Why more action is needed on cuts to disability benefits

A letter from leading charities criticising cuts to mobility allowance is a good starting point – bu

The cuts to Disability Living Allowance (DLA) are among the cruellest announced in last year's Spending Review, given the devastating impact they will have on the quality of life of an already marginalised group.

Let's just recap. DLA – a hard-won benefit – currently costs £12bn a year and faces cuts of 20 per cent. For the first time ever, medical examinations will be introduced in 2013-2014 to assess eligibility for the benefit. Charities including the Disability Alliance are sceptical about this, suggesting that its aim is to remove 380,000 claimants from the benefit, rather than "simplify" the system.

In addition to this, George Osborne announced plans to save £135m by abolishing the mobility component of DLA for the 80,000 severely disabled people resident in care homes. This is a weekly payment of up to £50 a week, used to pay for taxis, petrol for staff cars and powered wheelchairs, and to lease specially adapted cars. With severe mental or physical disabilities, most are unable to use public transport. The money allows them to have a social life and prevents them from becoming prisoners in their residential homes.

The Times (£) reports today that a group of 27 leading charities, including Mencap, Mind and RNIB, has written a letter to the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, urging them to reverse the decision.

"Removing this benefit will take us back to the Dark Ages, essentially stripping people of control over their lives and leaving them stuck in residential care homes," says Mark Goldring, chief executive of Mencap.

It is an important move, and one hopes it will highlight the issue. But more needs to be done to mobilise public opinion against this particular inhumane cut and to put pressure on the government. A leading disability lawyer, Mike Charles, told the BBC at the weekend that there could even be a legal basis to challenge it:

The Human Rights Act says individuals have a right to family life, have a right to a quality of life. The whole purpose of the DLA is to put them on an equal playing field with everyone else.

Any proposal that fails to appreciate those fundamental rights could find it is an infringement of the law. My view is even if it's not against the letter of the law, it is against the spirit of the law.

At the Netroots conference last Saturday, the difficulty with highlighting the budgetary assault on the disabled was raised repeatedly: it is not a "sexy" issue, and there are the obvious difficulties of mobilising large numbers of people for protest action. The key must lie in humanising the matter – people will be unable to get out of the house once a week to socialise, and there are others who, as we heard in a fringe session, are contemplating suicide because of their fear of losing their DLA.

This message must be publicised in an accessible way, with innovative protest action that brings it to people's attention.

As the (partial) reversal on school sports budgets shows, changes can be won. The consultation on DLA ends on 14 February. We have a duty to do as much as possible before then.

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

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Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. Its socialist pitch counted for little in a country that remains ideologically closer to England than thought. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is yet further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.