Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1971. If you can’t, jump on Google, provided the Daily Mail hasn’t turned you against it. Get Carter premiered, postal workers went on strike and then-Education secretary Margaret Thatcher was branded the “milk snatcher” for ending the provision of free milk to junior school pupils.
Thatcher justified this as a bid to save the Treasury £4m – less than £60m today. So why, when Theresa May is so often compared to Thatcher (primarily due to their shared gender of course), has the current Prime Minister not been the subject of similar outrage over plans to cut disability benefits vital to personal mobility by £3.7bn?
Set aside from how this reflects on British attitudes towards disability (more of which later). The methods employed by government throughout the process – from not only ignoring but directly opposing recommendations by two Upper Tribunals on the benefits in questions, to announcing their changes on a day when the media was immersed in two high-profile by-elections – have been described by shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams as undermining and subverting our democratic process, bypassing debate and scrutiny.
Personal independence payments, the benefits over which Chancellor Philip Hammond has swung the axe, provide support for those living with a long-term disability or illness. The points-based assessment is split into daily living and mobility components, with a maximum award of £139.75 per week. Changes to the eligibility rules now result in those who monitor their own condition or suffer psychological distress associated with taking journeys receiving reduced payments.
But to those of us who have never suffered greater inconvenience than a broken down car or delayed train during our travels, what does this really mean?
It means those who suffer psychological distress when undertaking any journey, whether or not they’re cognitive symptoms of a physical condition, may have the weekly benefits they receive to maintain their mobility reduced from £57 to £22.
That could mean someone who relies on their Motability car to get to work is now unable to make the journey – 750 of the vehicles a week are being returned due to the withdrawal of support, according to the SNP’s Patricia Gibson. It could mean someone who suffers from Parkinson’s might now have to run the risk of a freezing episode on a bus or a train rather than in the safety of a taxi. It means thousands more people will have to go through the traumatic appeals process – a process in which 60 per cent of appeals are successful, a proportion which underlines how unfit for the purpose the assessment mechanism is.
It could mean someone who cannot leave the house alone due to severe anxiety now cannot leave the house at all. A barrier to living a normal life, participating in the community and contributing to society, opportunities that all citizens of this country should be afforded, and one we have committed to as part of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Overall, the move highlights the fact the government has reneged on a specific commitment it made, when introducing Pip, to treat those suffering from mental health disorders would be treated equally to those with physical disabilities, and seems at odds with a recent green paper that stated: “A disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life – or in the workplace.”
It also comes just 12 months after a u-turn on previous proposals to cut Pip that would have saved the Treasury £4.4bn – cuts so severe they prompted then-Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to resign.
Yet in a Commons debate yesterday, Work and Pensions minister Penny Mordaunt said the amendments to legislation “were not intended to make new savings”, and that there was “no change to the budget”.
This seems hard to believe given they will indeed save billions, and while the government may argue there’s no change to the disability benefit budget, there’s no denying following the outrage and subsequent climbdown over an increase in national insurance contributions announced in the final Spring Budget, there is a rather large hole in the finances to be filled.
The Nics argument brings us back to attitude. Hammond’s increase to national insurance payments of around £35 a year was billed as “grossly unfair” to those self-employed workers who would be affected. What of those who will now be unable to work after losing the same amount a week?