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Letter: Abuse of benefits

Sir: A great deal of the debate on misspending and abuse in social security benefits is emotional, irrational and uninformed.

All benefit schemes start off with sensible and fair aims, but they get hijacked by pressure groups, their scope is widened by judicial rulings, and finally they are "discovered" by the middle and upper income groups, leading to an inexorable growth in expenditure.

Invalid care allowance started off with the laudable aim of compensating maiden ladies who were considered to have given up the opportunity of a career or marriage to look after an aged and infirm parent. Now it is claimed by anyone who works less than a certain number of hours per week and is related to an attendance allowance or disability living allowance (DLA) claimant. The carer need not even live with the disabled person.

So far as DLA, attendance allowance and mobility allowance are concerned, there is a widely held misconception that their award depends on certification by a doctor. The doctor merely confirms that the claimant has a medical condition. The extent by which the claimant's abilities are affected by the condition is elicited in replies to questions. The reason DLA has grown more quickly than any other benefit is that much of it concerns very common complaints such as back pain or mild asthma.

To improve the standard of evidence and target resources on genuine cases a doctor could be asked to state whether the claimant's account of how the complaint affected his abilities to perform certain functions was consistent with the severity of the condition.

Whenever there are public demonstrations in support of disabled groups, almost all of those involved are seen to be severely disabled, as they are usually in wheelchairs. The reality is that if you had 20 people in a room 10 of whom were DLA claimants and 10 drawn from the general population, it would be extremely difficult to to identify the claimants.


Bangor, Co Down

The writer was an audit manager in the Northern Ireland Audit Office, 1984-95