The current benefits system is complex. But plans to reform it could have a lasting impact for people with a learning disability.
It provides a financial lifeline for many people, but the current benefits system is extremely complex. With a maze of benefits, assessments and paperwork, it can be particularly challenging for people with a learning disability.
A major overhaul of the benefits system is expected under the coalition government. But it seems that things may get worse before they get better, with the eligibility criteria for many existing benefits tightening. While these changes are officially being made to target fraudsters and cut the nation's £87 billion benefits bill, the reality is that disabled people could lose some or all of their benefit entitlement.
Disability Living Allowance
Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is currently paid to more than 2.5 million people to meet the additional costs of living with a disability.
In June's emergency Budget, Chancellor George Osborne said that all new and existing DLA claimants of working age will undergo a new medical assessment from 2013. Mr Osborne said that the assessment will "ensure support is targeted to those with the highest medical need" and save the government £1.4 billion by
2015. However, disability charities are concerned that it will unfairly penalise people with a learning disability.
The Disability Benefits Consortium brings together a range of organisations, including Mencap. Mark Baker, head of the consortium, said: "We are concerned that the introduction of the new medical test for working-age DLA will create additional stress and anxiety for disabled people." He argues that the assessment will create unnecessary bureaucracy and increase overall costs.
There are two parts to DLA. The ‘mobility component' is relatively clear cut, and is paid to those who need support or equipment to move around. More commonly claimed by people with a learning disability is the ‘care component'. This can be used, for example, to pay for a support worker to help cook a main meal or administer medication.
Jane Alltimes, Mencap's senior campaigns and policy officer, explains that the care component of the DLA is paid in three rates: lower, middle and higher: "And it's likely to be those on the lower rate, with the most moderate learning disability, who lose out."
Receiving DLA can be crucial for many people with a learning disability, as it can affect entitlement to other benefits, such as Working Tax Credit, Housing Benefit or Jobseeker's Allowance. "It's really important that people who need support continue to get it," says Jane Alltimes. "So the DLA assessment has got to be sensitive to people with a learning disability."
Employment and Support Allowance
Concern about the planned DLA medical assessment partly stems from its parallels to the work capability assessment for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
ESA was introduced for new claimants in 2008 to replace Incapacity Benefit or Income Support because of a disability. The migration of 2.4 million people on Incapacity Benefit on to ESA has begun and will continue until 2014.
The ESA's work capability assessment looks at whether an individual is capable of working - an approach that Mencap supports, as many people with a learning disability can work and want to work. Department for Work and Pensions statistics show that a massive 69% of those who apply for ESA fail the eligibility test. These individuals are then either moved on to Jobseeker's Allowance or fall off the benefits radar entirely.