The transition from DLA to PIP will harm disabled claimants

Causes for concern from a care worker.

I am a care worker supporting disabled people to live independently within my community. Many of my service users claim disability benefit, and I am concerned that the new assessments for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which has replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA), will not only cause them unnecessary stress and anxiety but threaten the freedom and standard of living they are used to having - and have a right to have.

The assessment for PIP requires claimants to attend face-to-face consultations, unless they’re housebound or unable to travel for medical reasons. Dave* has multiple sclerosis. Although he is not technically “housebound” it would be an enormous task for him to attend a consultation because he is wheelchair bound and doesn’t have easy access to disabled-friendly transport. It would be mentally overwhelming too, because beneath the bravado of a bloke who used to run a building site, Dave like many other disabled people has suffered a huge loss of confidence. The prospect would cause him unnecessary distress and it would take days to recover from the mental and physical upheaval of having been. But practical obstacles and vulnerable states of mind do not count as excuses to avoid these consultations.

The new assessments also prioritise testimonies from GPs and specialists rather than those from families, carers and social workers. Whilst a doctor’s input is invaluable in proving what disability a claimant has, they are no more qualified to comment on how that disability affects the claimant on a daily basis outside of the doctor’s surgery or hospital. 

Jane* has Parkinson’s disease and a rare condition that causes jaw spasms and excessive dribbling. She sees a specialist twice a year who is “managing” her well - she receives treatment, of varying success rates, for her medical conditions. So her doctor could feasibly suggest that Jane copes alright at home. If this testimony is the extent of Jane’s supporting evidence then her assessment will be inaccurate and overlook the practical tasks she cannot complete and the social interactions she cannot have. Jane’s doctor doesn’t know she spends her days hunched over a bin of wet tissues, often crying, with a constant stream of saliva pouring from her mouth. Nor should they be expected to, because they do not live and work alongside her. Since PIP is supposed to improve disabled people’s “ability to participate in society”, assessors should surely be concerned with living socially as opposed to surviving medically. As it stands, the new assessment and its preoccupation with medical evidence will fail people like Jane.

Claimants will be regularly reassessed for PIP once they receive it to ensure their circumstances have not changed. Bizarrely this will even apply to permanently disabled people like Tony*, a paralysed stroke victim, and Sue* who has Multiple System Atrophy (MSA). Their condition will never improve but they will nonetheless have to endure routine reassessments causing unnecessary stress and disruption – lest they forget that it is not their right to have this support; it is their short term privilege which can be taken away at any time.

Indeed it will be taken away. People who have leased ‘motorbility’ cars using their DLA risk losing them because the ‘walking distance’ that decides your eligibility has been decreased from fifty metres to twenty. Lucy* has cerebral palsy but whilst she cannot walk fifty metres, she can struggle to walk twenty. She lives in a remote village, miles from amenities and relies on her car. The infrequent and unreliable bus service clashes with her shifts as a ‘blood bikes’ co-ordinator (a voluntary courier service for the NHS) and besides, she suffers terribly with travel sickness. If her car is taken, Lucy’s independence will be taken as well.

Lucy said to me last week “we talk about vulnerable disabled people, but my disability doesn’t make me vulnerable – this government does!” As PIP sweeps across the country, I fear she is right. My service users will face a lifetime of exhausting assessments or have the disability benefit safety net pulled from underneath them altogether, simply because our government has decided to move the goal posts closer together in a bid to reducing welfare spending.

We must raise awareness about the impact these PIP assessments will have on disabled people. The MS society has campaigned successfully for PIP assessors to allow for the fluctuating nature of multiple sclerosis, something they previously failed to consider. Parkinson’s UK has campaigned to postpone reassessments for current DLA claimants until October 2015, to allow time for an independent review on how PIP works for new claimants. More of us need to follow suit, and I for one wouldn’t be doing my job properly as a care worker if I didn’t speak out against these PIP assessments, and the harm they are likely to bring my service users.

*Some names have been altered to protect the identities of affected individuals.

A response from the Minister for Disabled People, Esther McVey, to this piece is published here 

The assessment for PIP requires claimants to attend face-to-face consultations, though many are not able. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.