PUBLISHED: 07:06 EST, 31 July 2012 | UPDATED: 07:08 EST, 31 July 2012
Do you remember Tina Attanasio? The name may not ring a bell but if you watched a clip of her whizzing down a water slide into a shimmering swimming pool in the South of France, you might well recall exactly why she hit the headlines last year.
Attanasio was jailed when a court saw footage of her walking normally despite her contention she was dependent on crutches. The 51-year old from Cardiff had successfully managed to claim the highest level of benefits, intended for the most severely incapacitated people, for more than five years, skimming off more than £25,000.
What a sorry contrast Attanasio presents to the genuinely disabled athletes we are about to see accomplishing super-human feats at the upcoming London Paralympic Games. I have already been blubbing watching the able-bodied athletes push the boundaries of effort and achievement. I will be a gibbering wreck once the Paralympics start.
Sadly, it is flagrant cases of abuse such as Attanasio’s which always hit the headlines and which, quite rightly, inflame the tax-payers whose hard-earned contributions go to make up the £13 billion chunk of welfare which is gobbled up by disability benefits.
According to disability charity Scope, the genuinely disabled are increasingly frustrated at this media coverage of benefit cheats which they feel unfairly lumps them all together into some general category of bludgers, liggers and indolent parasites.
With disability set to be centre-stage at the Paralympics and a brace of documentaries on the subject, from both the BBC’s Panorama and Channel 4’s Dispatches aired this week, the incapacity benefit system is very much in the spotlight. Is there any surprise that Scope also found most disabled people reporting a significant rise in negative attitudes towards them?
Sadly, there was no simultaneous drive to invest in pro-active schemes, to help those who sincerely want to contribute to return to the workforce in any kind of capacity. The current focus is still on reassessing two million existing claimants over the next few years, with the aim of bringing down numbers by around 500,000.
The Work Capability Assessment system, which was introduced to sort out the scroungers from the genuinely sick, has also come in for significant criticism; it has been called a simplistic, box ticking enterprise, unfair, flawed, inappropriate and driven wholly by financial targets.
Much of the criticism has been directed at controversial French IT giant Atos which receives an annual £100 million from the Department of Work and Pensions to carry out up to 10,000 eligibility tests every week.
There have been hundreds of complaints about Atos procedures and about the conduct of individual assessments. Even more worrying is the overall efficacy of the process. Every year, there are more than 175,000 appeals against Atos decisions of which a third are successful, costing us more than £50 million.
A parliamentary joint select committee recently expressed fears that the current reforms to benefits and services risk leaving many disabled people without the support they need to live independently. Even the government appointed trouble shooter, Professor Malcolm Harrington has voiced his concerns about the application of the WCA test.
Nobody, least of all the genuinely incapacitated, would dispute the importance of weeding out fraudsters and illegitimate claimants but don’t we need a rather more broad-minded approach to tackling the iniquities of a convoluted and arcane system which has effectively trapped many of those who are genuinely willing to work in a frustrating spiral of welfare dependency?
There can be no quick fixes to overhaul our unwieldy and long-abused benefits system and a key objective must, of course, be to make sure that the cheats and the fraudsters milking the system for all they can get are exposed and punished.
However, in a civilised society, surely it must be equally important to ensure that everyone who really needs help gets all the support they genuinely deserve? Next month’s Paralympic Games will show the world exactly how much the disabled can achieve with support, encouragement and acceptance. I do hope that Mr Grayling and his DWP colleagues will be watching.