This is a guest article from Eugene Grant. Eugene works in the third sector as a public policy advisor on poverty and welfare, and comments regularly on disability and issues of social policy. He blogs at Dead Letter Drop.
“Over the last few months we have seen a continuous drip-feed of stories which have promoted a range of inaccurate and generalised accusations against disabled people with long term health conditions. As a result disabled people have faced greater hostility from the public, with many claiming that they have experienced hostility, discrimination and even physical attacks from strangers.”
So starts the National Union of Journalists’ opening statement on media coverage of disabled people.
Last summer, a report strongly criticised some sections of the media for the way in which they reported stories on disability benefits. Specifically, the pejorative language such as the use of terms like ‘work shy’ or ‘scrounger’. The fact that this report came, not from a ‘usual suspect’ disability charity or campaign organisation, but from the respected, cross-party Work and Pensions Select Committee is an indication as to just how serious the problem has become.
The 2012 London Paralympics is a wonderful opportunity to openly celebrate disability and difference. But, a change in our social narrative is badly needed. As I have written before, disability hate crime – which itself is under-reported and often ignored by police – remains a vile and stubborn stain on our social fabric.
This goes not just for adults, but children too; a recent academic study of disabled children found a fifth of them had been attacked physically, sexually, abused emotionally or neglected.
It is worth bearing this all in mind, when you read this spiteful, professionally weak and woefully misleading article, titled, ‘The Paralympics show up a corrupt benefits system’ by Leo McKinstry in the Daily Express. It is not that Mr McKinstry’s view of the welfare state differs to mine, which vexes me most; I fully accept that people will have different views on what the role of the state should be in providing disabled and vulnerable people with financial support. It is the fact that Mr McKinstry’s tendentious argument is based on un-checked, un-picked and inaccurate assumptions; he presents fiction as fact and fact as fiction.
Let the dissection begin.
He says: “One particular target of the activists’ fury is the international firm ATOS, which, under the coalition’s new, more rigorous, benefits regime, carries out assessments to decide if individuals are fit to work and what level of support they might require.”
He is correct in so far as Atos – which, with a note of sad irony, also sponsors the Paralympic games – does conduct the government’s fit-for-work assessment, the WCA. But this is a test that is not fit for purpose. Were it fully functioning it would not have been the subject of several internal and independent reviews; nor would experts like Paul Gregg - who designed some of the welfare-to-work support packages connected to the test – have spoken out against it; nor would almost a third of those decisions that are appealed then be successfully overturned in favour of the claimant. But no matter. Let’s move on.
He writes: “[Benefit] claims have rocketed in recent decades because the system is so lax. In fact, the definition of incapacity has been remorselessly expanded to widen the scope for dependency.”
I presume he means when in 2005 the Disability Discrimination Act was expanded to include conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, cancer and HIV? So, none of these conditions could have adverse impact on a person’s ability to work or give rise to any additional costs? Right. There’s a reason you’re not a doctor, Leo.
He goes on “claims for incapacity benefit are dominated, not by the physically disabled, but by those with mental health problems like depression, stress and behavioural disorders.”
Read this again. What he’s suggesting is that people with mental health issues should not be entitled to state support, or that they’re all fakers who should just snap out of it. I myself am not an expert in mental health conditions but I’m pretty sure my colleagues over at Mind and Rethink would know of some people who would take serious issue with this.
He goes on:
“In this chaotic world, it is no surprise, that the total number of people on Disability Living Allowance has gone up from 1.1 milllion in 1992, when the benefit was first introduced, to 3.2 million today…”
See what he’s done here? All he’s done is point out that the caseload for DLA (a vital benefit that acts as a contribution to the extra costs disabled people have to pay as a result of living in our society with an impairment or condition) has increased. The ‘chaotic world’ and ‘no surprise’ bits helps frame it in a way that leaves readers with the impression that the only explanation for this rise in claims for DLA must be because people are fraudulently claiming it. Not because, oh I don’t know, that it’s well established that our society is getting progressively older and disability increases with age? Or that more people with critical needs are surviving into later life? Or that medical advancements are enabling many disabled people to live longer? Or that academic research shows that survival rates of very premature babies are, thankfully, improving, which suggests the number of people born with severe disability has increased. But these things are of no consequence right?
But wait, here comes the best bit. McKinstry writes:
“AND the anti-reform campaigners are in denial about the extent of this costly failure. They are fond of telling us that fraud represents just 0.5 per cent of disability claims, but that is a completely bogus figure.
In the courts there is a constant parade of cases involving serious benefits fraud, like the conviction last week of serial cheat Barry Brooks, who grabbed £1.8 million from the taxpayer by pretending to be confined to a wheelchair”
First, is the claim that the 0.5% fraud rate for DLA is “bogus…” Funny that, when you consider the figure comes from – wait for it – the Department for Work and Pensions. But more to the point, his only evidence for his claim that a Government statistic is ‘bogus’ is that there have been court cases of benefits fraud brought to his attention – of which he cites just one. And even then he fails to pick a case of DLA fraud. A quick Google search of Barry Brooks shows that he was jailed for fraudulently claiming support from Access to Work, and not DLA.
Mr McKinstry, you can lambast the welfare benefits system all you like. All that I ask is that, as a journalist, you do it accurately and check your line of argument. It’s a shame there isn’t a fit for work test for journalists and social commentators. If there was, you would fail it miserably.