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.

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.

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

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.