Katherine Fidler
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The disability benefit cuts Philip Hammond forgot to mention in Budget 2017

One year from a major u-turn on disability benefit cuts, the Conservatives continue to squeeze those in need.

“No more deaths from benefits cuts,” was the chant from protesters outside parliament on the eve of Philip Hammond’s first (and last) Spring Budget - a Budget Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said denied disabled citizens the support they need following proposed changes to personal independence payments (Pip).

“This is an inhumane government,” said Paula Peters, spokeswoman for Disabled People Against Cuts, which organised the march. “Thousands of people are seeing their health deteriorating, they’re having their care packages cut, they’ve lost their Pip, lost their Motability cars - they’re imprisoned in their own home. This is an ideological policy designed to remove the welfare state and just leave us at home, unable to take part in society.”

There was strong sentiment here, and also a feeling of deja vu. It was only 12 months ago the relatively fresh-faced Conservative government unveiled cuts to Pip in a bid to save the Treasury £4.4bn. The proposals sparked civil war in the party, with the then-Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith resigning in protest.

“I have for some time and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled and the context in which they've been made are a compromise too far,” his resignation letter read. “I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.”

Those dependent on Pip gained a brief respite after Duncan Smith's successor Stephen Crabb promised no further cuts were planned. Similar sentiments reiterated by Crabb's successor, Damian Green. 

Last month, though, that U-turn instead turned full circle. Green unveiled further reforms to Pip that - while not specifically cutting the funds available for those in receipt of the benefit - will limit the number of applicants who are eligible in a bid to save billions of pounds, directly opposing two rulings by the Upper Tribunal, a legal body that scrutinises benefit decisions. 

What is Pip?

Personal independence payments assist with the extra costs incurred as a result of living with long-term disability or illness. Assessment for the benefit is split into two elements - a daily living component and mobility component. Applicants are assessed on a points-based scheme, with higher points equating to higher payments, up to a maximum of £139.75 per week.

Last month’s proposal will result in fewer points being awarded to those who monitor their own condition and also those who suffer psychological distress associated with taking journeys - directly opposing the advice by the Upper Tribunal.

Phil Reynolds, policy and campaigns advisor for Parkinsons UK and policy co-chairman of the Disability Benefits Consortium, feels that existing policy already failed to fully address the psychological impact of making a journey on those suffering certain disorders, an issue that will be now be exacerbated.

“The government’s own impact assessment says this will affect a wide range of conditions, such as schizophrenia, agoraphobia, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety disorders and depression,” he said. “But for example, if you have Parkinson’s, and you’re worried about falling over, or don’t leave the house due to the stigma of having a freezing episode in the street, you can understand the psychological consequences of a physical condition.

“The Upper Tribunal has reinterpreted the assessment criterion to say if you would otherwise suffer overwhelming psychological distress to get out, you score higher - more people would qualify so the reinterpretation is potentially helpful. But by rolling all this back, while strictly true it’s not a cut, [an estimated] 150,000 won’t gain access, so it’s a cut by another name.”

The cost of living with disability

Laura Wetherly, senior policy officer for the MS [multiple sclerosis] Society, estimates the cost of living with a neurological condition adds an extra £200 per week to household budgets. 

“People living with MS rely on Pip to cover the cost of living with their condition and maintaining independent lives - things like getting out and about, paying for taxis, specialist equipment, specialist clothing, and extra heating and electricity bills,” she said. 

Janet Roberts, who suffers from Parkinson’s, counts increased eye and dental care among the added expenses resulting from the condition. Part of Roberts’ benefits package is a motability car.

“Parkinson’s is a very variable condition, so when I go out I need to take a wheelchair, a folding chair, a change of clothes,” she said. “Having the car is like a security blanket.

"Using public transport is quite a hairy experience - when I was last in London I got off the Tube and froze. My husband was with me but he has bad arthritis and together we were stuck on the platform, worried the train might hit my rucksack or that we’d fall on the tracks. The mid-week Londoner is steely and single-minded - our calls for help were ignored by more than 50 people until a couple and their young boy came to help us."

In a recent assessment Roberts was informed she was no longer eligible for the vehicle, a decision that was overturned on appeal - campaigners told me successful appeals for certain allowances are as high as 60 per cent.

The future

“What we’re really concerned about is the current landscape regarding the issues going on at the moment,” said the MS Society's Wetherly. “Less than a year ago there was a promise no more support would be taken away, and now both the cuts to Pip and Employment Support Allowance are coming in at the same time.”

ESA - employment and support allowance - has been cut by the current government in a bid to encourage those living with a disability to find employment, reducing the allowance to £73.10 a week, that of standard job seeker’s allowance.

“I really don’t think the cuts will help motivate people towards work,” added Wetherly. “If anything it will push them further away from work and make it harder for them to manage their condition.”

Denise McKenna, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder and co-founded the Mental Health Resistance Network, saw a dramatic reduction in her income when switched from the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) on to Pip last year when losing the mobility component of the benefit, and under the new assessment criteria could see that figure reduced further, to less than half what she received on DLA.

“It seems to be one attack on disabled people after another,” she said. “We really need Labour to take up strongly against what’s happening because no amount of protest is going to make a difference unless there’s strong opposition.”

Both Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams have been vocal on the issue. But with Chancellor Philip Hammond remaining firm on the proposals following Wednesday’s budget, round two of the Pip battle won’t be won by virtue of a Tory implosion - it will indeed need strong opposition in every sense.

Photo: Getty
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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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