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  1. Politics
17 March 2016

With his disability benefit cuts, George Osborne is telling us we’re not “disabled enough”

The Chancellor plans to save £1.2bn in the Budget by reforming the PIP benefit and making it even harder to claim.

By Amy Mackelden

Since its inception, the Personal Independence Payment has been riddled with problems. PIP replaces Disability Living Allowance (DLA) as the benefit designed to support the disabled and sick, to help with the extra costs incurred as a result of having a health issue.

Outsourced by the government to private contractors like Atos and Capita, an individual is assessed for the benefit on a points basis, in the first instance completing a lengthy application form and submitting evidence, and then in a face-to-face interview.

Points are awarded to an individual according to the specific help they need, with several points allocated if a person uses aids or appliances to complete tasks that someone else might not need.

Despite continued criticism from charities, disability activists, and those who have navigated the new system, the government has announced a crucial change to the PIP points system, which will make it even harder to successfully claim.

I have Multiple Sclerosis, but I don’t receive PIP. My experience of the PIP application and tribunal process is well-documented, and isn’t unusual in the slightest. Even more people face losing their benefits once this change, relating to the use of aids and what the government deems necessary help, is implemented.

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It’s an increasingly desperate situation, but as the Budget confirms, PIP will face further changes in order to save the government £1.2bn. The money’s got to come from somewhere, kids.

The sugar tax announced in the Budget has distracted from the devastating cuts the Chancellor, George Osborne, has made to the disability budget.

While tax breaks for those with means look promising – with tax thresholds rising, and personal ISAs promising cash rewards, among many other things – the disabled and sick are to face yet another reform to an already broken system.

Serina Sandhu wrote in the Independent, “Reforming PIP is expected to save £1.2bn but affect more than 640,000 people.”

This is another in a lengthy series of cuts forced upon some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

Justin Tomlinson, the Minister for Disabled People, and one of my personal faves, said of the changes to PIP:

“Many people are eligible for a weekly award despite having minimal to no extra costs and judicial decisions have expanded the criteria for aids and appliances to include items we would expect people to have in their homes already.”

I received a letter from Tomlinson on the matter of my own failed PIP application. His response was staunchly defensive of the new benefit and how smoothly it was working to replace DLA. There was no room for criticism, or even feedback.

This evidence, and more, suggests that Tomlinson has no idea what it means to be disabled or to live with a lifelong illness. His priority is money, only, and despite protests, there’s seemingly nothing we can do to change this.

Instead of listening to feedback from those who have been forced to navigate the new system, and upwards of 27 charities that support a wide variety of illnesses and disabilities, the government is forging ahead with a plan of its own: to alter the way that points are awarded on the system, making it much more difficult to claim the benefit.

Will this save money in the Budget? Absolutely. Will it destroy, or alter beyond repair, the lives of people in this country that rely on disability support? Simply, yes.

The PIP assessment process already results in genuinely disabled and ill applicants being denied the benefit. This is in part down to the government’s contract with Atos, and the individuals who are hired to carry out the assessments.

Whether or not an individual is allocated the necessary points to make them eligible for PIP is entirely in the hands of a “health professional”, who, according to Atos, “come from NHS organisations, hospitals and other health backgrounds”.

The person assessing your health condition might be a doctor, but could just as likely be a physiotherapist. Either way, it’s unlikely they will have any specialised knowledge of what it’s like to live with a particular condition. It’s also a crapshoot as to whether or not the “health professional” deems to record an assessment accurately, or treat it like a creative writing exercise for which they’ll be rewarded.

My assessor spoke at length about her own daughter’s hopes and dreams for a career on the stage or as a writer which, FYI, is exactly what a disabled person wants to hear when they’ve had to overhaul their own work situation as a result of their illness.

Chief executive of the MS Society, Michelle Mitchell, said:

“This decision could have a devastating impact on the lives of people with MS. PIP is an essential benefit which goes towards the extra cost of being disabled. The new plans will fail some of the most vulnerable people in society and we have serious concerns about the future health and welfare of those affected.”

To put the change to the PIP points system into clearer focus, the MS Society notes that, “The number of points that can be scored in the assessment for using an aid or appliance to manage continence needs, or to dress and undress have been halved from two to one. The change is set to be implemented from January 2017. It could mean that people who would have scored points in this way may no longer qualify for the enhanced or standard rate of PIP.”

This change affects anyone who is afflicted with an incurable illness or disability. While the illness, or the way it affects someone on a daily basis, isn’t going to improve, eligibility for the benefit is about to become even more selective. This is yet another example of the government telling us what it means to be “disabled enough”.

As poet and disability activist Daniel Sluman puts it:

“The more you’re generalised as lazy, lacking in motivation, and somehow desiring this wonderful life of benefits, the more it gets to you that maybe these well-educated, (surely?!) empathetic people in power must be right. You find yourself doubting the realities of what you can and can’t do, second guessing the pain you know you feel, and it makes you feel even more inferior/isolated/lacking in worth.”

I thought the whole point of getting a diagnosis was never having doubt oneself, or one’s own abilities, again?  

January 2017 has been set as a deadline of sorts, to magically get cured of your incurable illness. And if you can’t magically cure yourself, then… nothing.

An overcomplicated system is about to get even more complicated, and there’s no advice I can give you about how to survive it. Something has to change, and soon, as those who are ill and disabled deserve so much better.

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