On Sunday, over lunch, the subject of Disability Living Allowance came up. I know, I know. I need to get out more. But see what happens when I do? In depth discussions about welfare reform. In a Harvester of all places. Which, by the way, did have a disabled toilet. It's just that it was locked so I couldn't take any photos for you. I was all out of 'traipsing around the pub to find a member of staff, to follow to another member of staff, to scratch both their heads about where the key might be' spoons. Must've been the welfare reform debate exhausting me.
It was lunch with an old friend from university. We both studied law and did reasonably well at mooting back in the day. It obviously made more of an impression on him than it did me as he now teaches law. Mind you, he wasn't the one who got touched up by a senior member of the judiciary. The thing about debating with legal-y types is that you better damn well know your stuff. Otherwise so many holes will be poked in your argument it'll sink without a trace before the starters arrive.
My friend was curious about Disability Living Allowance. 'Why', he asked, 'in a time of such financial crisis are we paying people just because they are disabled?' 'Surely there's no need for that payment when we have an NHS to provide medical care and local authorities to provide social care?'
Disability Living Allowance is one of the most misunderstood and yet most practical and vital benefits we have in the welfare state. It is NON means tested, so it can be claimed by anyone who meets the required standards for needing assistance with either a care component or a mobility component.
My legal chum was curious, 'why would we pay rich people this benefit?'* The answer is that we probably don't, in all but a few, rare, cases. Disability is disability, regardless of income level. Whatever one does or doesn't earn, the additional costs arising from disability remain. Had the Cameron's wanted to detail their son's disabilities in the explicit and minute form demanded by the Department of Work and Pensions, Ivan Cameron would have been fully entitled to the highest levels of Disability Living Allowance, his parent's financial wealth has nothing to do with the level of disability he had*. That, and the costs arising from it would be the same whether his parents were on means tested benefits or multi millionaires. In fact, the costs of disability often rise once people are in employment as they require additional care and support to remain in work. 'What if I'm really greedy?' my friend asked 'and I have millions but still want to claim DLA?' I explained that if you meet the qualifying criteria you'd be entitled to DLA regardless of your income, but that if you already have plenty of money you'd be unlikely to want to fill out a form as thick as a novel, giving explicit details about every aspect of your life. How you pee and poop being no exception.
DLA is one, if not the most difficult benefit to claim as the qualifying criteria are so very strict. For example, to claim the higher rate care component a person must require help for at least an hour during the night, whether that hour is split up into separate periods of help or not. At least an hour a night, for at least 4, probably 5 nights every week. My frequent nightly jaunts to the toilet, dislocating as I go, which often mean falling over, or stumbling face first into a door frame at 4am were not considered enough to qualify for higher rate care. Nor was my airway collapsing sufficient reason for the DWP to think I required someone to watch over me at night.
That all made alot of sense to my friend, so we moved on, as the overall concept of the state paying people money because they are disabled still didn't quite make sense to him on a financial basis.
To answer that question I had to explain to my friend how the social and health care system in England works. There is an assumption by the wider public that disabled people receive all the support and services they need. That disabled people are provided with a nice little bungalow to live in, paid for by the state, given all the equipment they need by the NHS and endless streams of carer's provided by the local authorities. Occasionally this does actually happen, and not just on the pages of the Daily Mail, but for most disabled people life is a constant battle to receive any support, let alone the Holy Grail of support packages tailored to their needs.
Local authorities do provide some care, and without a full understanding of the system it's enticing to think that Disability Living Allowance is paying for that care twice. It's only once you fully understand the system that you realise, not only is DLA not paying for that care and support twice over, but in all likelihood it is saving the system a fortune in a similar fashion to the pittance paid in Carer's Allowance.
The care that local authorities provide is rationed. Again, that sounds good. Until you realise that rationing isn't designed to prevent lazy people exploiting the system. Most local authorities only provide care to those who's needs they define as being 'critical or substantial', and demand payment from the care component of DLA towards the funding. To give an overview of what those categories might mean, my needs are classified by the local authority as moderate, which means I am not eligible for any support.
So, as someone who can't even sneeze without dislocating a rib I don't receive any support from the local authority, the justification being that I can manage. And, to an extent I can. But I only manage because I receive DLA. The care component of DLA allows me to purchase support, and the mobility component to fund transport costs in whatever way I see fit. I use my DLA for things as diverse as paying someone to provide care, through to the additional heating I need to keep warm, pretty much year round, ready prepared food, physiotherapy or grocery shopping on the internet. At the moment I'm using my DLA to fund the cost of a mobility scooter and the costs of the adaptations needed to allow me to have that mobility scooter at home. Without DLA I would immediately lose my ability to cope by paying for these extras and have no choice but to throw myself on the mercies of the local authority. As would every other disabled person, and as most of us fall into the 'considered to be coping' category that would be an awfully high proportion of disabled people suddenly having to be admitted to hospitals until the local authorities could figure out some way of either providing the support they require or passing off the responsibility to the NHS. The NHS is already vastly overstretched and an influx of the million or so disabled adults suddenly unable to continue coping because their DLA had been removed would cause it to grind to a halt instantly.
My friend is an extremely astute, self made business man**, who immediately saw the potential consequences and crucially the potential financial impact of removing what could initially appear to be a surplus benefit. His final comment was to ask how people who don't have the benefit of higher education to enable them to understand the complexities of the system cope?
The deeply distasteful answer is simply; they don't.
*The Camerons did receive non means tested benefits in the form of Direct Payments towards Ivan's care package. This is because, unlike in adult social care, children's care packages are not means tested. David Cameron referred to this support in his 1st speech as PM
**And highest rate tax payer.