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.