Newstart becomes de facto disability pension for 25% of claimants

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Changes made by Labor in eligibility criteria in 2011 has meant tens of thousands of people disqualified for DSP are now on Newstart, at $341 a fortnight less.

So many people are being disqualified from the disability support pension (DSP) that a quarter of people on Newstart have some type of disability.

The social services minister, Scott Morrison, has tried to claim credit for a drop of tens of thousands in the rate of people on the DSP, but an analysis of the figures shows it is policies put in place by Labor that have pushed so many people off the pension.

Approval rates for the scheme have fallen from 64.5% of applicants in 2008-09 to 36.9% last financial year, with the federal government approving 41,832 applications. In 2009, the year with the highest number of applicants, 91,131 were approved.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published the figures under the headline: “First he stopped the boats, now Morrison’s stopped the bludgers”.

The changes have moved so many people off the DSP on to Newstart – which pays $341 a fortnight less – that about 25% of the people on Newstart have a disability.

Gerard Thomas, a policy officer at the National Welfare Rights Network (NWRN), said the figures clearly reflected changing policy.

“[The number of people with a disability on Newstart] is very high and one of the consequences of successive governments cracking down on the DSP,” he said.

Most people with a disability on Newstart fall in the “partial capacity to work” category, meaning they have to apply for five jobs a week in which they would be expected to work up to 15 hours.

Thomas said the disabilities varied, but a lot of people had mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, as well as arthritis and muscular problems.

He dismissed reports that those being kicked off DSP were “rorters” or that it was the result of policies introduced by Morrison.

“All the heavy lifting, the tightening of the DSP, has done its job,” he said. “We’ve been tracking these numbers for many years and they started falling in 2013, and it’s not because of measures this government has taken. It’s measures the previous government undertook.

“[The people being moved off DSP] are not rorting the system. They just qualified under different rules when the impairment rules were less restrictive. It just drives us crazy when they keep talking about people rorting the system – there’s no rorting the system at all.”

In the 1990s and early 2000s audits of DSP would typically result in about 1% of recipients being moved off, according to NWRN, but recently 10% of people on DSP had been taken off after a review. The rise can be attributed to changed eligibility criteria.

The opposition spokeswoman on disability reform, and a former social services minister, Jenny Macklin, said Labor reforms had meant fewer people on DSP, but Labor had tried to support people with disability to find work by also expanding disability support services.

“This government has done nothing to help people with disability find work,” she said.

“All this government has done is demonise people with disability, whilst at the same time trying to cut their income support.”

Macklin said after the Labor reforms in 2011 and 2012 there was a 22% drop in the rate of people being granted DSP.

Measures introduced by Labor include changing eligibility for people under 35 and changing which impairments qualify people for DSP. The Coalition government has also introduced stricter measures, such as having people assessed by approved doctors only.

Morrison characterised the fall in approval rates as the federal government “ensuring the integrity” of the welfare system.

“The DSP is not a set and forget payment, and we have tightened compliance and enforcement measures so taxpayers can have greater confidence in our welfare safety net,” he said in a statement earlier this week.

“More than eight of 10 income taxpayers are needed to pay for our annual social services bill. The contribution of these taxpayers must be respected by ensuring that the welfare system focuses on those most in need.”

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