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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war