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Let's finally get disability benefits right

by Debbie Horne, Senior Policy Officer (Social Justice).

This column was first published in the Herald on 7 July 2021.

Have you ever had to apply for disability benefits? If you have, you’ll be all too familiar with the problems in the system. If not, these may have escaped your attention. So far.

But the truth is that any one of us could find ourselves needing disability payments tomorrow – either for ourselves or for a loved one. And I think we’d all like to believe that, in that situation, payments would be accessible, delivered with dignity, and enough to make sure we could live a full life.

Well, currently that’s not the case.

In the first three months of this year, Citizens Advice Bureaux across Scotland provided over 40,000 bits of advice to people who were having problems with disability benefits.

That’s an extraordinary number – especially when you consider over 90% of this advice was in relation to a single benefit: the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). And it’s not as though the figures in that quarter were unusually high. This is the normal rate at which disabled people seek our advice.

One client from Glasgow North West CAB shared his experience with us. We’ll call him Patrick. He writes,

“I was on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for over twenty years when it was suddenly cut. I was diagnosed with a lung problem, and only three months after my lung operation, my DLA was stopped and I was told it was changing to a different benefit, the PIP.”

Patrick then had to undergo a face-to-face PIP assessment: “I was anxious and I felt intimidated, as if the assessor was trying to prompt me with her answers. She asked me, ‘when was the last time you worked?’ I had that feeling as if she was looking down on me. On the benefits points system I got zeros all the way down. I wondered, how could I have been on DLA all this time then?

“After getting a major lung operation, they said I was better - when actually things were much worse. I felt insulted because it was like someone hadn’t even bothered to read my medical records before making the decision.

“I was down to about £80 a week when my benefits were cut and it was a massive shock.

“After Lynn, my CAB adviser, appealed for me, I got a letter through saying ‘we have looked at your application again and you’re getting the maximum points and benefits entitlement.’"

Of course we are pleased the CAB was able to help Patrick, but just consider the stress and hardship that this disabled person, juggling multiple health conditions, had to go through - unnecessarily. And again I can tell you that Patrick’s tale is not unique. In fact, it is typical of what we hear from the many thousands of disabled people CABs advise every year.

The good news is that we are living in a very important moment for these issues. Responsibility for disability payments has now been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and PIP is being replaced by a new system - Adult Disability Payment (ADP). Over the next year the Scottish Government will decide what this new system will look like. It’s then due to be rolled out across Scotland in the second half of 2022.

So far, the Scottish social security system has developed with some encouraging signs, like the creation of a Charter based on the principles of Dignity, Fairness and Respect and the introduction of legislation that states social security is a human right.

But after all the problems of the PIP system, we need to get ADP right. People like Patrick should simply never have to go through an experience like that again.

Whilst other issues, like recovering from the pandemic and tackling the climate crisis, vie for politician’s attention, we need to ensure that realising the human rights of disabled people through our social security system doesn’t slip down the political agenda.

Currently, CAS is concerned that the Government’s latest proposals for ADP – despite a number of positive elements - will keep many of the most problematic elements of PIP. So we are calling for a number of changes – both in the short and longer term.  

We believe that ADP must guarantee indefinite awards for people with progressive or long-term conditions that won’t improve. It must end the stress and burden of unnecessary reviews, and the commitment to reduce the number of face-to-face assessments must come to fruition.

It’s also time to scrap the regulation that says disabled people who can walk 20 metres are denied access to enhanced mobility support.

In the longer term, we need to build a system that truly embodies those principles of dignity, fairness and respect in its own rules as well as in the processes. Scotland can have a world-leading social security system. Indeed, building this should be an objective of the current Parliament. But it must surely include a guarantee of adequate support for disabled people.

Next week I will be leaving CAS after two years to take up a new post at Diabetes UK. It’s an exciting opportunity, but I want to say I will really miss working for the Citizens Advice network, which does the most terrific work - not just in delivering our independent, free advice, but also in using our huge experience and client evidence to push for changes in public policy – as we are doing now with ADP.

Every day, I’ve seen how Citizens Advice Bureaux help improve disabled peoples’ lives. Now the decision-makers in Parliament have the chance to really transform those lives – and generations of others - by implementing adequate and accessible social security for disabled people. In my opinion, doing so must be a priority.