Welfare Reform and the Disabled

“I believe the test of a good and strong society is how we look after the most vulnerable”
David Cameron, 2010, during the final leader’s debate.

By any reasonable test, disabled people would make up a significant proportion of a society’s most vulnerable. However, today, the disabled are being put under unprecedented pressure.

Given that disabled people are much more likely than the average person to inhabit a precarious financial position, you would think that a government committed to protecting its most vulnerable, even during austerity, would have a commitment to protecting its disabled. Instead, under current plans, disabled people will have been subject to over £28 billion of cuts by 2018. In fact, many will be subject to up to six separate benefit cuts. Despite this, the government has refused to undertake a cumulative impact assessment, instead relying on individual impact assessments that fail to capture the whole picture. The government says it is too difficult to carry out such an assessment. While it is true that it is difficult, it isn’t impossible, as research from Demos shows here. Even in the face of such difficulty, given that this government is currently undertaking the biggest reorganisation of the welfare state since its inception and the significant consequences for the disabled, should the government not at least be trying to get a full picture of the impact of their policies?

Looking at the specific policy changes, the most significant is the transition of Incapacity Benefit to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The change to ESA was originally introduced by the previous government, and has been pushed aggressively by this one. This involves the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out by ATOS. This assessment has been the cause of multiple controversies, with nearly 40% of appeals being overturned, and the tests being ruled as discriminatory against those with mental health issues. The Spartacus report on the WCA has a number of stories from both claimants and MP’s of all sides that demonstrate the cruelty of the system and the pain it inflicts on those reliant upon it, including suicides as a result of stress and destitution and people dying almost immediately after having been found fit to work, despite them clearly having no capacity to do so.

Secondly, there is the “bedroom tax”, officially the removal of the spare room subsidy. This has significant consequences for disabled people who rely on carers or who have adapted homes and specialist equipment such that they need more than one bedroom. While the government consistently states that disabled people who need an extra room will not have to pay any extra, this is not the case. This is because the funding provided for Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP), is simply not enough to cover all disabled people who require extra room. If the DHP was spread evenly amongst the disabled hit by the bedroom tax, it would come to £2.09 a week, a far cry from the £14 hit those affected from the bedroom tax take. Further, DHP was never intended as a long-term rent rebate, it was designed to help the poorest with income shocks, and payments last at longest, 12 weeks. As a result, many disabled people are cutting back on food, bills, and even medication in order to be able to keep a roof over their head. Despite being repeatedly being told that the bedroom tax is hitting disabled people unfairly, the government continues to mislead the public on how disabled people are faring under this system. In fact, they are appealing a decision that exempted a severely disabled woman from paying the bedroom tax as she cannot share a room with her partner.

Thirdly, there are the changes to the provision of care to the disabled. Severe local government cuts have seen care budgets slashed, meaning disabled people are being forced into paying for essential care out of their own (likely meagre) incomes, and even for things such as incontinence pads. Forget “heating or eating” there are disabled people being forced to choose between heating, eating, or sitting in soiled clothing. Along with this has been the government’s attempt to scrap the Independent Living Fund, which allows 20,000 of the most severely disabled people in the country to live independently in their own homes. The attempt to do so was ruled illegal by the High Court, but no new applicants are allowed access to it, and it will be scrapped in 2015.

Due to a mix of constant negative rhetoric surrounding disabled people, and a naïve belief that the most vulnerable will always be provided for because the consequences of them not being provided for are so awful, many people seem somewhat oblivious to the threats facing the disabled. However, those threats are real, and terrifying. If you’re not disabled, imagine that you’re unable to do basic things, like make a sandwich, cut your nails, go to the shops, or even go to the toilet without help. These are situations that people like me, and millions of others have to face up to on a daily basis. Now, imagine the fear if the care and/or the money you used to do those things was taken away from you. This isn’t just a standard of living issue, but one of basic rights. However, many disabled people are seeing these rights being taken away.

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Sam Fowkes

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