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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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