (just over 10 per cent) in six years, at a time when the UK’s population of older people has been increasing.
The fall in the lower rate of AA is most dramatic, falling from about 687,000 to 550,000, while the number claiming the higher rate fell from 914,000 in 2011 to 886,000 in 2017.
The number claiming lower rate AA (£55.65 a week) has continued to fall every year since 2011, although those on the higher rate (£83.10) fell sharply for the first three years but then rose again slightly over the last three years (from 855,000 to 886,000).
AA is non-means-tested and is designed to help with disability-related daily living costs, and is available to those 65 or over who do not already receive personal independence payment (PIP) or disability living allowance.
Some other benefits can also increase if a claimant is receiving AA.
The Office for National Statistics said last year that the percentage of the population that is 65 years or older was growing and “projected to continue to grow to nearly a quarter of the population by 2045”, with the proportion of the overall population – which increased by more than four million – who are 65 and over rising from 15.9 per cent in 2005 to 17.8 per cent in 2015.
The continuing controversy over PIP, originally introduced by the coalition government with the intention of restricting spending on working-age disability benefits, has meant there has been little attention paid to spending on AA.
But the figures, released by Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, to Labour MP Chris Ruane, have caused alarm among campaigners because the growing population of older people would suggest the number of AA claimants should also be increasing rather than falling.
Previously published Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures, which show the number of older disabled people eligible for AA but not necessarily receiving it – which could happen for those who have spent a certain period in hospital or are receiving council-funded support in a care home – appear to show that the peak came shortly after the coalition came to power in 2010.
This suggests there could have been a secret attempt to restrict spending on AA, say campaigners.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “At a time when we’re constantly told we have an ageing population it seems astonishing that the number of people getting AA has fallen so dramatically.
“The only reasons I can think of to explain this phenomenon are that for the first time in decades people are dying younger due to austerity and that secret changes to the qualifying guidelines have been sneaked through somewhere at some time.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at the charity Age UK, said: “Given that longevity is increasing, it is surprising to hear that the number of those claiming attendance allowance has fallen.
“This is a really important benefit for older people with a long-term illness or disability, helping them to pay some of the additional costs that they face and remain independent at home.
“We are concerned that many older people who should be receiving this vital support are missing out and would urge anyone who thinks they may be eligible to get in touch with Age UK to arrange a benefits check.”
Ruane, the MP for Vale of Clwyd, told Disability News Service: “For vulnerable people who are coping not only with the rigours of old age but also the difficulty of disability, attendance allowance is a vital benefit which can help pensioners enjoy a better standard of life in retirement.
“However, this response does highlight a worrying trend; 165,256 fewer people are now receiving attendance allowance than six years ago.
“With an ageing population these figures don’t necessarily add up and we need to examine whether those who would be entitled to attendance allowance are actually being encouraged and supported in applying for this financial assistance.
“We need to ask whether the Department for Work and Pensions is actually targeting those who should be benefiting from attendance allowance or question whether obstacles are being put in the way of potential applicants as they are with other forms of benefit such as PIP.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “The government has made no significant changes to attendance allowance rules over the last few years and has no plans to cut spending on it.
“Expenditure on attendance allowance was £5.6 billion in 2016-17 and is forecast to rise to £5.9 billion by 2021-22.
“The number of people claiming AA can fluctuate due to demographic and other societal changes.
“Also, people over 65 with care needs can continue to receive DLA or PIP, so it’s not right to just look at AA in isolation.”