Disability cuts: the big picture is terrifying

Individual benefit changes seem minor, says the head of Scope. But taken together, they present a worrying vision of life for disabled people in Britain.

Disability is set to explode into one of the political issues of 2013. It’s just a case of joining the dots.

This week alone has seen six parliamentary events in four days, each with disability at its heart. It kicked off with the vote on the Benefits Uprating Bill, which, contrary to the Government’s line, doesn’t protect disabled people

Also on Monday, the Minister for Disabled People, Esther McVey, was grilled on changes to Disability Living Allowance (DLA) by the Work and Pensions Select Committee. DLA was then the subject of a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday, while Lord Freud was put on the spot on the issue in the Lords on Thursday.

This week Lords also raised questions on social care, which we now know is very much a disability issue. While on Wednesday another Westminster Hall debate tackled disability, this time housing benefits and disabled people. 

Amid the hurly-burly of politics, each debate, meeting or question can fly under the radar. But take a step back and they reveal a bigger story than the individual impact of one or other change. Disabled people rely on a house of cards of support and it’s about to come tumbling down. 

Here’s a taste of what it’s like to be disabled in 2013.

If you need help with basics such as getting up, getting dressed, getting fed and getting out, in theory you are entitled to support from your council. But there’s a £1.2bn black hole in funding. As a result 40 per cent of disabled people say their social care doesn’t meet these needs – and the Government’s plans for social care reform, due to be published in spring, will see 100,000 people stop being eligible. 

Once you’ve got help to get up and out, you have to contend with the fact that life costs an awful lot more if you’re disabled. Disability Living Allowance – administered nationally and non-means tested – is designed to address this. It might pay for a taxi to work where there is no accessible transport. The Government is turning DLA into Personal Independence Payment, bringing in a new assessment from April. Worryingly for disabled people, before a single person has been assessed the Government is expecting more than half a million people to lose the payment.

Then if you are disabled and also happen to be one of the country’s 2.49m people out of work, you are entitled to some basic income support and help to find a job. Before you can access either you have to go through the Work Capability Assessment. Given the high levels of successful appeals, and the horror stories of people inappropriately found fit to work, disabled people are very anxious about taking this test.

If you do end up on the right level of support, you can look forward to below-inflation increases (according to Labour 3.4m disabled households will be worse off) and possibly a place on the Work Programme, which has so far struggled to help disabled people find work.

Much like this week’s debates, questions and committees, each of these moves can feel niche, technical, even justifiable on its own. But it’s only when you look at them together that you get a feeling for what it’s like to be disabled right now.

It’s time we started looking at the big picture. Cuts to DLA can’t be discussed without talking about the future of social care. Indeed, I spoke to a visually impaired man from the Midlands whose council tried to justify rationing his social care by telling him to top it up with DLA.

The ministers say: don’t be scared. The Government says it has to save money. But this goes beyond saving money. This is about the kind of society we want to live in. This is Britain in 2013. This is about drawing a line in the sand.

Do we want to live in a country where we shut disabled people away? Do we want to live in one where a disabled person is asked if they really need to have a wash every day? 

Or do we want to live in one in which we are willing to invest in making sure disabled people can get involved in everyday life?

I know what I want.

But what about politicians?  It’s hard to say. I’m waiting for someone – of either party – to come out and say ‘Some people need benefits. It doesn’t make them a scrounger, it doesn’t make them workshy and it doesn’t make them feckless.’

Instead we are fed ‘strivers not skivers’ or ‘training not claiming’. It is time both parties stopped benefits bashing. We spend more on disability benefits than US, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. We should be proud of that. Benefits mean disabled people can do things in day-to-day life that everyone else takes for granted.

Ultimately politicians think they are on safe ground with this one. But here’s one last stat: according to the British Social Attitudes survey, 84 per cent of people would like the state to support them if they became disabled. The public know what kind of society they want to live in too.

Richard Hawkes is chief executive of the disability charity Scope

An amputee learns to walk. Photo: Getty

Richard Hawkes is chief executive of the disability charity Scope.

Getty
Show Hide image

Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.