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Why is there silence on the impact of welfare cuts on disabled people?

The silence doesn’t just come from our largely right-wing press. There’s something more insidious going on.

Liam Byrne
Liam Byrne, "whose pronouncements on welfare generally suggest a career on the Daily Mail’s subs desk can’t be far away". Photograph: Getty Images

One of the recurring things I’ve written about for the last few months has been the impact of cuts on disabled people. Whether it’s social care cuts, the Bedroom Tax, the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund, or Work Capability Assessments to name a few, disabled people are among those worst affected.

This begs a simple question: what’s the cumulative impact of these reforms? The welfare system is framed so that you receive small benefits for various different things. Disabled people usually rely on several benefits and are therefore more liable to be hit by more than one cut - in some cases, they’re being hit by four or five.

Claudia Wood, of the think tank Demos, has written in the Independent about how the multiplicity of cuts affected the families interviewed for its two year Disability in Austerity Study:

For the parents of a disabled child, it meant skipping medical appointments because they couldn’t afford the diesel. For a disabled man and his wife caring for him, it meant stuffing the window with newspaper in the winter because they couldn’t afford the repair. For a young woman in a wheelchair, it meant getting further into debt when a tyre needed replacing.

So how much are disabled people being affected? The simple answer is: I don’t know. And nor does the Government. After all, it’s rapidly become clear that statistics aren’t Iain Duncan Smith’s strong point. No, he prefers to rely on “belief.”

That was why, on 10 July, Liam Byrne - that’s Liam Byrne, a guy whose pronouncements on welfare generally suggest a career on the Daily Mail’s subs desk can’t be far away - used the Opposition Day Debate to call for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of the cuts on disabled people.

Byrne introduced the motion. It was actually a pretty powerful opening speech. He said:

Today we have one third of disabled citizens in our country living in poverty. That proportion has increased every single year this coalition Government have been in power. That is a disgrace, and it is only surpassed by the Government’s attempts to make it worse.

This debate received next to no coverage. It showed exactly why Kate Belgrave and I have named our current series “The Secret Cuts”. Because the silence doesn’t just come from our largely right-wing press. There’s something more insidious going on. And we saw it when Byrne began to talk about the bedroom tax:

Three quarters (75%) of carers having to pay the ‘bedroom tax’ are being forced to cut back on essential spending on food, electricity and heating. Will the Minister justify that to the House?

Mark Hoban replied:

The Leader of the Opposition has accepted the changes we have made through the spare room subsidy. Is the right hon. Gentleman going against that? Is he going to reverse this policy?

You could see where this was going. But Byrne pressed on:

The truth is that if 40% of people move, this could well cost our country £580 million, which is £100 million more than the Secretary of State promised to save. What is his analysis of that? Does he now admit this will cost more than it saves?

Iain Duncan Smith took to his feet with the air of Darth Vader about to tell someone he finds their lack of faith disturbing:

The right hon. Gentleman’s leader said categorically, in terms, that Labour would not reverse the spare room subsidy. [Interruption.] Yes, he has, in an interview. Now, however, the Leader of the Opposition’s spokesman is standing at the Dispatch Box saying Labour will reverse this. That is a commitment to spend £1 billion over two years, rolling out further down the road. That is a spending commitment.

You see the problem with these weasel words. No attempt whatsoever to address the policy’s economic illiteracy, nor its staggeringly cruel effects on the lives of the disabled. Instead, two words: “spending commitment”. Thus the argument was shut down. How eagerly will Byrne continue to pursue it?

There was more. In 2011 David Cameron told parliament he was not cutting benefits for disabled children. Byrne pointed out that it was a lie: families with disabled children currently receive an extra £54 per week from child tax credit, but that will be reduced by half when universal credit is introduced: about £1,400 a year for a family with a disabled child.

Hoban criticised Labour for not bringing in an assessment themselves (“They never did it when they were in government, and they know that they could not do it now either”), an argument that would have more weight if a) Labour had been putting in place the biggest cuts for disabled people for a generation b) Demos hadn’t cogently argued otherwise that morning. And as Claudia Wood had written in the Guardian:

The Department for Work and Pensions could confirm that the impact of welfare reform is far from evenly or fairly spread. But this would add fuel to the fire for those who are already calling for a rethink on welfare reform: perhaps cumulative assessments aren't too complex, but too controversial.

Hoban mumbled something about how the Institute for Fiscal Studies had said such assessments were hard, so it couldn’t be done. The huge impact to social care created by cuts to local government was apparently an invitation for authorities “to look innovatively at how they deliver services.” So the parliamentarians muddled through.

*

Tom Greatrex MP (Labour) used the debate to bring up the thorny issue of the Work Capability Assessment. It’s something our political leaders aren’t keen to discuss. That’s because it’s not working, and they know it’s their collective fault.

Greatrex cited a doctor, Greg Wood, who had left Atos and subsequently said health care professionals “are not free to make independent recommendations, important evidence is frequently missing or never sought in the first place, medical knowledge is twisted and points are often wrongly withheld through the use of an erroneously high standard of proof” and that an attitude is drilled into them “which leans towards finding reasons not to award points”. Wood had also said that in about a quarter of assessments important documentary evidence is missing but the assessments go ahead regardless.

It turns out when there’s a big problem - as I’ve written about, time and again - it’s not journalists who have trouble getting a proper response.  Greatrex said: “I got back a one-page letter—I have it here—that made absolutely no reference to any of the specific allegations. It did not say that there was a problem; it was just a standard response. On the same day, the Secretary of State’s private office e-mailed me, by mistake, a copy of a letter to another Member of Parliament—a Government Member—raising an individual’s case to which there was a much more systematic and detailed response.”

His closing remarks were unimprovable:

This is not just about the frustrations of seeking information from the Government, although I admit that I do get frustrated about that. It is not just about the waste and inefficiency in a programme that is costing £110 million a year for the Atos contract, and now up to £70 million this year in the appeals process to correct the mistakes. It is not just about an attitude, although I say again that I have found the Minister to be dismissive, evasive and sometimes partisan in our engagement on this issue. It is also about the experience of real people in every single part of this country who often have to adjust their life circumstances due to events completely beyond their control due to illness, accident or incident.

Towards the end of the debate, Esther McVey finally responded. Here it is in full:

I really do not get how Labour Members can forget that they introduced it in 2008 or that they gave the contract to Atos until 2015.

It’s everyone’s fault. So shut up.

*

There would be no cumulative impact assessment. There was time for Conservative MP Paul Maynard (a disabled man himself) to weigh in with a line one can only assume was a brave bid for thickest parliamentary comment of the year:

...dragged to this Chamber by Pat’s petition, We are Spartacus and other extremist disability groups that do not speak for the overall majority.

Following complaints from the aforementioned, he’d later ask for his words to be struck from Hansard.

In the end, only an amendment was passed.

This house welcomes the Government’s leadership in furthering the rights of disabled people; recognises the UK as a world leader in disability rights; notes that approximately £50 billion a year is spent on services for disabled people, including adult social services and including an investment of £3.8 billion in health and social care services in England to deliver more joined-up services to disabled people; further notes the £350 million allocated by the Government for programmes and support for disabled people to move into and stay in work; and acknowledges the Government’s collective determination to build upon the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and create a legacy which shines a light on the abilities and achievements of disabled people.

Hearty congratulations to our political class. Trebles all round.