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20 December 2004

Proposals by the Deputy Prime Minister's Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) to install remote surveillance and communication equipment in the homes of elderly and disabled people could slash disability benefits payments. Amongst the groups who may lose out under the new initiative are elderly people at risk of falling and people with asthma, epilepsy, diabetes and heart conditions.

Consultation
Benefits and Work has been invited to take part in a consultation by the SEU into the ways in which Information and Communications Technology (ICT) can be: "used to help address the inequalities faced by socially excluded groups and to transform the ways that services are delivered to them."

Amongst the suggestions for change put forward by the SEU are:

"Text messaging to remind housing tenants to pay their rent if they have slipped into arrears in order to reduce their likelihood of eviction."

"Remote sensing of the activity and security of elderly or disabled people and the facility to communicate directly with them in the event of problems."

A press release from the SEU goes on to refer specifically to "remote sensors to detect an elderly person falling in their home."

Commissioner
The SEU claims that it is "keen to develop a firm understanding of ICT trends and developments that have the potential to promote equality and improve life chances for disadvantaged people, and to transform the delivery of services to them". It may well be that knowing that your every move is being monitored by computers and that the voice of the local authority could ring in your ears at any moment will promote equality and improve life chances for elderly and disabled people. But the government will be well aware that such measures may also promote benefits cuts and significantly improve the balance sheet at the DWP.

They will be aware of this because, as recently as February of this year, a Social Security Commissioner addressed the very issue of whether the availability of a monitoring service would mean that an elderly person at risk of falling did not qualify for Attendance Allowance (AA).

In CA/4332/2003 the commissioner held that:

"There is then a more general question that must be considered as to whether the claimant could reasonably be expected to take precautions, other than being supervised, in order to avoid the danger. These days, such precautions might include wearing a device that enables a person who has fallen to activate a telephone monitoring service through which help can be summoned, provided, of course, that such a service is potentially available to the claimant."

In other words, if there is an alternative to having another person physically present to supervise or watch over a claimant to protect them from substantial danger, then they do not qualify for Attendance Allowance (AA) or Disability Living Allowance (DLA) on those grounds.

At the moment, however, telephone monitoring services are not widely available outside of sheltered accommodation, or at least not at a price which it would be reasonable to expect a claimant to pay. However, the kind of remote sensing suggested by the SEU is falling in price all the time and one employee could monitor a very large number of such devices. This makes the free provision of such a service by local authorities a real possibility. Decision makers will be able to argue that disabled people who receive such a service are not eligible for DLA or AA on supervision grounds.

Moreover, if such a service is available and a disabled person declines to make use of it, decision makers will argue that they are not be eligible for DLA or AA because supervision is not "reasonably required": it would be reasonable to expect the disabled person to take advantage of a remote sensing service that would mean the presence of another person was no longer necessary.

Shameless plug
People who have attended our DLA and AA training days, or who have used our free guides, will know that we stress the importance of anticipating the kinds technical fixes decision makers suggest in order to avoid paying out benefits. These range from the humble slotted spoon and kitchen timer to perching stools and commodes. Trainees will also have spent time learning how to challenge these technical fixes by showing that in many cases a slotted spoon, commode or telephone monitoring service will not reduce their need for personal attention or supervision. However, most unsupported claimants are unlikely to be aware that these arguments can be made and will lose out on benefits as a result

The amounts involved are considerable from the point of view of the exchequer. Claimants requiring continual supervision throughout the day or who need watching over at night for about twenty minutes, or two or three times, receive £39.35 a week in DLA or AA. If they have both day and night needs then they will receive £58.80 a week. As a result they may also be eligible for additional payments of other benefits of £80 a week or more. At present, 1.4 million people receive AA and over 2 million receive the care component of DLA. There are no statistics on the number of claimants who receive these benefits because of supervision needs, but it is likely to run into hundreds of thousands and cost the exchequer hundreds of millions a year. Even a small percentage reduction in claims will lead to massive savings for an administration which has made it clear that it is extremely keen to reduce spending on welfare benefits.

Ultimate test
There is no doubt that some people would find the knowledge that they were being monitored and could summon help in an emergency extremely reassuring. There is equally little doubt that there are others who would find such surveillance an unbearable intrusion into their personal lives. We will know for certain whether this proposed initiative is genuinely intended to "promote equality and improve life chances for disadvantaged people" when we discover whether or not it will used to take money from disabled benefits claimants.

By then, unfortunately, it will be too late to do anything about it.