Jun 232011
Steven Sumpter

Steven Sumpter

DPAC is happy that Steven Sumpter did us  an expanded version of a post that originally appeared on his own blog.

Last Sunday the Sunday Times ran a front page story under the headline “State hands out BMWs to ‘disabled’”. It was factually incorrect in both the headline and in several points made in the article. Although the headline attacked the very concept of people that receive disability benefits daring to own a high end car, the bulk of the story went on to talk about relatives and carers using the cars without the disabled person present. The same story appeared in numerous national and local newspapers. The story in most of the local papers was actually word-for-word the same – just google “Flash cars leased to disabled people” to find many examples of it.

I don’t think I can put this any more simply: the government does not hand out cars to disabled people.  What actually happens is that the most severely affected sick or disabled people can claim Disability Living Allowance, which includes a mobility component. Those people receive money to spend as they choose, perhaps to buy a wheelchair or to go towards taxi fares.  Many choose to sign over all of the mobility part of their DLA to the Motability scheme, a scheme which is not government run, and in return for their money they receive a car, a wheelchair or a scooter. They can also choose to pay an extra fee to upgrade to one of the more expensive cars available through the scheme. In the case of a BMW, that would be at least an extra one thousand four hundred pounds, paid upfront, out of the customers own pocket. A Motability car can be used by another person on behalf of the sick or disabled person without them being present, for example going shopping for them, or perhaps transporting an item across town for them. If a Motability car is used by someone else for their own purposes, that is a breach of the rules of the Motability Scheme and potentially raises issues because the car is exempt from vehicle tax and was not subject to VAT. Such use does not involve benefit fraud since the DLA would have been paid to the sick or disabled person, whether they had a car or not. Relatives or carers getting a so called “free car” and using it for their own purposes are doing so at the expense of the sick or disabled person, not through benefit fraud.

These stories about relatives getting “free cars” and about people receiving BMWs through Motability are worrying because they seem to originate from the government. The Sunday Times article does not mention it, but the story that was duplicated in lots of local papers quotes “a Whitehall source” who would seem to be the only reason that this is a story at all. The quotes from this source are anecdotal in nature, with lines such as “my neighbours have got this car and it’s for their granny, but they ride in it” and the emphasis seems heavily weighted towards attacking the Motability scheme and smearing the reputation of those that use it.

This is not the first time that anonymous government sources have provided stories to newspapers sympathetic to government policies. (And only newspapers sympathetic to government policies.) In a previous attack, government ministers released a select list of the most outrageous excuses for benefit fraud Of course, the excuses were bizarre and most of these cases really were fraud, but no mention was made of the incredibly low rate of benefit fraud, below 1%, and how few cases such excuses represent. The papers also took the opportunity to belittle addiction and “bad backs” as disabilities, despite them often being crippling and life-destroying. The commonly quoted back pain, for example, can cover many problems such as degenerative spine conditions, botched surgery causing nerve damage, and curved spine.

At the start of the month another attack aimed at the rise in numbers claiming DLA and again belittling “back pain” as well as mental health and addiction, several mainstream newspapers quoted a “source close to the reforms.” We are not told who exactly this information came from, and yet it appeared in several newspapers at the same time. I have been unable to find a press release that correlates to this information, and so I must assume that the figures have been leaked to preferred newspapers by someone in government.

Then we have government ministers giving out inaccurate or just plain wrong statistics. Last month minister for the disabled Maria Miller announced on live television news that more people receive benefits for drug and alcohol addiction than for blindness. Actually, official figures show that 69,000 people receiving benefits list blindness as their primary condition, against 22,800 who list alcohol and drug addiction. Apart from the error, this is an example of a government minister distinguishing the deserving from the undeserving, something that David Cameron seems anxious to deny even while perpetuating the idea. Earlier this year employment minister Chris Grayling stated to the press that 75% of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance were found fit to work, however, that included 39% who withdrew their claim before it was complete for reasons unknown and 16% who were placed in the work related activity group to receive support towards eventually going back to work. Still, the Daily Mail enjoyed it.

Ian Duncan-Smith recently stated during an interview on Newsnight that people on benefits are “putting nothing back into the community” which if not an attack at least shows a disturbing lack of  knowledge about how such people live. Certainly in all the places that I have lived in many not in paid employment have put the most back into their communities through volunteering and caring. Even the opposition seems to be getting in on the act, with Ed Miliband talking about going after the “take what you can culture” and branding benefit claimants as lazy shirkers and cheats. Presumably this is seen as the way to attract votes and popularity these days.

A visitor to my blog suggested an explanation to the mysterious sources quoted in so many newspaper stories recently. He said:

“A Whitehall source” normally means Departmental special advisers (SPADS), party hacks who are paid out of public funds to work as political advisers in Government departments. As a relatively senior ex-Civil Servant I have no doubt that this campaign is being orchestrated by a combination of SPADS and Conservative Central Office with the tacit approval of Ministers. I’ve seen it before, although not a campaign as nasty and squalid as this.

This explanation does seem plausible, although I am not sure how anyone would go about proving it. Wherever they come from, these attacks add up to something very disturbing. The government is rushing through welfare reform with only an occasional speed bump when people raise specific issues – such as cancer patients that won’t have enough time to recover if their ESA is limited to just one year. It is worth noting that when Ed Miliband highlighted these 7,000 cancer patients, he didn’t mention the other 700,000 seriously sick or disabled people that will be affected by the same time limit rules.) The pace of savage cuts and reforms justified by rhetoric and propaganda is terrifying and seems to be taking us towards a society that no longer cares for those who are sick or disabled.