Alex Hern reveals the extent of disability minister Maria Miller's ignorance over how her own government's policy affects the disabled.
In an interview yesterday with BBC Radio Five, the disability minister Maria Miller urged campaigner Sue Marsh to use her “extensive right of appeal through tribunals” if she was unhappy about the DWP’s decision to reduce her award for the disability living allowance (DLA).
Miller wasn’t wrong about this: disabled people who believe the decision about their DLA award is inaccurate can and do challenge the DWP at tribunals. And in 38 per cent of appeals relating to the Disability Living Allowance, the tribunals find in favour of the claimant (pdf).
But what Miller doesn’t seem to realise is that Ken Clarke’s proposals in the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders (LASPO) Bill, which is being debated in the Lords today, will severely limit access to justice through tribunals for thousands of DLA recipients, closing this option to them.
This cut – which will save just £25 million from the total legal aid budget of £2 billion (pdf) – will remove legal aid for all welfare benefits cases. It will leave disabled people who’ve fallen foul of administrative error or an inaccurate benefits decision alone in the face of a complex and confusing appeals system that requires nearly 9000 pages of official guidance.
While Miller may not know about it, disability campaigners have for some time, and are vehemently opposed to the proposed cut. For instance, the charity Scope and campaign group 38 degrees have both been running campaigns to harness public outrage over these proposals, and encourage Peers to support a Lib Dem amendment that would prevent this from happening.
Opponents of the LASPO bill highlight the somewhat suspicious timing of introducing legal aid cuts for welfare cases during a period of massive upheaval in the welfare system. While millions of people are having their benefits reassessed, their ability to challenge an inaccurate outcome through appeal is also being significantly curbed.
New analysis from Sound Off For Justice released yesterday further reinforced these suspicions by highlighting the serious gaps in the government’s argument that the legal aid reforms are intended to save any money to the public purse.
These findings were just the latest confirmation that the reforms will prove to be a false economy, creating greater knock-on costs to the NHS and the public purse further down the line.
The report also undermined a further claim of the government that the costs of legal aid have spiralled out of control. The data reveal that for welfare benefits cases the opposite is true.
Whilst the amount of money spent on legal aid to help challenge incorrect decisions has, roughly, stayed at the same level over the recent years, the volume of cases that receive funding through the legal aid system has risen much more steeply.
This suggests that more people are getting help with the same budget, adding weight to arguments that advice for this type of cases is cost-efficient.
Even Tory grandee Lord Newton has called the cumulative impact of the government’s legal aid and welfare reforms a “pincer movement” on disabled people.
Miller’s comment on Radio Five exposed that the left hand of government doesn’t know what the right is doing. Worse, it highlighted that despite being the minister for disabled people, she is blissfully unaware of the impact of government policy on disabled people.
Today, disabilities campaigners are asking people to call an MP or Peer to raise awareness of the Spartacus report. They’ve also launched a twibbon to show your support. The welfare bill begins its journey through the lords tomorrow, and the next few weeks of the fight will be crucial for tens of thousands of disabled people in Britain. They need your help.
• Time to step forward on the Spartacus report – Alex Hern, January 9th 2012
• Boris has slammed Coalition welfare reforms – from the left – Daniel Elton, January 6th 2012
• Five reasons to oppose the welfare bill – Daniel Elton, December 12th 2011
• Society and the media are failing the sick and disabled – Sue Marsh, May 13th 2011
• Government plans to cut DLA could cause extreme hardship – Sue Marsh, January 24th 2011
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