Politics: Benefits probe was a crass muddle, say MPs

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The Independent Online
The Social Security investigator who asked a young man how old he was when he "contracted" Down's syndrome yesterday summed up the gross incompetence and crass insensitivity of a disability benefits review launched just three days before the last election.

In a report on Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the all-party Commons Social Security Committee said that the controversial Benefit Integrity Project (BIP), set up to crack down on fraud, had been unacceptably launched, muddled in its planning, and appalling in its delivery.

The MPs' conclusion was that the entire exercise had been so inept that more than 5,000 people who had had their benefit withdrawn, and another 9,000-plus who had had their benefit cut, before 23 March - when fundamental modifications had been introduced - "should be contacted and offered a fresh assessment under the new procedures".

The DLA has an estimated 2 million claimants, at an annual cost of pounds 5bn, and the last government set up the BIP to deal with an estimated pounds 500m fraud. Virtually no fraudulent claims have since been unearthed.

Under the scheme, however, people who should have been exempt from the benefits review - like the terminally ill - were targeted and had their benefits cut; and many people only discovered benefits had been stopped when they went to the Post Office or bank. "This is causing shock and distress and seems utterly disrespectful," the MPs said.

But the most astonishing charge levelled against the civil servants who organised the debacle was the inadequacy of training given to the 400 Benefits Agency staff carrying out the on-the-ground investigation.

The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation told the MPs that it had "grave concerns about the quality of the visits and the lack of awareness of disability". They cited the Down's syndrome question as an example.

In evidence, Bill Farrell, the BIP project manager, said some officials making their first visit to someone claiming DLA, to check on their eligibility, "would have had no recent contact with disabled people".

However, the Disablement Income Group (DIG), which helped with a five- day training course for visiting officials, said a significant minority of trainees had no experience of DLA, and it added: "A majority had not met any disabled people." The DIG stated: "We took the view that what we were engaged in was essentially damage limitation: the prospect of inexperienced visitors without adequate skills training, calling on disabled people in the context of a benefit as important as DLA, was, frankly, too awful to contemplate."

The MPs were also critical of a benefit with significant weaknesses; too complex for claim-ants and officials to understand.

The report said the failings of the benefit were so fundamental that only radical surgery could clear them up, and the Integrity project should be put on six months' probation to see how current changes settled down.

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said last night that the committee's "damning findings" on the BIP suggested that it should be scrapped at once.