This year was not kind to people with disabilities. 2010 began with a steady trickle of horror stories about Employment Support Allowance introduced by the Labour government in 2008 as the replacement for Incapacity Benefit, thus creating a draconian system making benefits conditional on work-related activity for most claimants. This conditionality is based on assessment by ‘healthcare professionals’ who are not doctors and may not be familiar with the variety of health conditions they face. The assessment is run by private sector provider Atos, who refuse to release the details of the test used to assess eligibility for reasons of ‘commercial interest’. There followed more disability charities lining their own pockets by colluding in the unfair system rather than fighting for those they claim to represent; and continuing doubts regarding the future of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) paid to help disabled people face the additional costs of disability.
Labour eventually backed away from DLA, and disabled people sighed with relief. Past Tory zeal for chopping at the welfare state and the Tory papers’ penchant for calling disabled people cheats has not befriended the party to us, but the Coalition Government was not totally objectionable. After all, David Cameron has experience of disability in his family, the Tories made an election promise to safeguard DLA, and the Lib Dems were not a party of unfair and discriminatory cuts. Early statements and the news of big changes to come caused some unease, but the first real signal of the Government’s intention came in the Emergency Budget, with George Osborne’s announcement of unnecessary medical tests for DLA claimants.
Since June, news of substantial losses for disabled people has come thick and fast. The axing of disability bodies doing useful and necessary work in the cull of quangos; a Comprehensive Spending Review which removed the mobility component of DLA from those in residential care to much anger; time-limiting contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance to 12 months in the same review; the cutting of advice on benefits; the fudged Harrington review of Employment Support Allowance which avoided the major points of criticism; the three-year extension of a contract worth over £100 million per year to Atos; all whilst disability charities continued to cheerfully pick the carcass of the welfare state. Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back – the Government decided to scrap DLA and replace it with a new, leaner system called Personal Independence Payment (PIP) - the public consultation n DLA reformcloses on February 14th. PIP will cut the DLA caseload by 20% using testing similar to that used for Employment and Support Allowance. The case for reform is badly flawed and there are several damaging changes hidden in the small print. For example, six-times London Marathon winner Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson could lose out because she uses her wheelchair too well.
The Coalition Government has heaped misery on disabled people in just six months, backed up by their tabloid attack dogs, targeting them more than anybody else. A week after breaking the camel’s back, the Coalition decided to bash its head into the sand by axing the Independent Living Fund. This money funds 21,000 people to live independently who would otherwise live in hospitals or residential care, at far greater economic and social cost. Maria Miller, Minister for Disabled People, justifies the decision by deeming the ILF to be “unsustainable”. On a personal note, my best friend relies on ILF to support her care needs. ILF enables her to live independently and employ her high skills. Her contribution to society, including the tax she pays, is enormous. I suggest the Minister try telling her that her support is “financially unsustainable”.
By targeting DLA and the Independent Living Fund the Coalition have gone too far. A number of new disability rights groups and websites have responded to the proposals with focus and determination and are organizing alternative protest and direct action. Whilst the disability charities busy themselves forming consortia worth £654 million to bid for Government back-to-work contracts, protesting for disability rights is coming from the grassroots using our skills to raise awareness of our fights and to build political alliances. Public sector workers have been unfairly targeted as well; students too are victims of cuts and broken promises; these and other Coalition targets are our natural allies. We are campaigning on many fronts and ask that you join us in doing so by signing our petition to stop DLA reform and supporting our DLA campaign, as have a number of Lords and MPs including Jon Cruddas and Hywel Williams. We are getting MPs to ask questions, start debates and table Early Day Motions on DLA, pressuring the Coalition to back down.
2011 will be a good year for disabled people as we petition this Government to withdraw on DLA and the Independent Living Fund, and to bring fairness back into Employment Support Allowance. David Cameron and Iain Duncan-Smith have picked the wrong fight.
- by Kaliya Franklin and Rhydian Fôn James