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The Disability Dossier: 39 pages that could end the Tories’ crushing welfare agenda

A report of disability benefit claimants’ experiences exposes government cruelty and incompetence in unprecedented numbers.

A person with Down’s syndrome being asked when they “caught” it. A suicidal woman questioned over why she hadn’t killed herself yet. This is not the beginning of a bad taste joke but a description of this government’s treatment of disabled people.

The work and pensions select committee has released a report into the experiences of people being assessed for disability benefits – a 39-page rundown of a system plagued by basic errors, disrespect, and ignorance of health problems.

While it’s expected that the overwhelming majority of responses were negative – people with bad experiences are more likely to want to speak out, after all – it would be hard for even the staunchest supporter of the government to ignore the evidence on show: fundamental mistakes over people’s conditions, no record of relevant information, references to “invented” aspects of the assessment (for example, reporting that someone was able to stand up, when that never actually happened).

As the MPs concluded, while the system functions “satisfactorily for the majority of claimants”, it is “failing a substantial minority”.

For many disabled people, this will come as little surprise. I hear weekly from people seen by untrained assessors – say, someone with complex mental health problems assessed by an occupational therapist – wheelchair users sent to inaccessible test centres, or even assessors allegedly fabricating reports in order to turn people down for benefits.

But at a time in which campaigners are continually fighting for reforms to the failing systemcomplaints about one key benefit, personal independence payment (PIP), rose by nearly 880 per cent last year – this report adds more pressure on the government.

All this has been revealed ahead of the committee’s much-anticipated full investigation into the disability benefit system due for release this week. The number of disabled people who wrote in shows the scale of the problem; 4,000 submissions is an “unprecedented” number for a select committee inquiry. So many that it published a separate report about them first.

It couldn’t come soon enough. While Universal Credit has been dominating the headlines in recent months, the disability benefit system has been causing damage for the last six years.

The mass rollout of PIP and the out-of-work sickness benefit, the employment and support allowance (ESA) – first started by the coalition government – were in many ways the centre of the Conservatives’ anti-welfare drive, with ministers handing out hundreds of millions to private companies to run the assessments while claiming there are hordes of scrounging disabled people whose benefits should be withdrawn to get the “welfare” bill down.

It’s resulted in a system so inept that vast numbers of disabled people are having their support removed incorrectly: since 2013, of 170,000 PIP appeals taken to tribunal, 63 per cent won, while 60 per cent of the 53,000 ESA appeals succeeded.

Bear in mind this is at a time when legal aid cuts and the closure of welfare advice centres means many disabled people forced to appeal have no help to do so (imagine what the appeal rates would be if these were healthy people given legal support).

The impact of this is brutal. More than a third of those who have had their benefit cut say they’re struggling to pay for food, rent and bills, while 40 per cent say they’ve become more isolated as over 50,000 disabled people lost access to Motability vehicles.

The recent appointment of Esther McVey – famed in her role as Minister for Disabled People for her punitive attitude to benefit claimants – as the new Work and Pensions Secretary does not bode well for hopes to reform the system.

But the past month has shown with enough pressure, the government can be forced into a climb-down: in January, the Department for Work and Pensions announced every person receiving PIP – that’s 1.6 million people – will have their claim reviewed after a court challenge.

This week’s coming report could be another nail in the coffin in the Conservatives’ disability benefit agenda. In the meantime, cancer patients and people with severe depression are being left without the money they need to live.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.