Amid the sum of speeches and sound bites that have been voiced during the Coalition Government’s past two years in office, one in particular has embedded firmly itself in the public consciousness: the claim made famous by the Chancellor George Osborne: we’re “all in this together”. Added to this the statement by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, that the Government must “constantly remind ourselves that we are here to help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society” and we have, in effect, a watermark of social and economic justice against which the Coalition’s programme of cuts and reforms can be measured.
Two years on from the Government’s Emergency Budget, which set out the first £11 billion of cuts to the welfare benefits system (this was soon followed by another £8 billion in the Spending Review a few months later), and it is clear that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the Government’s reforms – hit from all sides by an unprecedented upheaval of the welfare benefits system – not to mention the incalculable number of local service closures, cuts and increased charges that have since emerged.
Since October 2010, disability charity Scope and the independent think tank Demos have been mapping the impact of the cuts on disabled people and their families. For a two year period, we have been following six disabled families (five of them with ‘typical’ benefits packages) as the Coalition’s welfare reform programme crystallised – culminating in the Welfare Reform Act, which became law in March 2012. We re-visited the families every six months to see how the cuts were affecting their quality of life. Our latest and final report, Destination Unknown: summer 2012, is out today – exactly two years on from the announcement of the Emergency Budget.
The stories of our families reveal the depth and breadth of the impact cuts to state support and services are having on their lives. Their stories are not unusual; many families like them up and down the country are increasingly coming under huge stress and pressure. One of our families, an elderly disabled couple (he had worked as a businessman for most of his life before suffering a stroke), who saw their housing support halved, only managed to avoid being evicted from their home of ten years after a family member loaned them the money at eleventh hour. Elsewhere in our report, we document how the father of a disabled child recently collapsed from the strain of trying to help care for his daughter and hold down a full-time job.
We witnessed evidence of declining mental health, exacerbated by fear for the future, of physical and emotional strain, as informal carers bear the brunt of losing the support and services they once relied on. And most of all, we are seeing it become increasingly difficult for disabled people to participate in everyday family and civic life. This has all take taken place against a backdrop of growing hostility towards those who claim disability and welfare support.
Over the past two years our reports have exposed the real life consequences – intended and not – of the Government’s reforms. Moreover, they demonstrate how the impacts of these reforms run directly counter to its own vision for stronger communities that support families. In it, we urge the Government to start thinking seriously about the cumulative impact of its reforms – the fallout of multiple cuts and closures, happening to one family and many others like them, all at once. Until it does this, the above assurances from both the Chancellor and Secretary of State will ring hollow and the human cost of austerity will be overlooked.