On Thursday Labour leader Ed Miliband went on record with his parties plans to cap the welfare budget if they get into power after the next election. He made sure he included the infamous 'disability benefits' for the sick and disabled in his speech just to make sure he was nicely up with the zeitgeist of our society.
Whether you are disabled or not and whether you believe the hype about these 'disability benefits' and their claimants, every one must have heard the claims that they are rife with fraud. If the certain sections of the press, politicians and the media are to be believed disabled people are a way too costly drain on our impoverished country, that is if they aren't just breaking the law by defrauding the state entirely.
But as a disabled person myself, and one who has needed to fall back on the benefits system at different times during my life time, I think it is time that the truth was told, both about the figures and how the distortion of the truth is impacting on the lives of real people.
The key factors are the statistics as released by the government. In 2011-2012 they announced that the fraud rate for Disability Living Allowance, which is the benefit which helps (in a very small way) towards paying for care and travel, was only 0.5% which cost the exchequer £60m. On top of that the fraud in the Incapacity Benefit system, for those whose impairment means they are unable to work, was 0.3% costing just £10million. Now as the two benefits combined came to £17.6billion and the combined fraud is £70million I don't think that's too bad. Especially if you then take into account that the amount wasted due to official error came to 0.5% of total expenditure, which equals the amazing sum of £0.8billion or £800,000,000m.
But do we hear about cracking down on error with the same crazed obsession as fraud in the 'disability benefits' system, even though it costs the equivalent of a tear drop in the ocean compared to the total £159.2billion spent on welfare? (My head is reeling from these figures so please take a minute to really get your head round them. Yes that is £70million compared to £159.2billion!) (Figures taken from the DWP website)
With the mind boggling figures out of the way, let's look closer at the essential word in the phrase benefit fraud... fraud. When we are talking about 'disability benefits' if you are disabled you surely must be entitled to claim them, so if there a very few who might be getting a little more (but please don't forget all those who are getting less, who never merit a mention) then all those left have one thing in common that makes them fraudsters. They are NOT disabled!
It's obvious really that if you are fraudulently claiming benefits designed to make disabled people's lives a little easier then you must be able bodied (or non-disabled as we like to call them). So surely the media and political classes should be going after all those scrounging able bodied types? Where are the headlines about that eh? This obsession with the tiny amount of fraud which is all carried about by people pretending to be disabled is having a huge impact on the lives of disabled people through out this country, from all areas and financial positions.
In my own case I have seen a real change in the way people react towards me. I have been disabled since birth and for my childhood and most of my adult life I was mainly met with an attitude of quiet pity. "You poor thing" was a phrase that ran through my life until very recently, even if my life has been an amazing roller coaster of experiences that most people could only dream of.
Then during the last reign of New Labour, who started this whole targeting of disabled people when they rolled out DLA assessments back in 1998, things started to change. By the start of the new millennium people now began to view me with suspicion. It began with my Blue Badge. I went from having one to "make sure I park close to stuff" which I obviously was entitled to as I could not walk to having something that everyone felt they should have the right to, which was demonstrated by having so many of them stolen from my car that I now have to padlock the two pieces of card to my steering wheel in a steel case.
But worse was yet to come. In 2003 my wife and were viewed as easy targets by a group of youths and our lives became a living hell. The verbal abuse, which mainly focused on my disability although our dress sense also seemed to annoy them, moved on to physical attacks and this cumulated in my wife being savagely beaten up by three masked youths. We were then told that if we didn't move out we would wake up to find our flat on fire... so we moved.
Once you've been on the receiving end of a disability hate crime this whole debate becomes very personal. What is so shocking to me is that things have got so much worse than it was back then. Disabled people are systematically being targeted for the cuts and as scapegoats for our spiraling welfare bill, even though the figures above show this could not be further from the truth, which is creating an atmosphere of distrust, envy and aggression around the subject of disability.
This attitude is spreading all throughout our society and the dramatically negative effect it is having on disabled people is immeasurable.
Something that is never mentioned about 'disability benefits' is that they are a much cheaper solution to the answer of including disabled people into the wider society. If we agree that we do not want to "put us all down at birth" (which I am sure some people secretly feel is the answer to disability) then disabled people are going to exist, and we should be allowed to live like every one else. But to do that would cost a fortune.
Imagine how much it would cost to suddenly make every public building throughout the British Isles fully accessible. Then add the cost of doing the same to all public transport, housing, retail centers and shops... well you get the idea.
This is why the concept of ;disability benefits' came into being. It is cheaper for our society to pay us a little bit extra to cover any additional costs we incur as we try to live in a society that disables us with a series of barriers than it is to remove every one of those barriers. I will explain this concept by stating that if every single step or flight of steps were accompanied by a ramp or lift then my being on wheels would have no real impact on my being able gain access to a building, and so I would be much less disabled by the world around me. (It's called the "Social Model of Disability", if you hadn't heard of it before) It would then mean that we were no longer disabled but could instead maybe be described physically different, which is something every single one of us is.
This is the dream of all disabled people, but it is a long way off and while we wait it isn't too much to ask to be given a little extra cash to ease the expense of living in a world that stops you living like the rest of society.
What has saddened me with this new announcement is that the party I have supported all of my adult life has taken the easy route and pandered to public opinion. Rather than tell the truth and try to change the way an ill informed populace views the benefits paid out to disabled people, they went with the flow and have joined the other political parties in targeting those scrounging cripples. "Disability benefits" should be paid out dependent on the numbers of disabled people living in our society, and if we adhere to the social model of disability that could easily be lessened by making our country more accessible. But that would cost even more money, so we are left with a no win position. Disabled people seem to be a legitimate target for all political parties now, and that says something deeply disturbing about the way our society is going.
I will leave you with something my good friend Ruth Gould, CEO of world acclaimed disability arts festival DadaFest, said to me. "Non-disabled people are just disabled people the day before the accident or illness". So if that accident or illness does hit you what kind of world would you like to become disabled in?