The new coalition government published its “State of the Nation” report on “Poverty, Worklessness and Welfare Dependency” last week. This is clearly an important document since it sets out the perspective from which a key department will operate in a vital area over the coming parliament and, as the document itself notes, provides an overview that “will be used to inform policy decisions” (p6).
This posts notes some key themes of and issues with the report, particularly relating to Disability Living Allowance.
The first point is the overarching narrative the report builds. It is one that supports the ‘Broken Britain’ soundbite we’ve heard so much over the last few months. I’ve made the point before that “governing in the national interest” depends on what you think is in the national interest, and much the same stands for the issues of poverty and welfare. How you approach these issues and the outcomes you are hoping to achieve is informed fundamentally by your political beliefs.
Thus, in my view, the report is quick to note statistics and trends that support the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative, especially focusing on people out of work and on benefits. The language it uses cements this, talking of people ‘parked on benefits (p3), and the main imperative of the report is one that identifies work as the means to solve the majority of problems the report highlights.
I have no direct issue with this – it is the prerogative of a government to build a narrative in whatever way it wants to. It is worth noting, though – as the report itself does – that relative poverty (i.e. those on less than 60% of median income) fell between 1997/98 to 2008/09 (p15) and that absolute poverty (those on less than 60% of 1998/99 real-terms median income) also fell over the past decade (p15). Similarly, wealth inequality in 2005 was around the same level as it was in 1996 (p22). I can selectively quote statistics, too, it would seem.
The report is good on noting the inbuilt disadvantage that many groups of people face. For example, it notes that disabled people:
- Are more likely to live in poverty (29% of families live in poverty when at least one family member is disabled, compared with
- 20% of families with no disabled people) (p8)
- Are more likely to live in persistent poverty compared to non-disabled people (11% compared to 5%) (p18)
- Are less likely to be in work (over half of disabled people do not work) (p9)
- Are less likely to have formal qualifications (24% of disabled people have no formal qualification) (p12)
It has similar statistics for people from BME backgrounds, though not for people at different income levels.
But the report then doesn’t note the factors which lead to these institutional barriers: it appears good enough to note 24% of disabled people have no formal qualifications or that over half are not in work and offer no reasons for this. The effect is to create a suspicion whichs fall on disabled people as not trying hard enough to gain a qualification or get a job – something it is convenient not to correct in order to maintain the overall narrative.
(Similarly, pupils with Special Educational Needs face some of the most significant barriers to educational achievement it is possible to face. However, the only mention of pupils with SEN in the report (in the educational disadvantage section) is to note that 9.2% of pupils with SEN are ‘persistent absentees’, compared with 2.1% of pupils with no SEN.)
Thus, if you want to build a narrative, it is perfectly possible to do so. Taking this approach, at best, the report draws the wrong conclusions based on the evidence available; at worst, it is willfully ignorant.
The best example of this is the report’s treatment of Disability Living Allowance (DLA).
The motivations for the coalition government to look at DLA are clear. In 2008/09, DWP spent £16.2bn on disability benefits from a total budget of £135.7bn. This was the third largest area of expenditure, behind the state pension (£62.7bn) and housing benefits (£17.2bn). If the coalition government is going to make inroads into budget cuts, it will feel it will have to look at disability benefits.
The report has 8 separate mentions of DLA (the second biggest disability benefit, behind Attendance Allowance), compared to just one indirect mention of Attendance Allowance (in the key of a table) and no other disability-related benefit. In these mentions, the report:
- Notes the rise in the numbers of disabled people claiming DLA, from 1.2m in 1997 to 1.8m in 2009, with an associated spending increase of £3.9bn in 1996/97 to £6.2bn in 2009/10 (p35)
- Notes the “persistence” of DLA claimants, noting that 2.2m disabeld people (including 1.1m disabled people of working age) have ‘been claiming’ DLA for over 5 years (p34)
- Calls DLA an ‘out of work’ benefit (pp33-34)
- Equates disability benefits with sickness benefits (p28)
It is worth noting that at no point does the report define what DLA is for. (DLA helps with the additional costs of disability, primarily related to personal care. It is for people under 65, though you can continue to be in receipt of DLA over the age of 65 if you have it before you are 65. Attendance Allowance is the equivalent for people over 65. Both are non-means tested.)
The sum total of this narrative around DLA leads me to believe that DLA is likely to face cuts by the coalition government. By noting the increase in spending on DLA, the increase in the number of ‘claimants’, the ‘persistence’ of such DLA ‘claimants’, being woolly over DLA as an ‘out of work’ benefit (which it isn’t) and not directly mentioning any other form of disability benefits, the direction of travel is clear.
And yet the coalition government would be drawing exactly the wrong conclusion about DLA. This is based on information contained in its own report, as follows:
1. The report notes that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. It notes disabled people are less likely to be in work than non-disabled people. It notes that disabled people are less likely to have formal qualifications than non-disabled people. DLA is therefore likely to make up a greater proportion of someone’s income than a non-disabled person’s equivalent. Reducing or removing it is therefore likely to have a greater impact on a disabled person’s existing situation, especially as DLA is for care and support.
2. The report notes that pensioner poverty is greatest amongst pensioners not in receipt of disability benefits (p20). The same would also hold of working-age disabled people not in receipt of disability benefits, namely those who would be affected by any reduction in or removal of DLA.
3. It notes that “over one in five DLA claimants are in the top two income quintiles (when DLA is included as income and no account is taken of extra costs of disability)”. In the first instance, DLA is designed precisely to take account of the extra costs of disability/impairment, so the parenthesis in the quote are duplicitous. In the second instance, and taking the figures at face value, they tell us that over 20% of DLA claimants are in the top 40% of income distribution. That is, 80% of DLA claimants are in the bottom 60% of income, meaning more precisely that DLA is targeted exactly at those disabled people who live in relative poverty.
The report’s treatment leads you to one conclusion only: that DLA is under threat.
I therefore come back to my overarching point about the type of picture you want to paint. If you want to suggest that Britain is ‘broken’ and that there is a rump of poorly educated and unemployed people who rely on out-of-work benefits rather than get back into work, then you can use the statistics in the way the coalition government has chosen to do.
If, however, you want to make the case that some benefits are well-focused and support precisely those people who face institutional barriers to enjoy the same opportunities as everyone else – such as the role of Disability Living Allowance in the lives of disabled people – then this is equally as plausible.
The fact the coalition has opted for the former approach, with some convenient details missing (such as what DLA is actually for), leads me to believe DLA is under significant threat. And that, as I have demonstrated – and not just in terms of its real effect for disabled people in Britain – undermines the coalition government’s own case for addressing poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency.