The government has been accused again of stirring up hostility against disabled people and running a “deliberate smearing campaign”, after stories appeared in national newspapers about alleged abuse of the Motability car scheme.
A Sunday Times “investigation” claimed friends and relatives were misusing the cars that disabled people have obtained through the Motability scheme, while the Daily Mail described this misuse as a “scam”.
The Sunday Times claimed government officials were concerned that the disabled people’s car scheme had “mushroomed out of control” and was “so generous that it encourages people to submit spurious claims or to try to keep a benefit to which they are no longer entitled”.
The Mail said the government “hopes that its planned reform of the disability living allowance (DLA) will help stamp out such abuses by introducing closer scrutiny of the system and considering whether Motability is the best option for everyone”.
Many disabled activists are convinced that the source of the story was within the government, which they say is trying to soften up the public for cuts to spending on DLA and its replacement with a new personal independence payment (PIP).
Anne Novis, a leading disability hate crime campaigner, said the story “smacks of government preparing to withdraw DLA and Motability schemes or tighten them exclusively to those they deem ‘severely disabled’”.
She added: “Any scheme can be abused but the fact that this and other statements about disabled people’s benefits, allowances and support being misused are coming out from Whitehall almost every week indicates a deliberate smearing campaign against us as disabled people.
“We are cursed, reviled, demeaned at every turn because people now think they have ‘permission’ from government to treat us this way.”
Novis has given evidence to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) inquiry into disability-related harassment that disabled people’s cars have been “repeatedly vandalized” and set on fire over the last few years.
She added: “For the government to now incite such misunderstandings about the Motability schemes will incite more hostility towards us yet again.”
Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for Disabled Motoring UK (DM UK), said she also believed the stories would stir up further hostility towards disabled people.
She said she said she would be “absolutely appalled” if the government was behind the stories.
Last week, DM UK completed its Alps Challenge, in which disabled volunteers recreated a 1,500 mile journey across the Alps in 1947 on a petrol-driven tricycle to highlight the importance of providing mobility support to disabled people.
Dolphin said: “The Alps Challenge was to demonstrate how far we had come since 1947, with fantastic adaptations and the fact that we do have Motability and DLA to pay for it, but it seems when you read articles like this that people would like us to step backwards to when we were pushing people around in little blue trikes.”
Motability said its scheme was abused only by “a small minority” of people, while the “overwhelming majority of our customers are hugely deserving individuals with real physical impairments”.
In 2010/11, about 800 people were removed from the scheme for abuse, out of 580,000 customers – less than 0.14 per cent.
Another 500 people were prevented from joining or renewing their agreements, but Motability said many of these were due to driving convictions and so unrelated to misuse.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Motability is an independent charity which is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the scheme and DWP has regular reviews to monitor its performance.
“Motability provides a vital service for disabled people. However, any misuse of taxpayers’ money is unacceptable and it is essential that we get the gateway to receipt of DLA right, which is why we are introducing the PIP.”
But when asked whether the story originated from the DWP and was another attempt to soften up the public in advance of cuts and reforms of DLA, she declined to comment.