Friday, 28 December 2012

Why the Daily Mail and government are wrong on disability benefits

The Daily Mail has given its support to the government's 'crackdown' on disability benefits. In an editorial it argued something must be awry if 'Britain spends more on disability than almost any other developed country'.

The use of the word 'crackdown' to describe the government's policy is of course deliberate. You 'crackdown' on cheats. The argument is that because Britain spends more on disability benefits, then the difference must be accounted for by benefit cheats; those who don't need or deserve them. The Daily Mail doesn't consider that perhaps Britain spends more because it has moved forward in its approach to disability.  We are not behind but ahead of the game. It is not the first time The Daily Mail has made this case. But is it true? The answer as usual depends on how you read the statistics. And it is a lot more complex than the Daily Mail would have us believe.

Making comparisons with other countries is not straightforward. Different countries have different approaches to welfare expenditure, with different mix of private and public or central government spending.  In the UK, central government spending may be higher as a per cent of GDP, but this does not mean that overall spending on welfare is greater. Looking at overall expenditure on welfare  we  get another picture. According to OECD figures, the UK is ranked significantly below many other European countries including France, Germany and Italy on the amount spent on welfare.

Given that the overall spending is not greater than other comparable countries, then the Daily Mail's argument is at best specious. You cannot assume that because central government spending on benefits is higher that this means there is no genuine need. The Daily Mail could argue for a different mix of spending, but it would need to develop what this should be. Simply calling for a 'crackdown' is loaded with prejudice and little detailed analysis.

There is a genuine issue about helping disabled people to work. In recent  reports the OECD concludes that more needs to be done. But the objective is not simply to cut the benefits budget, but to find a mix of policies that will assist those with disabilities into productive work. The assessment regime introduced by the UK government does little other than force disabled people off benefits. It is a cruel and blind regime. That so many rulings are overturned on appeal indicates that the process is flawed and takes little account of the circumstances of those involved.

Cutting benefits does nothing to enable people to work. The OECD considers two disability policy indicators, benefits and employment integration (enabling people to work). Acting on the one without the other is a recipe for injustice. Furthermore the ratio of benefits to integration is a better index of comparison between countries than simply how much is spent on benefits.  On this measure the UK had been scoring well with a reasonable mix of policies designed to help disabled people into work. Contrary to the claims made by the Daily Mail, the benefits ratio was not significantly greater than the US or Japan and by 2007 the UK scored highly on its integration index, representing a fundamental shift from the position in 1990. The OECD highlighted the progress made by the UK in just two decades. This was because the previous government had already adopted a strong employment policy approach.

The Daily Mail editorial takes little or no account of this in its prejudiced approach. It would rather select its statistics from the OECD to fit its own agenda. It would rather promote the scandalous approach of the government in stigmatising those on benefits.

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