The Government is in the final week of its consultation asking disabled people to help develop its disability strategy. Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, has said that: “The Government is committed to enabling disabled people to fulfil their potential and have the opportunity to play a full role in their community”. But in reality it is clear that the Government lacks any cohesive policy that will enable this to happen.
In the last three years 31 people have died while awaiting appeals against Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) medicals that had found them fit to work. At their most vulnerable, the sick and disabled were left worrying to the day they died about how they and their family would cope financially while their illness was slowly killing them. Society should be in uproar that people in dire need turned to the state for help and were failed by it, but instead media and Government debate focuses on disabled ‘scroungers’, further isolating the disabled from their communities.
Yet while it could be argued in the case of ESA that Government incompetence is forcing disabled people into hardship, the same cannot be said for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), the new benefit that is replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA). Under PIP eligibility rules, even if you cannot walk more than 50 metres and need a wheelchair to get about for any longer distances, a disabled person still won’t be eligible for higher rate mobility – which in short means they will most likely lose access to a car through the motability scheme and the freedom such a vehicle gives them that their body cannot.
By cold-hearted design, these ‘independence payments’ will in fact take independence away from severely disabled people and force them to remain in their homes. No wonder Lady Grey-Thompson, speaking to the Guardian last month, said: “I worry that it is going to become the way it was when I was young where you just didn’t see disabled people on the street because they were locked away.”
These aren’t the only cuts aimed at disabled people. The Department of Work and Pensions’ own analysis into the housing benefit reforms states that 450,000 disabled people will face cuts to their allowance under new rules. 78,000 disabled people who use legal aid to appeal against decisions to deny them benefit will lose this support under Ken Clarke’s reforms. The Independent Living Fund (ILF) has been entirely closed to new claimants and by 2015 payments to the 21,000 severely disabled people it helps will cease. Tax credits to help with the extra costs of raising a disabled child will be cut from a maximum of £54 a week to £27 a week under Ian Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit changes – cuts that the Children’s Society says will see some families with disabled offspring £1,400 worse off a year. According to a Government Select Committee on Health, nearly two thirds of local authorities in England have reduced their disabled and adult social care budgets. As such councils have drastically altered their criteria for providing care to disabled adults, leaving many people unable to wash and dress themselves properly isolated in their own filth as they are not disabled enough to qualify for care.
These cuts will severely curtail disabled people’s ability to “fulfil their potential”. PIP will actually remove independence from disabled people, the scrapping of ILF will see disabled people condemned to care homes, decisions to limit ESA to one year, leaving 7000 cancer patients without any financial support while they are still too unwell to work, will only help in moving disabled people into poverty, not into the workplace. Cuts to legal aid will take away their voice, housing benefit remove them from often supportive communities and homes that are specially adapted for their needs. Harsh reductions in social care budgets will see people stuck in hospital for longer periods of time as they cannot be discharged into communities because they lack provision for their basic care. Disabled people were already twice as likely to be living in poverty than others before these cuts were imposed: no wonder disabled people up and down the country are scared stiff of these ‘reforms’.
The Government’s consultation document, entitled ‘Fulfilling potential’, makes specific mention of “tackling discrimination” towards disabled people and “promoting positive attitudes”. Yet charities have directly linked a rise in disabled abuse with the increasing rhetoric from Government ministers that disabled people are scrounging off society.
So bad has the Government’s attitude become that disability groups are now questioning whether they can continue to work with it on shaping further welfare reforms.
By the end of this parliament, if all these cuts are implemented, far from disabled people fulfilling their potential, the Coalition would instead have successfully reversed twenty years of advances made in helping the disabled play a valued and active part in society. Shame on all MPs if that is their intention. And if it isn’t, then the Government must wake up to the impact of these cuts, ban negative ministerial rhetoric linking the disabled with ‘scroungers’ and honour its supposed desire to develop policies that give back respect and support to some of the most vulnerable people in society.