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.

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Despite new challengers, Andrew Marr is still the king of the Sunday-morning politics skirmish

The year began with a strong challenge from Sophy Ridge, who scored a coup with her Theresa May interview. By week two, though, the normal order was restored.

The BBC can declare at least one victory for its news division in 2017. In what was dubbed “the battle of the bongs”, ITV’s regrettable decision to shift the News at Ten to 10.30pm for a couple of months this year in favour of a new entertainment show means that the corporation’s flagship bulletin will be once more unchallenged. But the war among the UK’s television channels has shifted to new territory: now it’s Sunday-morning sofa skirmishes.

This year began with the equivalent of ravens leaving the Tower. The Prime Minister’s New Year interview, cherished for decades by David Frost and then by Andrew Marr, migrated from the BBC to Sky News. It was a coup for Sophy Ridge, whose new show marks the arrival of a woman into what had previously been male territory. It intensified the pressure on the BBC after the blow last year of the defection of Robert Peston to ITV, lured by the promise of his own show to rival Marr’s.

By week two, though, the normal order was restored. The biggest interviewee, Jeremy Corbyn, was on The Andrew Marr Show and his lieutenants John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry were deployed on Sky and ITV. These things matter because the Sunday-morning political programmes often generate the headlines for the rest of the day’s broadcasting and for the Monday papers; and the commercial companies want to dent the BBC’s reputation for setting the agenda. The corporation can often do it by the sheer volume of its output on TV, including the estimable Sunday Politics, and on radio; but it’s a plus for audiences if other voices can be heard.

The Andrew Marr Show has traditionally secured the A-list guests because it has by far the highest ratings. Its most powerful asset is Marr, who was a transformative political editor for the BBC and possesses, as New Statesman readers know, an original and free-thinking take on the issues of the day. The energy in the programme comes from him but he is not helped by a staid production: a predictable format, a set with a London skyline and a superannuated sofa. There aren’t many laughs. The review of the papers has become cumbersome with the addition of a statutory Brexiteer, and the supposed light relief is supplied by arts plugging of the kind that seems mandatory in every BBC News programme. We are invited, wherever we are in the UK, to pop along to the West End to see the latest production involving the actor-interviewee of the day. However, if there is a new political line to be found, Marr is the most likely to sniff it out.

By contrast, Peston on Sunday seems to have consumed a lot of fizzy drinks. It is sharp and contemporary-looking and it bounces along, thanks to the interplay between Peston and his sidekick, Allegra Stratton. It is more willing to take risks, as in the entertainingly acidic recent exchanges between Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell, and it works as a piece of television even if it doesn’t have the top guests. It merits its repeat in the evening, when it gains a bigger audience than in the live transmission.

Guests may be more crucial to the success of Sophy Ridge on Sunday. It looks lovely in its sparkling new studio, but the prime ministerial scoop of the launch show was followed by an interview with Nigel Farage and a dull encounter with a union official. There is a commendable attempt to get out of London and to hear from the public, and it’s refreshing to locate an MP such as Tom Watson in a West Bromwich café. The programme is also trying to book more women interviewees, and one paper review featured a token man; but can it be a must-watch for news junkies or entertaining enough for a casual viewer?

There is only so much that producers can do to lure the right guests. If you meet any broadcaster these days, they immediately gripe about the attempts by Downing Street to control who appears where – which has been applied with particular vigour under the May administration: hence Boris Johnson recently appearing as duty minister on both Marr and Peston on the same morning, which neither channel finds ideal.

There is a trap, in that obtaining quotesfor the rest of the media is only part of the remit. In these uncertain political times, audiences need knowledge, too, and an interview that merely zips through the news lines of the day may add little to our understanding of policy and the choices faced by government. All of these shows feature presenters with formidable brainpower and it is perfectly possible to meld that into a programme that is worth watching.

Peston’s show makes an attempt with Stratton’s big screen to provide context and statistics, but it could do more – and it might painlessly lose some of the witless tweets that pass for interaction. It’s a further conundrum of television that Marr’s most interesting takes on current issues are often in his documentaries or writing rather than on his eponymous show. The guardians of impartiality may twitch, but viewers would benefit from him being given more freedom.

There is the rest of the world to consider, too. It was striking on a Sunday just ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump that none of these shows had a major American player. While Michel Barnier was making the news in the weekend papers, no decision-maker from the EU was featured, either. This is not a phenomenon of Brexit: television has always found it easier to plonk a bottom on a sofa in SW1 than to engage in the long-term wooing that gets significant international guests. Yet, as we are allegedly preparing to launch ourselves into the wider world, hearing from its key decision-makers is part of the enlightenment we need, too.

Roger Mosey is the master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era