Katherine Fidler
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The disability benefit cuts Philip Hammond forgot to mention in Budget 2017

One year from a major u-turn on disability benefit cuts, the Conservatives continue to squeeze those in need.

“No more deaths from benefits cuts,” was the chant from protesters outside parliament on the eve of Philip Hammond’s first (and last) Spring Budget - a Budget Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said denied disabled citizens the support they need following proposed changes to personal independence payments (Pip).

“This is an inhumane government,” said Paula Peters, spokeswoman for Disabled People Against Cuts, which organised the march. “Thousands of people are seeing their health deteriorating, they’re having their care packages cut, they’ve lost their Pip, lost their Motability cars - they’re imprisoned in their own home. This is an ideological policy designed to remove the welfare state and just leave us at home, unable to take part in society.”

There was strong sentiment here, and also a feeling of deja vu. It was only 12 months ago the relatively fresh-faced Conservative government unveiled cuts to Pip in a bid to save the Treasury £4.4bn. The proposals sparked civil war in the party, with the then-Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith resigning in protest.

“I have for some time and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled and the context in which they've been made are a compromise too far,” his resignation letter read. “I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.”

Those dependent on Pip gained a brief respite after Duncan Smith's successor Stephen Crabb promised no further cuts were planned. Similar sentiments reiterated by Crabb's successor, Damian Green. 

Last month, though, that U-turn instead turned full circle. Green unveiled further reforms to Pip that - while not specifically cutting the funds available for those in receipt of the benefit - will limit the number of applicants who are eligible in a bid to save billions of pounds, directly opposing two rulings by the Upper Tribunal, a legal body that scrutinises benefit decisions. 

What is Pip?

Personal independence payments assist with the extra costs incurred as a result of living with long-term disability or illness. Assessment for the benefit is split into two elements - a daily living component and mobility component. Applicants are assessed on a points-based scheme, with higher points equating to higher payments, up to a maximum of £139.75 per week.

Last month’s proposal will result in fewer points being awarded to those who monitor their own condition and also those who suffer psychological distress associated with taking journeys - directly opposing the advice by the Upper Tribunal.

Phil Reynolds, policy and campaigns advisor for Parkinsons UK and policy co-chairman of the Disability Benefits Consortium, feels that existing policy already failed to fully address the psychological impact of making a journey on those suffering certain disorders, an issue that will be now be exacerbated.

“The government’s own impact assessment says this will affect a wide range of conditions, such as schizophrenia, agoraphobia, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety disorders and depression,” he said. “But for example, if you have Parkinson’s, and you’re worried about falling over, or don’t leave the house due to the stigma of having a freezing episode in the street, you can understand the psychological consequences of a physical condition.

“The Upper Tribunal has reinterpreted the assessment criterion to say if you would otherwise suffer overwhelming psychological distress to get out, you score higher - more people would qualify so the reinterpretation is potentially helpful. But by rolling all this back, while strictly true it’s not a cut, [an estimated] 150,000 won’t gain access, so it’s a cut by another name.”

The cost of living with disability

Laura Wetherly, senior policy officer for the MS [multiple sclerosis] Society, estimates the cost of living with a neurological condition adds an extra £200 per week to household budgets. 

“People living with MS rely on Pip to cover the cost of living with their condition and maintaining independent lives - things like getting out and about, paying for taxis, specialist equipment, specialist clothing, and extra heating and electricity bills,” she said. 

Janet Roberts, who suffers from Parkinson’s, counts increased eye and dental care among the added expenses resulting from the condition. Part of Roberts’ benefits package is a motability car.

“Parkinson’s is a very variable condition, so when I go out I need to take a wheelchair, a folding chair, a change of clothes,” she said. “Having the car is like a security blanket.

"Using public transport is quite a hairy experience - when I was last in London I got off the Tube and froze. My husband was with me but he has bad arthritis and together we were stuck on the platform, worried the train might hit my rucksack or that we’d fall on the tracks. The mid-week Londoner is steely and single-minded - our calls for help were ignored by more than 50 people until a couple and their young boy came to help us."

In a recent assessment Roberts was informed she was no longer eligible for the vehicle, a decision that was overturned on appeal - campaigners told me successful appeals for certain allowances are as high as 60 per cent.

The future

“What we’re really concerned about is the current landscape regarding the issues going on at the moment,” said the MS Society's Wetherly. “Less than a year ago there was a promise no more support would be taken away, and now both the cuts to Pip and Employment Support Allowance are coming in at the same time.”

ESA - employment and support allowance - has been cut by the current government in a bid to encourage those living with a disability to find employment, reducing the allowance to £73.10 a week, that of standard job seeker’s allowance.

“I really don’t think the cuts will help motivate people towards work,” added Wetherly. “If anything it will push them further away from work and make it harder for them to manage their condition.”

Denise McKenna, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder and co-founded the Mental Health Resistance Network, saw a dramatic reduction in her income when switched from the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) on to Pip last year when losing the mobility component of the benefit, and under the new assessment criteria could see that figure reduced further, to less than half what she received on DLA.

“It seems to be one attack on disabled people after another,” she said. “We really need Labour to take up strongly against what’s happening because no amount of protest is going to make a difference unless there’s strong opposition.”

Both Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams have been vocal on the issue. But with Chancellor Philip Hammond remaining firm on the proposals following Wednesday’s budget, round two of the Pip battle won’t be won by virtue of a Tory implosion - it will indeed need strong opposition in every sense.

CREDIT: GETTY
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Barb Jungr’s diary: Apart-hotels, scattered families and bringing the Liver Birds back to Liverpool

My Liver Birds reboot, set in the present day with new music and a new story, is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre.

For the last three years I’ve been writing a musical. Based on Carla Lane and Myra Taylor’s Liver Birds characters Beryl and Sandra, but set in the present day with new music and a new story, it is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre – in Liverpool, appropriately. Amazingly, the sun shines as the train ambles into Lime Street, where Ken Dodd’s statue has recently been customised with a feather duster tickling stick and some garlands of orange and lime green. Outside the station, composer Mike Lindup and I buy a Big Issue. We have a scene opening Act Two with a Big Issue seller and we are superstitious. We check into our “apart-hotel”. Apart-hotel is a new word and means a hotel room with a kitchen area you will never, ever use.

At the theatre everyone hugs as though their lives depend on it; we are all aware we are heading into a battle the outcome of which is unknown. There will be no more hugging after this point till opening night as stress levels increase day by day. I buy chocolate on the way back as there’s a fridge in my apart-hotel and I ought to use it for something.

Ships in the night

There’s no point in being in Liverpool without running by the river, so I leap up (in geriatric fashion) and head out into the rain. You’d think, since I grew up in the north-west and cannot ever remember experiencing any period of consecutive sunny days here, that I’d have brought a waterproof jacket with me. I didn’t. It springs from optimism. Misplaced in this case, as it happens. I return soaking but with a coconut latte. Every cloud.

We have been in the theatre for seven hours. Everything has been delayed. The cast are amusing themselves by singing old television themes. They have just made short shrift of Bonanza and have moved on to The Magic Roundabout. We may all be going very slightly mad.

As hours dwindle away with nothing being achieved, Mike and I pop to the theatre next door to enjoy someone else’s musical. In this case, Sting’s. It’s wonderfully palate-cleansing and I finally manage to go to sleep with different ear worms about ships and men, rather than our own, about Liverpool and women.

Wood for the trees

This morning “tech” begins (during which every single move of the cast and set, plus lighting, costume, prop and sound cues must be decided and logged on a computer). Problems loom around every piece of scenery. Our smiles and patience wear thin.

By the end of the 12-hour session we know we have the most patient, professional cast in the known cosmos. I, on the other hand, am a lost cause. I fret and eat, nervously, doubting every decision, every line, every lyric. Wondering how easy it would be to start over, in forestry perhaps? There is a drug deal going on across the road in the street outside the hotel. My apart-hotel kitchen remains as new.

First preview

I slept like a log. (All those years of working with Julian Clary make it impossible not to add, “I woke up in the fireplace”.) At the crack of dawn we’re cutting scenes in the Royal Court café like hairdressers on coke. Today is ladies’ day at Aintree, which feels apropos; tonight we open Liver Birds Flying Home, here.

The spirit of Carla Lane, who died in 2016, always dances around our consciousness when we are writing. She was very good to us when we began this project, and she was incredibly important to my teenage self, gazing out for role models across the cobblestones.

I grew up in Rochdale, a first-generation Brit. My parents had come here after the war, and what family we had was scattered to the four winds, some lost for ever and some found much later on, after the Velvet Revolution. I had a coterie of non-related “aunties” who felt sorry for us. Ladies with blue rinses, wearing mothball-smelling fur coats in cold houses with Our Lady of Fátima statues lit by votive candles in every conceivable alcove. To this day, the smell of incense brings it all back. Yet the northern matriarchy is a tough breed and I’m happy to carry some of that legacy with pride.

Seeing the theatre fill with people is terrifying and exciting in equal measure. We’ve had to accept that the finale isn’t in tonight’s show because of lack of technical time. I’m far from thrilled. The show, however, has a life of its own and the actors surf every change with aplomb. The audience cheers, even without the finale. Nonetheless, I slouch home in despair. Is it too late to change my name?

Matinee day

The fire alarm is going off. I know that because I’m awake and it’s 4am. As I stand in reception among the pyjama-clad flotsam and jetsam of the apart-hotel, I suspect I’m not the only one thinking: if only they’d had alarms this annoyingly loud in Grenfell. I don’t go back to sleep. I rewrite the last scene and discuss remaining changes for the morning production meeting with my co-writer, George.

The Saturday afternoon performance (which now includes the finale) receives a standing ovation in the circle. The ratio of women to men in the audience is roughly five to one. In the evening performance it is 50/50, so I’m curious to see how Beryl and Sandra’s story plays to the chaps who’ve been dragged out on a Saturday night with their wives. In the pub after the show a man tells Lesley, the actress playing present-day Beryl, how moved he had been by what he’d seen and heard.

A few years ago I stood behind Miriam Margolyes as we were about to go on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in a Christmas show. She turned to me, saying, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” We agreed: “Because we can’t do anything else!” I suspect forestry is out of the question at this juncture. 

“Liver Birds Flying Home” is at the Royal Court, Liverpool, until 12 May.

Barb Jungr is an English singer, songwriter, composer and writer.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge