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Not a Paralympic Legacy: Belief and Benefit Cuts

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Belief is a uniquely potent force. There is something exhilarating about having certainty in your progress towards a goal: of being convinced that, regardless of the obstacles in your way, you are on the correct path. Successful athletes, as we saw at this summer's worth of Games in London, have this self-belief in abundance. So too do politicians: but, in their case, this sense of destiny can have consequences that are not merely heart-breaking but deeply damaging for many thousands of people.

With that in mind, I look at Iain Duncan Smith's proposed reforms for disability benefits with a degree of alarm. The responsibility of balancing the welfare budget is a weighty one, but Duncan Smith's approach seems to rest more upon principle than statistical analysis.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in May, he spoke of the Coalition government's plans to reduce the number of disability benefit claimants by 500,000, resulting in a saving of £2.24billion. His self-help philosophy, if somewhat bluntly expressed, is logical enough; and from a certain vantage point, perhaps even empowering. "It's not like incapacity benefit," he said of the new proposals, "it's not a statement of sickness. It is a gauge of your capability. In other words, do you need care, do you need support to get around. Those are the two things that are measured. Not, you have lost a limb."

With the Paralympics not all that far in the rear view mirror, Duncan Smith's outlook sounds almost consistent with the theme tune of that superb tournament: that people with disabilities are Harder Than You Think, and therefore don't need so many of your tax-funded handouts. It's a seductively simple premise, but it looks to be at variance with the facts.

The most recent figures from the Department of Work and Pensions are of particular interest. In their annual National Statistics report, "Fraud and Error in the Benefit System", we see that a very small proportion of welfare claims for incapacity are fraudulently made: 0.3% for Incapacity Benefit (to be replaced by the ESA, or Employment and Support Allowance), 0.5% for Disability Living Allowance, and 3.9% for Carer's Allowance. Given that most people entitled to these benefits are apparently not "gaming the system", the planned cuts of 20% seem unnecessarily severe. Beyond the widespread fury, there has also been helplessness, and a very great human cost in terms of damage to mental and physical health.

Mr Duncan's concern is that assessments for these benefits are being made too widely and too infrequently. However, as in other areas of its austerity programme, the Government looks to be moving too hastily in a corrective direction.

This is apparently indicated by the results of the assessment process, where almost 40% of those found ineligible for the ESA have this finding overturned on appeal. Mr Duncan Smith is determined that people with disabilities should not "fester" with benefits that they do not need: but his determination appears to have driven him down the wrong road. There is a petition calling for the urgent review of his proposals, which is already 50,000 signatures strong and which can be read and signed by clicking here.

This summer, politicians and commentators alike said a great deal about what a Paralympic legacy would look like. I would argue that such a legacy entails a greater empathy for people with disabilities and for those who support them: an empathy which, in their current form, Mr Duncan Smith's plans do not currently represent.