Daily Mail advocates waste of taxpayers’ money

Daily Mail's front page from 11th November 2011, showing headline 'Disabled Benefit? Just fill in a form'Disabled benefit? Just fill in a form: 200,000 got handouts last year without face-to-face interview | Mail Online

Throughout today, I’ve been receiving tweets with the hashtag #MyDLA, from people telling what the benefit (Disability Living Allowance) does for them — usually paying for vital care, a wheelchair, a hoist to get them in and out of it (and bed, and toilet), electricity for their ventilator and feeding pump, incontinence pads and other costs incurred by being disabled; one woman with severe ME said it helped keep her and her widowed mother alive. The cause was the above article, claiming that the vast majority of claims for DLA are paid out on the basis of “filling in a form”, without any need for a face-to-face interview. The Mail surmises that much of it is paid out without justification, with a possible waste of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. (More: Flash Bristow @ Where’s the Benefit?, Full Fact, Latent Existence, Well Fair System (originally at Wheeling’n’able), Behind the Child.)

The figures and the central claim in the Mail’s article may or may not be true, but they have clearly missed the point of why a benefit may be given out without the government conducting a face-to-face interview. No, the point isn’t that the form is long and complicated and that some people have to make four attempts or more to actually get the benefit, and as one respondent put it: “Any reporter that thinks getting #myDLA was easy has never had to fight to prove just how useless you are. Its thoroughly humiliating”, or that the majority of those who did not have a face-to-face assessment provided “supporting evidence” or a doctor’s letter. No, it’s that the face-to-face interviews (which the Mail claims are to be mandatory when the Personal Independence Payment comes into force in 2013) are not always necessary, and would be a waste of money.

If the patient’s disability is fairly obvious, and is one which results in a fairly consistent set of needs, such as a spinal cord injury or blindness, assessors will know what the claimant needs and what he or she does not. A high-level spinal cord injury often results in the need for a ventilator and always a powered wheelchair as well as carers to assist them with everything, and so on. Even with conditions that aren’t so obvious, those who do the assessment might be familiar with it and might know what entitlement the evidence they are supplied points to, at least better than a Daily Mail journalist might. I wonder if Kirsty Walker has heard of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that can have very severely disabling and debilitating effects? I know of two women who have this, and one of them was bedridden for several years as a result. Similarly, a blogger I know once complained that the Daily Mail had alleged that people had got Incapacity Benefit because they had “blisters”, when in fact such blisters could be a symptom of her illness, epidermolysis bullosa, which causes skin breakdown and blistering from any rubbing or pressure, resulting in almost constant pain, open wounds that can get infected with potentially fatal consequences, and inability to use one’s hands or feet, among other things.

Similarly, re-assessments may not be necessary because some conditions simply do not fluctuate and others only get worse. They would cause needless stress to the recipient, who would worry that some bureaucrat would decide they did not make the grade and cut their benefit, resulting in them having to go through an appeal process, as often happens with the ATOS assessments now (and if their payments are cut in the meanwhile, they may not be able to get to any appeal). In some cases, a face-to-face interview, let alone any subsequent appeals process, may cause a deterioration in their condition (as with a condition like severe ME that can leave them very sensitive to light and sound).

Of course, I do not think for a moment that the real reason for printing such an ignorant headline was that they misunderstood why people do not need a face-to-face interview: their real agenda is to portray DLA claimants as scroungers and make it look like a large proportion of people are getting it without justification, so as to justify the government’s current policy (or anything else they might try to get through Parliament). It is ironic that they cite someone from the Taxpayers’ Alliance in support of a story that, essentially, invites the government to hire staff to do assessments that usually do not need doing. As some have pointed out, though, newspaper campaigns depicting disabled benefit claimants as scroungers, or their benefits as a soft touch for scroungers, fuels violence against them, regardless of whether claim implied by the loud headline is not supported by the story underneath it, so there are consequences to such stories beyond financial losses.

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