Paralympians speak out about disability benefit cuts

Several British medallists could lose much-needed financial support when Iain Duncan Smith's Personal Independence Payment replaces Disability Living Allowance on 8 April.

Only six months ago, in a period of gold-tinted optimism for disability, British Paralympians were heralded as heroes. From 8 April (pdf), Disability Living Allowance, or DLA – the benefit which helps many pay for care and mobility costs – is being scrapped and, along with more than two million other disabled people, many Paralympians now facing losing the support they rely on.

DLA’s replacement – Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – is designed to cut £2.24bn annually from the welfare budget by 2015-16. The number eligible for the new award will be smaller and the assessment criteria are narrower. According to the Government’s own estimate, the changes will see 500,000 people lose their benefit.

So what do our Paralympian heroes (copyright all papers) make of the changes? Sophie Christiansen who won three gold medals at the 2012 Paralympics in dressage, tells me that receiving Disability Living Allowance enabled her to compete in the Games.  

She has cerebral palsy and relies on the benefit to pay for the extra care support she needs when she goes away to competitions, as well as the wheelchair and scooter she uses to get around venues.

She can’t walk long distances or use public transport very easily on her own and DLA paid for the car she needs to drive herself to training.  

 

Sophie Christiansen. Photo: Getty

The Paralympians might have been sold as "superhumans" during the Games, but the reality is that many of them have extra financial needs because of their disabilities. Christiansen tells me it can be a struggle to meet them financially.

“The Paralympics were just the glamorous end product . . .” Christiansen says. “I get the same amount of funding as Olympians and they don't have to cover disability-related costs with that money.”

Natasha Baker, a para-equestrian who won two gold medals at the London Games, says she also owes her success to receiving Disability Living Allowance. As a child, it funded her riding lessons as a therapeutic sport. She now relies on it for transport, using the Mobility scheme within DLA to lease a car. 

She tells me she’s concerned that once PIP is introduced, she will no longer be eligible for support. Her disability – a neurological disorder that causes severe muscle weakness – leaves her needing help with care and mobility but it can vary from day to day.

“If I have the assessment on a day I’m feeling good . . .” she says. “I’m just really worried.”

To be awarded PIP, claimants will have to score a certain number of points in relation to 12 activities, such as washing and bathing or moving around. Recent concessions to guidance mean that assessors will be required by law to consider whether claimants can perform tasks repeatedly, safely and reliably but there remains concern that the criteria are too tight and the assessment style is too restrictive. For example, Natasha Baker stresses that her mobility can depend on anything from time of day to the surface or angle of what she’s walking on. 

Baker, who was awarded an MBE this year, now finds herself worrying whether the Government will stop the money she relies on. 

She tells me she’d like those in charge of the benefit changes to spend a week in a wheelchair to see how difficult it is to get around. “There are other ways of cutting and saving money in this country,” she adds. “I don’t see why they have to target people who are vulnerable.”

 

Natasha Baker. Photo: Getty

Tara Flood, a retired Paralympic gold medallist swimmer and world record holder, says the removal of DLA is “a government attack on disabled people’s lives”. She is angry that people like her are seen as “easy targets” and tells me she’s “extremely worried” about being assessed.

It’s a concern that has only been exacerbated by the knowledge that Atos, the private healthcare company behind the much-criticised Work Capability Assessment, will be carrying out the majority of PIP assessments, having been given more than £400m worth of contracts. Last summer, Flood took part in a protest against Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics and tells me she thinks their role in determining who will receive the new benefit is “disgusting.”

“The PIP process is fundamentally flawed. I can’t imagine anyone delivering it in a way that isn’t dehumanising,” she says. “The impact will be so shocking. Twenty per cent of disabled people who receive this support are going to lose it . . . I’m terrified.”

Like Sophie Christiansen and Natasha Baker, Tara relies on her mobility allowance to help pay for an adapted car. She now faces the fear of losing it as DLA is removed and assessments for PIP begin.

Under the new rules, claimants must be unable to walk more than 20 metres to receive the enhanced mobility component of PIP - and without this, they will not qualify for the Motability scheme. The narrower eligibility criteria mean it is feared that many people with significant mobility impairments will be denied the vehicle they currently rely on for independence. The Department of Work and Pension’s own estimate is that over the next five years some 428,000 people will lose their eligibility. Disability campaigners are currently working to mount a judicial review on what was a last minute and controversial change to the assessment criteria.

Tara Flood tells me that losing her car would damage every aspect of her life. “I would effectively be isolated in my own home,” she says. “I’d lose my job, my connection to my community, my family.”

She’s clearly angry at the benefit changes but also what she sees as the accompanying, ever prevalent, idea that disabled people are asking too much. “I want to live an ordinary life in a society that treats me as a human being,” she stresses. “That isn’t unreasonable.”

Flood tells me she thinks back on her hope that Great Britain’s Paralympics triumphs would have a positive effect on the lives of disabled people in this country. As she and others face the imminent removal of support they rely on, it seems a cruel irony.

“When I hear ministers talk about the legacy of the Paralympics, saying how good things are . . . What planet are they living on?” she says. “In fact, things have got worse.”

Sophie Christiansen after being awarded her Paralympic gold medal last year. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.