Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A Well-Known Back Problem Called 'Psychosis'

Taxi drivers are great, as one-half of the demographic who should be running the country(alongside hairdressers) they are a mountain of insight, knowledge and ideas. How did the National Autistic Society manage to find me the one cabby in the whole of London who has no opinions? He stays so quiet it's like he's trying to protect a fabulous singing voice.

It was nice of them to pay for taxis to get us back to our respective train stations after they hosted the lobby session at Portcullis House last Wednesday, if you even remember me making a hoo-hah about it and writing of my encounter with Maria Miller the minister for disabled people. She's responsible for the pitiless attack on the disabled reforming Disability Living Allowance.

This cab driver was tranquil and at inner peace no matter how intensely I looked at his ear. He could have asked us what we'd been up to, how our day had been, what about these politicians innit? Nothing. His cab was a library with the bookshelves stuffed with carpet and curtains. Then my support worker(who was there to prevent me first from doing anything stupid and second to prevent anyone doing anything stupid with me) made life return to normal with "that woman looked...strange." She was talking about Maria Miller. "Maria Miller? Aye she did" said one of the people we were sharing the cab with. "She seems so youthful, but I can't tell why. It's her face, it's just very...."

Expressive. I said expressive and all unanimously agreed that it was what made her face seem weird, as if she weren't in the room but being watched on TV. Photos don't put it across, but Miss Miller uses more expressions in any given number of seconds than Katy Perry does in a single music video. With Perry this is deliberate editing; that expressiveness conveys youth and vibrant teenhood which in actuality she left behind ten years ago. Maria Miller left it behind over thirty years ago and my support worker sounded surprised to hear she is in her late forties. The conversation ended on an agreement that she was eerily similar to David Cameron the Prime Minister.

With that fluff about her appearance over, we quickly found reasons to dislike her which had nothing to do with her mesmerising TV aura and as I hadn't managed to get into the room until the last couple of minutes I didn't hear what Maria Miller had said before, so the lady filled me in. Maria Miller is alleged to have made a quite shocking factual claim: a significant number(or 'most' which was the actual word the lady insists Miller said) of DLA claimants are claiming for 'bad backs'. Her claim was made to support the Coalition argument that 'the most vulnerable' are being protected from budget cuts, the savings made from DLA will be quite clearly from non-existent back problems is what Miller is hinting at.

Maria Miller, if she really said this and I believe she did; I would not put it past her given other comments and claims attributed to her, is slinging a tabloid line. The theme of hordes of benefit cheats pretending to have back problems is often repeated in the public discourse and perhaps Miller thought the strong working-class Lancashire accent of the lady she said this to meant it would be the right card to play. It actually infuriated her but she resisted blowing her top in the room. She couldn't believe it and I told her she was right too: the data does not support Maria Miller's claim. I explained about the DWP tabulation tool that allows the public to look at data in table format and that I looked at DLA in a table comparing the Care and Mobility rates and all the combinations of them. The second smallest group of claimants in the table are those claiming lower-rate Mobility exclusively(third smallest if you look at just working age claims), with no Care award: 102,060 people were claiming this in August 2010 out of 3,176,20 people claiming DLA in total.

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It drops to 76,000 people if you look at just working-age claimants. This group was important because it was the group that virtually all people with back problems but who were still able to walk and had no significant Care needs would be in. Which is exactly the kind of people Maria Miller and the tabloids complain about. Maria Miller had been allowed to get away with it because no one had the facts on hand to challenge her. As long as it sounded plausible or like it could be plausible, she could say anything she liked and she apparently did. The lady in the taxi was interested to hear about the tabulation data but what she really would have liked to have known was how many people were actually claiming DLA specifically for back problems, or for specific diagnosed conditions in general. I didn't know and I didn't know where to look, but I had looked and hadn't found it and I told her I honestly believe no one has bothered recording these important facts.

I was wrong. This weekend I have found it and it's in the public domain thanks to FullFact.org.
Click to enlarge
Due to the frustrating limits of the graph generator I'm using I had to merge the 'Terminally Ill' label with 'Other', you'll also notice that some of the labels appear to have no values at all but I put them in and the number of claimants is so small they don't show up in the graph. The thing about the data given is that although those conditions directly-related to back problems when taken together form a large single block, accounting for almost 9% of the total claims on their own(which still doesn't match those such as Psychosis), there seems to be something very cynical about how these labels have been chosen. Psychiatric Disorders has just 900 people recorded in it, so doesn't even show on the graph but Psychosis, Psychoneurosis and Personality Disorders are psychiatric disorders. Maybe if you put every psychiatric disorder on this list under that umbrella the numbers would be ridiculously high, so they've been broken down. Psychiatric disorders which don't fit into the others are then left over. Autism has also almost certainly been lumped in either with Learning Difficulties or Behavioural Disorder when it is neither of these. Back injuries can have very complicated and varied diagnostic descriptions attached to them which are not reflected in just 'Spondylosis' and 'Back Pain-Not Specified'. Attempts at making a pie chart with this data fell-flat so I'll be looking for a better graph maker but there is one data analysis that can be put into a pie chart: comparing Spondylosis and Back Pain-NOS with the bigger picture.

If Maria Miller thinks she can make 20% worth of savings from DLA, even if she pretended everyone with a back problem was not eligible I don't think she would hit the target. Her alleged claim is incredibly absurd and I'll be contacting the National Autistic Society to find out how many people heard her say it just to make sure. I'd also like to know if the DWP not only records the main disabling conditions of DLA claimants, but the rates typically given to them.

One thing the NAS clarified to me early on that day was regarding the 20% figure commonly used; I noticed on the leaflets they had there that the savings attributed to this percentage were £1 billion, which made no sense as the expected DLA budget for this year is £12 billion. They explained that this was 20% over three years, so not 20% of overall claimants but 20% of the budget....over three years. Things made marginally more sense with DLA and it appeared as if though the government was clawing back most of the money simply by reducing the number of claimants coming onto the benefit, rather than turfing loads of people off of it. I should have asked where the NAS learned of this and will now make an attempt to exert some effort into considering making a plan to actually ask them and waiting passively for a response, such is the fast-paced query-orgy that is the art of investigation. I strongly suspect however given the performance at the lobby that the NAS has been thrown a ringer. The rhetoric and the briefings to the press have been far too persistent.

Case File #1 finds that MPs of the Coalition parties are relying heavily on their ministers for accurate information. They were very surprised by the information passed to them by the NAS and Mason Dixon, Autistic. One of them excused their ignorance by stating that there is this wonderful woman called Maria Miller who works very hard for disabled people and she keeps them in the loop. A mountain of evidence says otherwise and this lead will be followed to find out just what the Minister for Disabled People has been telling them and what she told others prior to this investigator entering the room. 

Case File #1 finds Maria Miller's face and mannerisms to be glowly and youthful, giving everyone around happy feelings that they are being listened to even though a part of them realises how artificial it is. It makes you want to hold back and people did hold back and this seems to be deliberate on the part of politicians. 


  1. Interesting point, but there is no sign of Fibromyalgia on the chart, is it lumped in with Chronic Fatigue syndrome, or is it just that a tiny amount of people with Fibro get DLA.

    The reason I ask is because while I had Fibro I was getting DLA but when I reapplied I was turned down due to an ATOS assessment.

    I have appealed, and the fact that I now have MS as well as Fibro did no change the original decision.

  2. Sorry it's taken me so long to respond. No, a lot of conditions like Fibromyalgia are lumped in with other conditions in the table. Infuriatingly for me, Autism is probably counted as a 'learning difficulty'.

    For those that don't know, ATOS does in fact do DLA assessments too, not just the Work Capability Assessment for ESA. The descriptors are different as I understand it but the way they are applied is not; they basically try any excuse to NOT make them fit a person's circumstances.

    I'm looking into this and one prominent example was that of a blind man that won a court case in the 90s because he couldn't claim the Care component of DLA because the descriptor relating to needing assistance in unfamiliar places(blind people tend to learn how to navigate and cope with their own homes very well, just not unfamiliar places) applies only to the Mobility component which he was already receiving. The judge ruled that the way the descriptor had been applied was discriminatory and in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act.

    I don't know if ATOS have always been doing DLA assessments but I guess so going by the history of DLA I've found.