An interesting debate about changes to disability living allowance on Nolan this morning (listen again at http://bbc.in/yKep2t).
The major talking point was the notion that every applicant should be subject to what the coalition government refers to as an independent medical assessment.
Now, the Con-Dems have been accused – with some justification – of treating welfare reform, at least in part, as a money saving exercise. But it seems to me that the disability benefit proposals are a fine way of unnecessarily handing public money to a private contractor.
At the minute, DLA application forms require a statement from a health professional. If the need is clearly demonstrated, the benefit is awarded. If not, the application is turned down and the applicant has the option of appealing to an independent tribunal. I have seen the tribunal in action, and it is far from a soft touch.
Under the new system, it appears that every applicant will be referred for an assessment, even if it is blindingly obvious that they should be entitled to the benefit. Why? Is a signed statement from a doctor not enough? Or is the real explanation that no company would bid for the contract unless guaranteed the volume of work such a policy will bring?
Many of us have applied for jobseeker’s allowance at some stage in our lives. You fill in the form, talk to an advisor, sign the jobseeker’s agreement and, if you qualify, get the benefit. No ‘independent’ consultant is called in to check that the applicant genuinely is not working.
If the social security agency subsequently receives information that a JSA claimant is working, they can order an investigation. They can do the same at present if information is received that a DLA claimant may not, in fact, be eligible.
So why introduce independent assessments for all, if not (1) to guarantee enough business to make privatisation attractive or (2) to get as many people as possible off a benefit that provides a lifeline to a much greater percentage of the population in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK?