500,000 could lose their disability benefits

Iain Duncan Smith to press ahead with plans to cut disability claimants.

Half a million people could lose their disability benefits under government plans. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph today, Iain Duncan Smith says he will press ahead with radical reforms of the disability living allowance (DLA) that could slash the bill by £2.24bn annually.

The DLA is not a means-tested benefit, so it is paid to those in employment as well as those unable to work. Intended to help people meet the extra costs of mobility and care associated with their conditions, it now costs more than unemployment benefits and will soon cost £13bn per year. Under these reforms, Duncan Smith says that even those who have lost limbs will not necessarily qualify:

It’s not like incapacity benefit, it’s not a statement of sickness. It is a gauge of your capability. In other words, do you need care, do you need support to get around. Those are the two things that are measured. Not, have you lost a limb?

The government is introducing medical assessments to establish eligibility for the benefit for the first time. DLA will be replaced with what they are calling a “more focused” allowance called – in what sounds like a serious piece of newsspeak – the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

Of course, simplifying is a byword for cutting, and under the government plans (released this month), two million claimants will be reassessed over the next four years, with a quarter of those expected not to qualify.

In the Telegraph interview, Duncan Smith defended this:

We are creating a new benefit, because the last benefit grew by something like 30 per cent in the past few years.

It's been rising well ahead of any other gauge you might make about illness, sickness, disability or for that matter, general trends in society.

A lot of that is down to the way the benefit was structured so that it was very loosely defined. Second thing was that in the assessment, lots of people weren't actually seen.

Third problem was lifetime awards. Something like 70 per cent had lifetime awards, (which) meant that once they got it you never looked at them again. They were just allowed to fester.

While no-one would endorse wilful waste, it is unfair to paint recipients of DLA as freeloaders, and dangerous to cut it without very careful safeguards. The benefit is intended to put the disabled on an equal playing field with everyone else, and clumsy reform could risk seriously reducing the quality of life of people very much in need of support. Government can expect a serious fight from disability organisations, while campaigners have spoken of people contemplating suicide because of their fear of losing the DLA.

So far, there are no signs that these cuts will be responsility executed. It looks as if the medical assessments will be very similar to those currently being carried out for those on incapacity benefits. These tests, run by private companies including Atos, have been criticised for being unfair and geared towards removing people from benefits. In one pilot scheme, a third of people declared fit to work appealed, and 40 per cent of them won. Judges anticipate up to 500,000 cases a year as people appeal the rulings.

It would be foolish to oppose reform for the sake of it, but it is worrying if that reform appears to be motivated solely by a desire to cut expenditure. This looks set to be yet another example of the coalition doing exactly what David Cameron and George Osborne promised it would not: balancing the books on the backs of society’s most vulnerable.

People protest against cuts to disability allowances, London, May 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.