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.

Photo: Getty
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The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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