Too far too fast? We don’t need cuts at all

More cuts make everything better
Cartoon by the excellent @dochackenbush

A little over a year ago I was out on a protest against the welfare reform bill. I was doing one of several interviews of that day, explaining exactly how the welfare reform bill was going to cause serious harm to a great deal of people.

“But you do accept that we need cuts?” said the interviewer.

“No.”

“What…?”

The interviewer was lost for words. Of course we need cuts. We have massive debt! There’s no money left!

I said something about the debt being caused by banks and about corporate tax avoidance but I wasn’t prepared for the question and my answer was not convincing enough. The interviewer had clearly decided I was mad and he moved on.

A year later, as then, the opposition from Labour to the Tory / LibDem austerity appears to be a simple statement that we do need cuts, and lots of them, but that the government are cutting too far and too fast. The Labour alternative is simply to cut a little less and to take longer to do it so as not to dump it all on the people at once. I think they are wrong.

So how can I justify that? As Liam Byrne said in his famous note to his successor at the Treasury in 2010, “There’s no money left.” The national debt is at £1.15 trillion. That’s £1,146,732,208,608 right this instant as I write. The deficit – the difference between the UK’s income and expenses – is running at well over ten billion pounds per month. That is, we borrowed an extra £13bn in January. The government have been making cuts, desperately slashing expenditure on public services, welfare and the military, and yet the debt continues to rocket upwards. Even the deficit is still growing, despite what the prime minister claims. Andrew Dilnot of the UK Statistics Authority had to point out to the prime minister that our debt has risen from £811bn in 2010 when the coalition took office to £1.1tn at the end of last year.

Why then, if cuts are being made, is our debt still going up? There are several answers to this.

  • We are in recession and income from tax is falling because money isn’t being spent to tax.
  • Cutting expenditure causes a further shrinking of the economy and a drop in tax income. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that in 2011-12 austerity reduced GDP by around 1.4%.
  • Cutting costs money. Cutting services means that we simply have to spend elsewhere to undo the damage of those cuts. For example, the cuts to care at home and the Independent Living Fund results in people being forced to move into care homes which easily costs ten times as much. Ditto for the bedroom tax, which sends disabled people into care homes and makes whole families homeless who then get put up in a “bed and breakfast” (with no breakfast) at many times the cost.
  • The government aren’t actually spending less despite cutting spending on services. Among other things they are spending money saved by those cuts on administration of welfare reform in more complex testing of benefits and in administration of outsourcing most NHS services. (I prefer to call it privatisation but technically it is outsourcing even if the result either way is a private hospital.)

Cutting doesn’t work, and “cutting” the way the government are doing it isn’t cutting at all, it’s moving money around into administration of private companies to run public services and then claiming that actually more is being invested in the NHS and more benefits money is available for “the most vulnerable” and “those who need it most”.

Assuming that we accept the current growth-obsessed financial system at all then these are the solutions to recession that we need to aim for:

  • Government must borrow more to smooth over the deficit until the economy picks up and tax income rises again, so that our income matches our outgoings.
  • We need to make tax avoidance illegal and recruit more staff at HMRC to collect those taxes. Closing the loopholes and clamping down on the tax gap would raise tens of billions of pounds.
  • We need to invest in doctors, nurses and facilities for the NHS and in care for sick and disabled people, thus creating jobs and providing for our needs at the same time.
  • We need to build social housing, creating jobs in the building industry while simultaneously bringing down rents and reducing the housing benefit bill.
  • We need to bring welfare benefits back above poverty levels, which not only provides for those who need it most, the mark of a civilised society, but would also put money back into the economy when spent. For a really radical solution we could consider some form of Basic Income.

Doing all of the above would create jobs and reduce expenses elsewhere, and result in money being spent by the people and going back into the economy rather than disappearing off as a banker’s bonus sitting in an offshore account.

Sneaky Work Capability Assessment rules judge you fit for work based on imaginary help

There are new regulations for Employment Support Allowance about to come into force on the 28th of January. These regulations were proposed only six weeks before they will come into force, leaving very little time for the impact to be considered.

Worse, these regulations make drastic changes to the assumptions made during the assessment that will result in even more people being refused sickness benefits or told to take part in work-related activity.

ESA SOS! Refusing help
Doc Hackenbush explains the change (Click to enlarge)

The two big changes are:

An assessor can consider what mobility aids, equipment, medical treatments or medicines might help the claimant return to work, and then, without consulting them as to whether the change is suitable, they can judge them fit for work or for work related activity based on them making that change. This completely ignores things like side-effects of medication, suitability of adaptions and mobility aids, or even if such help is available to the individual. This could already happen to some extent, such as with wheelchairs, but will now apply to a far wider range of changes. This also raises the huge problem of medical treatment without consent, since refusing to take a drug that could help a person return to work, even for very good reasons, could lead to benefits being withdrawn.

The second huge change is to how the the assessment considers the relationship between mental and physical health conditions. Where previously any disability or restriction could be applied to any activity, whether it was caused by mental problems or physical problems. These new regulations will strictly separate the two such that one set of questions considers purely physical restrictions, and another set purely mental restrictions. You may be completely unable to perform a task due to mental illness, but be considered able to physically and therefore able to full stop. This equally applies to side effects of medicines. For medicines that treat mental health conditions, only the impact of side effects ON mental health will be considered. Crippling physical side effects caused by treatment for mental health will be completely ignored when deciding that a person can work.

These changes will pull the rug from under the feet (or wheels) of hundreds of thousands more people who are struggling to live, never mind to earn a wage. Make no mistake; whatever the intention of these changes, this is a cut in support.

What you can do

The clearest analysis of these changes that I have read is from Ekklesia. Briefing on ESA Regulations [Ekklesia] I recommend that you read this.

Please write to your MP urgently to oppose these new regulations. You can find and contact your email through Write to Them. My own communication with my MP will be available on this blog later today.

Please share this and other blogs about this subject on Twitter with the hashtag #esaSOS as well as on Facebook and anywhere else you think suitable. A tweet of your own will have far more impact than a retweet.

Please also add your signature to the War On Welfare petition to call for a cumulative impact assessment of this government’s welfare reforms.

Further Reading

DWP guidance on the changes: Memo DMG 1/13 [PDF]

The Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012 [legislation.gov.uk]

Diary of a benefit scrounger: ESA SOS

Thousands of disabled and sick people will be hit by new ESA/WCA changes [Ekklesia]

 

There’s a war on welfare – FIGHT BACK

Pat’s Petition took a year to accumulate 62,694 signatures asking the government to

“Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families.”

Pat’s Petition has secured a debate to take place in parliament in January.

A small debate by MPs took place in Westminster Hall on the 18th of December 2012. That debate although short, was full of speeches and stories by MPs vindicating what campaigners have been telling the government for the past two years. But that debate was not enough. It was ended with a speech by “Minister for disabled people” Esther McVey which was dismissive of all that had been said, if she even listened to it.

You can view the debate below or on the Parliament website. It makes damning evidence against the Welfare Reform Act.

Now there is a new petition, the WOW Petition. It reads as follows:

WOW-splash

We call for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of Welfare Reform, and a New Deal for sick & disabled people based on their needs, abilities and ambitions

Responsible department: Department for Work and Pensions

We call for:

A Cumulative Impact Assessment of all cuts and changes affecting sick & disabled people, their families and carers, and a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act.

An immediate end to the Work Capability Assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association.

Consultation between the Depts of Health & Education to improve support into work for sick & disabled people, and an end to forced work under threat of sanctions for people on disability benefits.

An Independent, Committee-Based Inquiry into Welfare Reform, covering but not limited to: (1) Care home admission rises, daycare centres, access to education for people with learning difficulties, universal mental health treatments, Remploy closures; (2) DWP media links, the ATOS contract, IT implementation of Universal Credit; (3) Human rights abuses against disabled people, excess claimant deaths & the disregard of medical evidence in decision making by ATOS, DWP & the Tribunal Service.

Don’t wait a year to sign this petition. A hundred thousand signatures in a few days would send a strong message to government. Please sign the petition, follow @WOWpetition on Twitter and like the Facebook page.

 

Sign the WOW Petition

Poor vs poorer

The Conservative party have launched this advert in 60 areas.

Tory scrounger ad

It reads

Who do you think this government should be giving more support to?

Hardworking families…

Or people who won’t work?

Compare that to the recent findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

We undertook concerted, intensive fieldwork in very deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow and Middlesbrough but we were unable to locate any families with three generations who had never worked.

If we cannot find a ‘culture of worklessness’ here, amongst these extreme cases of very long-term unemployed families, we are unlikely to find it anywhere.

Even worse, the adverts lead to a statement at the Conservative web site which tries to present benefit rises with inflation as unfair by pointing out that wages have not risen as much. Two questions are asked:

Should benefits increase more than wages?

Do you think it’s fair that people can claim more in benefits that the average family earns through going to work?

There is a text box to enter your own comments but it is limited to 300 characters which makes it very difficult to say much at all. Here is what I wrote:

I object; your questions are loaded. Benefits must rise in line with with the cost of living but wages must rise dramatically to stop exploiting workers. Austerity is an ideological choice and is destroying our country. Stop pitting poor against poorer in the hope that we won’t notice your crimes.

In my opinion this campaign is a disgusting attack on the poorest people in our society and it is aimed at pitting poor people against poorer people by vilifying unemployed people and presenting a false dichotomy that we can only help one group. It tries to incite resentment among people who are not paid enough against people who receive even less. This campaign is furthering that favourite Tory lie of deserving and undeserving poor. It is utterly disgusting.

 

 

 

Iain Duncan Smith is proud of getting people off benefits

IDS - "We've heard enough of you"
“We’ve heard enough from you.”

Owen Jones confronted Iain Duncan Smith with the names of two people who have died as a result of the work capability assessment. He did not react well. I urge you to watch this video of the last part of Question Time, particularly the last minute if you want to see what IDS is really like.

“Hang on a second, we’ve heard a lot from you. Let me tell you something. I didn’t hear you screaming about two and a half million people who are parked, nobody saw them for over ten years, not working, with no hope, no aspiration, we are changing their lives, I am proud of doing that, getting them off benefit is what we are going to do.”

Iain Duncan Smith is proud of getting people off benefits. Never mind that there is no work for them to go to even if they can, and that the way lives are being changed is by sending people further into poverty and homelessness. Not only that, but he thinks that being “parked on benefits” and left alone is a bad thing. Well those of us on permanent sickness and disability benefits do have hopes and aspirations. We hope to not have too much pain today and we aspire to getting the care that we need so that we can undertake something entertaining that isn’t lying in bed waiting to die. We probably don’t aspire to being a rich Tory, which is probably similar to being dead in the head of Iain Duncan Smith. As for nobody seeing sick people, now they are being reassessed so frequently that they are committing suicide. Winning an appeal at tribunal often leads to an immediate call to another assessment.

https://twitter.com/crazybladeuk/status/271197324594786305

Dead people don't get benefits
Dead people don’t get benefits – cartoon by @dochackenbush

Further Reading

Brian Mcardle: Atos benefits bullies killed my sick dad, says devastated Kieran, 13

Karen Sherlock: How many more disabled people will die frightened that their benefits will be taken away?

Karen’s Story – RIP Karen Sherlock, Disability Rights Campaigner – Died June 8th 2012

Hundreds more: The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment

 

What’s the difference between 1930s Germany and modern-day Britain?

Before we start I would like to point out that I am not a historian and I am not a sociologist and as such I have done my best to present the information here as I understand it. With that out of the way, I’ll start with an overview of how disabled people were treated in Germany during WWII.

1930s Germany

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda
A poster about how expensive disabled people are.

The Aktion T4 programme ran in Germany from 1939 to 1945. In the 1920s  Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding, part of an extreme eugenics movement, advocated killing those who were judged to have “life unworthy of life.”  In the 1930s there were huge cuts to state institutions causing overcrowding and Nazi propaganda emphasised the cost of caring for mentally ill and disabled people. In 1939 parents of disabled child Gerhard Kretschmar wrote to Hitler to ask him to permit their child to be killed. Hitler agreed and immediately set up a committee whose job was to organise more such murders – Aktion T4. When the war started parents were told that their mentally ill and physically disabled children were being sent to special treatments centres. In fact they were murdered without the knowledge of the parents. The programme was soon extended to adults, starting in Poland then in Germany. Throughout the programme Hitler knew that there would be huge opposition to such killing and so he never put his orders in writing. The one exception was a secret letter written to authorise the formation of the Aktion T4 programme, mainly because his justice minister would not cooperate without one. The programme operated in secrecy until it was too late for most people. Under the programme at least 200,000 disabled people were murdered over six years, either through lethal medication, starvation or gas chambers.

Modern Britain

Now we jump forward to Britain today. The events I describe in the paragraph above are unthinkable. No government minister, no tabloid newspaper, no man in the street would advocate such things, right?

That’s not quite true though. Most of the pieces are in place. We have propaganda pushing the idea that sick and disabled people are scroungers, workshy, lazy. This propaganda is coming from government ministers, their special advisers, and tabloids like the Daily Express, The Sun, the Daily Mail. Even broadsheets like the Times and the Telegraph have contributed. Such propaganda has even been raised by MPs in the Work and Pensions Select Committee and ministers told to stop. The propaganda is working too, with hate crimes against disabled people up in vast numbers.

We have many people fighting to legalise assisted suicide, inadvertently promoting the idea that life for some people is not worth living. Sure, we’re only asking for voluntary euthanasia, but what other factors might be in play? Pressure to stop being a burden, financial problems, cuts to care all contribute to a desire for death. If euthanasia becomes legal what is to stop people from being pushed to kill themselves? It may be overt or it may be through suggestion and through making their lives hell. (This is more my fear of how it could go wrong than any judgement on my part for or against euthanasia.)

We have cuts to local authority care budgets, starting in Worcestershire, that mean anyone whose care costs more than sending them to an institution will lose some care. The politicians argue that it’s a choice because people can choose to move to a care home or to cut some of their care provision. But what to cut? Eating? Washing? Dressing? Using a toilet? We have already seen people lose in court after fighting to not have to wear a nappy. Adults are expected to soil themselves rather than get help to use a toilet. We have also seen the loss of the independent living fund. The net result is loss of care or institutionalising people. Most care homes are run by private companies and neglect does not seem uncommon. I think more abuse and neglect is likely especially when companies are cutting costs because they have underquoted better homes.

We have sick and disabled people being  judged as fit to work and told to claim job seeker’s allowance and look for work, and we have even more seriously sick and disabled people being placed in the Work Related Activity Group. Both groups are subject to The Work Programme where they are expected to undertake unpaid work experience for large companies, and government plans are to make such work placements of unlimited duration. Work makes you free.

Under these plans anyone who is seen to not be cooperating with The Work Programme and other work related activities will see their benefit income slashed. Those on Job Seeker’s Allowance can have their entire allowance removed entirely for weeks, even six months. Those on Employment Support Allowance (e.g. too sick to work) will see three quarters of their allowance removed. Of course anyone who has been judged as fit to work or has been placed in the WRAG is expected to be capable of going on work placements even if their assessment was wrong and they are waiting a year for an appeal, and even if people are seriously harmed by trying to work. The result is that those who don’t destroy themselves trying to find jobs that don’t exist or going to endless work placements will instead not be able to afford food, clothes, fuel bills, rent and more. Many will be able to use food banks but some will not be physically able to get to them and food banks rely on charity from other people who are struggling too.

The result

Is it such a large step for disabled people to be dying? No. It’s already  happening. Reports in April claimed that 1,100 people had already died after being placed in the work related activity group. That’s more than thirty people a week. This is what Chris Grayling calls “Tough love.”

Some government ministers make policy decisions without thinking about the consequences of what will happen in practice. Others are fully aware of what will happen and just don’t care. Either way, they are often covered by claiming that their policy in itself does not harm people, even though the flaws with implementation allow people to fall through the net and come to harm. Government ignore evidence. They dismiss statistics, they blame the previous government, they claim that processes are being sorted out now, they claim that any harm is the fault of the sick or disabled or unemployed individual. The Government are hiding behind Atos and A4e who are “just carrying out orders” but they way they carry out those orders makes things even worse. Government ministers have the same attitude as many other people in power – they can say “make it happen” and the minions do the dirty work.

In 1930s Germany the government themselves ordered the rounding up and the killing of disabled people. In modern-day Britain the government can claim that it is not their fault, even that it should not happen, but private companies and the chasm of bureaucracy between various government departments are what kill people. Starvation, homelessness and neglect are what will kill people. The implementation is different and the scale is different but the attitude and the outcome are the same.

 

Further Reading

Godwin’s law must die [A Latent Existence]

Action T4 [Wikipedia]

Disabled benefits claimants face £71 a week fines for breaching work plan [The Guardian]

32 die a week after failing test for new incapacity benefit [Mirror]

Early day motion 295 [Parliament]

Work-or-starve plans for seriously ill welfare claimants might backfire [Eklesia]

Past Caring? [We are Spartacus]

 

The Paralympics tell us nothing about most sick or disabled people

I’m struggling to believe that I have to say this, I really am, but here goes:

The Paralympics tell us nothing about most sick or disabled people.

No, really, they don’t. The athletes taking part in the Paralympics, just like those in the Olympics, represent the elite. They are the people who are lucky enough to have time for training, money for equipment, the physical ability to push themselves that far. Just as you could not expect any person who is not yet disabled to run as fast as Usain Bolt or to dive with as much skill as Tom Daley, you cannot expect a disabled person to run like Oscar Pistorius or swim like Ellie Simmonds.

For sick or disabled people the struggle is not to get to Paralympic standard but to achieve the same standard as most people who are not disabled. That’s what disabled means. For whatever reason the combination of the way that society is arranged and the impairment that a person has means that they are unable to function in the same way as most. Disability makes everything harder. It makes things more exhausting. It makes things more expensive. It makes things take longer. Sickness and disability can require everything that a person has and still not allow them to function. For many when the impairment is too great no amount of adjustment or struggle can overcome that, although technology and the efforts of those around them can provide other means for a happy life.

For a lucky few that sickness or physical impairment is not a barrier to Paralympic greatness. Even then, though they may be able to run or swim or shoot they might still not be able to dress themselves or wash themselves or cook for themselves. We should celebrate their sporting abilities, but we must not think that sporting ability tells us anything else at all about Paralympic athletes or any other sick or disabled person.

No wheelchair for you!

My old broken power wheelchair
My old broken powerchair

I wrote back in March about the death of the power wheelchair that I had been given and my quest to obtain a new one.  It was old but it served its purpose in letting me go further from home and use public transport without requiring another person to push my wheelchair. Since my ability to walk is fairly limited I do need a wheelchair when I am out of the house. There are four ways that I know of to obtain a manual or powered wheelchair.

  1. The NHS
  2. Lease one from Motability using the mobility component of DLA
  3. Buy one
  4. Get a charity to buy one

It should be obvious that buying one is not really an option for most people living on sickness and disability benefits. Many people who need a high end power wheelchair do lease one from the Motability scheme however that option is not available to those who already use their DLA to lease a car through the scheme, or who do not receive DLA at all. In some circumstances a charity might be willing to foot some or all of the bill for a power wheelchair. Specialist charities for certain diseases or impairments might do this although in practice most do not have this option either. In my case there is a charity that helps people in the area that I live in who might be able to pay for part of the cost of a power wheelchair for me but since charity funds must be carefully looked after they require me to need a wheelchair but be unable to get one from the NHS before they will help. That leads me to the main option, to ask for a wheelchair from the NHS.

Soon after my power wheelchair broke an occupational therapist referred me to Worcestershire Wheelchair Services and I was told that I would get an assessment but that I would have to wait a long time. In the meantime I bought a manual wheelchair using my credit card. I have a bankruptcy in my past because of my illness so that credit is at an interest rate of 34% APR.

I knew when I was referred for a wheelchair assessment that I would not qualify for a power wheelchair because I only need a wheelchair when out of the house but that was OK because once I had an assessment I could turn to my local charity. As I understood then from other doctors and therapists I should qualify for a manual wheelchair, although probably one with small wheels that required an attendant to push it because self-propelling a wheelchair soon hurts my arms as much as walking hurts my legs. (This is why I purchased a self-propel chair, since I would like to be able to turn myself around even if I mostly have someone pushing.)

Then, today, I received this letter from Wheelchair Services. (Click to enlarge.)

Letter from wheelchair services

The letter informed me that I would not receive any wheelchair from the NHS because in Worcestershire they are

“Currently only able to supply wheelchairs to people who meet higher level needs i.e. to those clients who have a permanent mobility problem, who are unable to walk and who require a wheelchair within their own home.”

So, because I can walk or stagger around at home, I will not receive any kind of wheelchair to help outside where I cannot walk more than a few metres or stand up for more than a few seconds – not even a manual wheelchair. They won’t even visit to assess me. There are also many people who need a power wheelchair but are unable to get one from the NHS because they, like me can walk to some extent around their own home. In a lot of these cases they would use a wheelchair inside if only they could fit one in their home, but because they cannot they too are denied any help from wheelchair services. I know of several people who are currently trying to raise funds through donations to purchase their own power wheelchair because of this.

I’m not too worried about this in my own case because I have the manual wheelchair that I bought, and I have my wife to push it much of the time, and I still hope to get help from a local charity. I am far more worried about all the other people who haven’t been so fortunate and have no chance to buy a wheelchair, no charity help, no car and no one to offer lifts. I struggle to understand the justification for the NHS in Worcestershire not giving a wheelchair to people who need one but only when outside. If applied nationally, this policy would trap tens or hundreds of thousands of people in their own homes, unable to go out to medical appointments, to buy food or to visit family and friends. I don’t know how long this policy has been in place in Worcestershire but I hope that it is the only area doing this.

Worcestershire Wheelchair Service informed me that their qualifying criteria have been this way for a number of years due to low funding. Worcestershire is not looking like a good place for a chronically sick or disabled person to live right now; Worcestershire council are planning to remove funding for care at home for a large number of people and send them to live in care homes instead. This is a huge backwards step, a removal of freedom for a lot of people and reverts to the old method of locking those with disabilities away from society. This policy on wheelchairs will ensure that more people are trapped at home and so require care from the local authority, which in turn may put them into a care home.

Are we as a country really so short of money that this is the route we want to take?

Benefit guilt

I recently wrote about my income in detail. I did so partly because the benefits that I receive were listed in a newspaper (My own fault) without actually explaining them, and the amounts caused a few negative comments.

Since making my income public one thing that has been bothering me is that while my wife and I now receive enough money to live on and DLA to provide for the extra costs of my care and mobility, a vast  number of my friends do not. And I feel sort of guilty about that. I know that I shouldn’t, I am getting the proper benefits for my circumstances, but I feel horrible that other people – many with greater need than me – don’t get the help that they are supposed to get.

I went through a Work Capability Assessment with Atos and I was placed in the support group. I know that I am sick enough to merit ESA and DLA but it was always in doubt whether Atos would recognise that. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if my journey to the assessment centre hadn’t been so awful. (You can read about that travesty on a previous blog post.) If I hadn’t arrived shaken, stressed and exhausted perhaps my assessment would have gone quite differently – Atos have been criticised for ignoring variable health problems and could easily have judged me differently if I had appeared well that day.

Perhaps it is chance that I ended up in the Support Group for ESA rather than the Work Related Activity Group or even found fit for work. But then my DLA was awarded on the basis of the Work Capability Assessment too, even though that isn’t supposed to happen until PIP is introduced. So is that two benefits received by pure chance? Being awarded ESA helped me to get DLA and getting DLA has increased the amount that I get from ESA, and both of those ensure that I get housing benefit too. At some point I may get carers allowance although that might lower the amount that I get from ESA.

The point is, I now have enough to live on without being in poverty and always struggling to pay the bills. Many other people are not so lucky. What I really want is for access to these benefits to be available to all the other people that need it. I have so many friends who haven’t got the benefits that they so desperately need. Friends who can’t walk, or can’t get out of bed, or can’t cook for themselves. Friends who have been through the assessments by Atos and refused on absurd grounds. Friends who are in hospital near death and don’t get benefits. I was really terrified that I wasn’t going to get my ESA, and the form filling for benefits and the assessment process itself made me more stressed which led to me being more physically ill too.

Even when people have managed to get all the benefits to which they are entitled it isn’t always enough. I need relatively few adjustments to live. A wheelchair, a shower seat. Some people need hoists and lifting equipment and wet rooms and stairlifts and bigger rooms to fit it all in… and the list goes on. Of course some of that can be paid for in other ways such as from council funds or (until now) the Independent Living Fund but many people end up sorting out their own adaptions. I talked to my GP about getting an NHS wheelchair yesterday and she suggested that it would be quicker and easier to buy one for myself. (Not that I can’t try to get an NHS one.) That happens a lot with costlier items too.

Clearly the benefits system isn’t great at the moment. It’s obvious that it needs reform to solve these problems. But – and this is an important but – the Welfare Reform Bill doesn’t solve these problems. It makes them far worse. It abolishes multiple sources of funding, it cuts the DLA / PIP budget by 20% and it restricts who can get help and who will receive PIP. Government ministers have told us that those most in need will get more help. What they are less keen to tell everyone is that the extra help for those most in need is being snatched away from those who are only quite in need. If you need help but not loads of help, that’s tough. Because the government says you’re not going to get any help at all.

Welfare Reform Bill – the problems

The Welfare Reform Bill will, according to the Parliament website, replace means-tested benefits with a new Universal Credit. This is a huge change which in theory I am in favour of, except that I believe that the government have got the implementation and the details very very wrong.  The website lists these other key areas where the bill will change things:

Key areas

  • introduces Personal Independence Payments to replace the current Disability Living Allowance
  • restricts Housing Benefit entitlement for social housing tenants whose accommodation is larger than they need
  • up-rates Local Housing Allowance rates by the Consumer Price Index
  • amends the forthcoming statutory child maintenance scheme
  • limits the payment of contributory Employment and Support Allowance to a 12-month period
  • caps the total amount of benefit that can be claimed.

During the Committee Stage, the Government amended the Bill to provide for the establishment of a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

That all seems quite well-intentioned and innocuous, however the detail is a lot less reassuring. I probably can’t do any better at explaining why than this blog post which I recommend reading – So The Welfare Reform Bill Doesn’t Affect YOU!?!

The aspects of the bill that most worry me are those that impact on sick and disabled people. Those aspects are:

  • Limiting contribution based ESA to one year for people in the WRAG, after which people may only claim income-based ESA if their partner earns less than £7,500 per year. People who have paid their National Insurance and have become ill but are expected to regain some ability to work within two to five years with the right support will receive contribution based ESA for one year. After that they will be made dependant on any partner or family earning over £7,500 per year and have no independent income unless they live alone.
  • Introducing frequent assessments for everyone receiving PIP, even those who will only get worse, or cannot get better, and including those made worse by assessments.
  • Making PIP much harder to get by redefining disability. (Expecting to save 20%) People will be considered able to wash themselves if they can wash only above the waist. I am sure that everyone wishes to clean their genitals and anus. As a diabetic I am supposed to pay very careful attention to looking after my feet, but if I can’t wash them, I won’t get help with it. Changes to the definition of mobility are worrying too.
  • Stopping the practice of treating people disabled from childhood as having paid NI – meaning they will never get contribution based ESA and so never have an independent income
  • No longer pay for spare rooms in social housing, even for disabled people with a proven need such as a separate bed for a partner or carer or a space for mobility equipment or for treatment of some kind.
  • Prevent access to other support by removing PIP from many people. DLA / PIP is a gateway benefit which allows access to things like the blue badge parking scheme, a free bus pass, or proof of disability to access support from energy companies and others. When many people do not qualify for PIP they could lose these things.

There are a whole host of problems for people who are on a low income or unemployed. The bill will:

  • Introduce sanctions – stopping benefits for four weeks, three months, or three years. Punishing people by removing their income will make people homeless and may drive some towards crime. Unfortunately the range of things that you could be sanctioned for is more than just fraud.
  • Punish people for making mistakes on benefit claim forms.
  • Send people on unpaid work experience (“The Work Programme”) and sanction them if they don’t go or if they don’t get a good report. This is the same work programme that has people doing unpaid shelf stacking or washing floors alongside people getting a proper wage for the same job. And a mere 20% of people on the work programme get any kind of employment out of it.
  • Sanction people who don’t improve their appearance when told to. To what degree changes can be ordered is not specified.
  • Charge parents for the use of the Child Support Agency after breaking up. £20 – £50 fee, plus 7 – 12% of ALL income. An extra income tax for not having a partner, or for having escaped from an abusive relationship. Charges are likely to cause people to ignore the CSA – which is the government’s intention – but probably in favour of no support at all.
  • Limit total household benefits to £26,000 per year. (Except when on high rate PIP?) The main problem with this is that people in expensive places like London or Brighton will be forced to move away, potentially leaving family behind and losing local support such as care or child care.
  • Abolished the social fund, which pays for emergencies and provides crisis loans.
  • Introducing vouchers to pay for particular costs – potentially where you can buy your food, clothing, energy and so on will be dictated to you.
  • Force both people in a couple to look for work in order to qualify for Universal Credit. Since Universal Credit replaces housing benefit, low-paid (minimum wage) families will no longer have a choice to send one parent to work while the other cares for the children. Both parents must work.
Thanks to DarkestAngel32 for finding some of these points.
There are some changes that are happening outside of the Welfare Reform Bill. Tax credits are changing from 6 April 2012 including changes to the number of hours of work necessary to qualify. The Local Housing Allowance is already being seriously reduced, meaning that people are being forced to move out of accommodation that is too expensive, without always having somewhere to go. This has already caused some people to move from their own home into care at great cost to local authorities. The Independent Living Fund – which pays for severely disabled people to live in their own homes – has also been cut because it is “not financially sustainable.” The result will be that 20,000 people might have to move back in to care homes at even greater expense.

Some useful links