Who benefits from disability cuts?

Tax evasion, not disability benefit fraud, is the real scandal.

We all like badgers don’t we? Well, most of us do. They look cute and cuddly (I assume; I’m going off hazy memories of picture books), they are beautiful, defenceless, wild creatures and there’s something quintessentially British about them. They go with cucumber sandwiches and pocket-watches.

They’ve had a good press, badgers have.

But they’re facing death: the badgers of the British imagination will undergo a major cull this autumn. So no surprise perhaps that the petition against the cull has attracted so much support – as I write, it has achieved 42,566 signatures over the 100,000 threshold needed to be considered in Parliament.

There is, however, another petition which fights against death – and you may not have heard of this one. This is because the species facing death in this case doesn’t have such a good press. Not only this, but the specific sectors of this species that the petition addresses are all but invisible, save the occasional negative mention in certain media outlets.

I am, of course, talking about human beings – specifically, those which are disabled and therefore rely to a greater or lesser extent on state support. These humans are the ‘”net drain” on society, the dregs, the unmentionables, untouchables and expendables.

And they are dying.

No, not in such great numbers as badgers and no not as part of a deliberate government cull, but make no mistake: these deaths are on the hands of the government. And they will be on our hands too unless we act.

Under Labour, the welfare bill increased by 30 per cent; under the coalition’s “belt-tightening” policies, this is painted simplistically as A Bad Thing. It fits neatly into the rhetoric that an economically incompetent Labour “got us into this mess” from which the no-nonsense coalition will save us. Labour money bad; Coalition cuts good.

But of course rises in costs are rarely that simple – and these are no exception. If they were, we would expect the welfare system to be, in Iain Duncan Smith’s words, “riddled with abuse and fraud”. But it’s not. It’s not, and he knows its not, because the figures on this “abuse” come from his own department, and they stand at 0.3 per cent – not perfect, but hardly riddled. Hardly riddled, and way below the coalition’s projected cut of 20 per cent – and this is actually expected to be exceeded.

And yet the government is pushing on with its plans, with 55 per cent of those who have undergone the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) being found fit for work. Is this cause for celebration? Have disabled people all over the country been magically healed by the Coalition Touch?

Hardly. According to a report by the Guardian, incorrect WCA decisions are costing the government £50m a year, with tribunals having to sit on Saturdays and increase staff by 30 per cent to deal with the backlog of appeals. The government’s own figures estimate successful appeals at at least 30 per cent, although the Guardian cites “a staggering 80-90 per cent” success rate “if the appellant seeks the help of an experienced adviser.”

And the cost is not just financial; in the mad dash for euphemistic terms like “flexibility” and “streamlined”, people, real people are getting left behind. Stories are emerging of suicides over cut support, while between January and August last year, 32 people a week died after being declared fit for work. That’s around 1184 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers who successfully stopped being a “net drain” in the space of six months.

The Guardian writes, “the WCA is so consistently failing to recognise those who are in dire need of support that it is hard to understand why society is not in uproar.” But when we consider the disingenuous nature of Duncan Smith’s remarks about welfare abuse, that went unchallenged in the Telegraph article in which they were reported, is it so hard to understand? When we consider the repeated insinuations made by the Daily Mail that the majority of disabled people are “scroungers” who “take advantage” of the system, is it any surprise that by September last year two-thirds of disabled people had experienced hostility and taunts, up from 41 per cent four months before? And in this climate of mistrust of the disabled, is it any wonder the badgers are winning our compassion by miles?

Of course, some will be reading this thinking that this is all very well, but we all have to suffer – after all, “we’re all in this together”. And to those people I say that firstly, there’s tightening your belt, and there’s dying. But secondly, and just as importantly, we certainly are not in this together. That’s the line that we’ve been expertly sold. But the reality is that there are plenty of people who aren’t feeling the pinch. And these people don’t even need to feel the pinch – they just need to make their own fair contribution to the society in which they live, and from which they benefit.

Tax evasion currently costs this country £25bn a year; tax avoidance – that is, large companies and wealthy individuals who “take advantage” of the system – cost us £70bn a year. In addition to this, £26bn is going uncollected, adding up to a staggering £121bn in total – or, to put it in context, three-quarters of the annual deficit. To put it in yet more context, the amount lost to disability fraud is estimated at £1bn – and this figure should be considered in the context of benefit underpayment, which consistently saves more than the fraud costs. This does not of course excuse fraud, but it does make a mockery of the coalition’s claims that abuse of the system is costing money that they will save by being “efficient” – another euphemism.

So what can we do about this iniquitous inequity? We can make our voices heard. We can hoist the coalition on its own e-petition petard: sign the petition against disability cuts. They are dishonest and damaging, and, most of all, they are unnecessary. And if anyone knows of a petition demanding for corporation tax to be enforced and tax-dodging loopholes for the rich to be closed, sign me up.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman. A version of this post first appeared on her blog here

Disabled protestors demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament about cuts to disability benefit. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Getty
Show Hide image

The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity