Let's not forget what DLA is for
by Claudia Wood
Figures from the Papworth Trust today – that 85 per cent of DLA claimants might need to cut back on basics like food and transport if their Disability Living Allowance is cut - are not surprising at all. Papworth explains that the cost of living for disabled people is 25 per cent higher than non-disabled people, making DLA crucial for these basics. Actually, 25 per cent is at the conservative end of the estimates. The actual cost of living for disabled people of course varies wildly, and there have been several studies over the years trying to pin the figure down. Estimates of disability living costs range from 7-8 per cent more, to over 500 per cent more, than non-disabled people.
In reality, and depending on a number of factors, a disabled person’s living costs could be anywhere within that range. It is identifying these factors which is so critical for the replacement of DLA – the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The new PIP assessment is currently focusing on the ‘functional impact’ of a person’s disability as the key driver of living costs. This includes things like a person’s ability to plan and carry out a journey, cook a meal, and so on. The less able you are in doing these, the more money you will get.
On the face of it, this sounds pretty fair. But are we forgetting what DLA (and now PIP) is ‘for’? DLA is not supposed to compensate a person for how able (or not able) they are in carrying out basic tasks of living. That is what social care and support is for. Moreover, people unable to carry out journeys, cook meals, wash themselves etc. are increasingly being given cash payments (a personal budget) so they can pay for support in doing these things.
Of course, the cynical among us might suggest that aligning PIP payments to care and support needs is a response to local authority cuts. As councils restrict eligibility for state funded social care across the country, in response to a funding settlement which requires up to 25 per cent cuts to service budgets, so thousands of disabled people’s support needs are going unmet. PIP might be seen as compensation for that withdrawal of support – so what the local authority takes away in services, the government gives back in benefits.
But this then leaves those who do not need social care services without any financial help at all. The fact is, DLA is not supposed to duplicate a personal budget. Yes some DLA may go towards care, but at its heart DLA is supposed to compensate people for the costs of everyday life resulting from inaccessible transport, expensive specialist equipment and food, fuel prices, etc, regardless of their need for social care services.
When we think of living costs in this broader sense, it is unsurprising that research from Demos found that the drivers of increased living costs for disabled people include a very wide range of factors, including how suitable a person’s home is, whether they own their own car, whether they are unemployed or in work, whether they have family support, and so on. Yes, a person’s ‘functional ability’ plays a part, but it is just one - and not always the largest - factor.
Consider this. A person in a drafty top floor flat, living alone and isolated, and at home all day as they are unemployed, will spend a lot more on heating, taxis and home help to carry out basic tasks – in short, a range of additional costs. A person with the same ‘functional ability’ but living with their partner in an adapted, energy efficient home, with their own car, is likely to spend much less on all of these things. The current PIP test being piloted is unlikely to pick up on these differences and will give these two people the same amount of benefit. This isn’t fair on disabled people, but perhaps more importantly, it isn’t efficient for government. It’s vital to remember that a better targeted PIP would cut both ways – with some getting more, but some also getting less.
DLA was not without its flaws. But as the opportunity arises to reform it, we must be more ambitious in the new design and try to bring in some of the other factors which drive living costs. Awarding higher levels of PIP to those with higher disability related living costs would be fairer for disabled people, and more cost effective for government. Surely a win-win worth pursuing.