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.

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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.