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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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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