A protestor holds a sign commemorating Cecilia Burns, who died after being found fit for work, at a DPAC protest against ATOS. Photo Wasi Daniju
Disabled people and the cuts: The statistics and the stories
On the day when the newspapers are full of stories about an alleged case of someone fraudulently claiming to be disabled to get benefits they aren’t entitled to, I thought it might be useful to remember some other people who’ve been in the newspapers recently.
There’s Amy. Atos told her she’d need to get ready for work in the next six months because her condition was expected to improve. She has cerebral palsy.
Or there’s Kelly Marie, who is blind and unable to walk and talk, who is probably going to lose her sensory room (which is also used to store her wheelchairs) because her mother has to pay the Bedroom Tax on it.
And there’s Tim, who was partially sighted and suffered from agoraphobia, who was found hanged at his home just days before he was due to be evicted over rent arrears. The coroner concluded:
“A major factor in his death was that his state benefits had been greatly reduced leaving him almost destitute and with threatened repossession of his home.”
I’m so used to writing about statistics and policies; it’s useful from time to time to remind myself that these statistics represent personal and family tragedies.
The list of cuts that specifically target disabled people is horrendous.
In 2010 the new government began by starting the transfer of Incapacity Benefit claimants to Employment and Support Allowance; putting everyone through the Work Capability Assessment to qualify.
In 2013, the Public Accounts Committee found there are too many wrong WCA decisions, and that the test may be unfair to people with specific conditions, especially mental health and variable conditions. Disability organisations have been saying that louder and louder.
At the start of the year, a poll of 1,500 people with multiple sclerosis found 67% said they felt more anxious about how they would manage their condition in the future because of changes to the benefits system and the WCA was the worst.
In 2012, the coalition abolished ‘youth’ Employment and Support Allowance, which allowed people disabled in childhood to qualify for contribution-based ESA without having paid National Insurance Contributions. The government impact assessment indicated that 7-8,000 disabled people, a majority with mental and behavioural impairments, would lose some or all of their benefit entitlement.
Universal Credit is a mixed policy, that will benefit some groups, but it is a disaster for disabled adults and families with disabled children. Iain Duncan Smith has abolished the disabled worker element of the Working Tax Credit, without any replacement, and the severe disability premium – some families will be £3,000 a year worse off.
Last year the government cut contributory Employment and Support Allowance to maximum of one year for people in the work-related activity group. This measure alone is expected to lead to 280,000 people losing eligibility.
Also in 2013, Personal Independence Payment started to replace Disability Living Allowance for new claimants. Eventually, it will be spread to existing DLA claimants as well. It will hit those disabled people who have less severe impairments but a high level of disability-related expenses particularly hard. The government expects 510,000 claimants to be better off, 270,000 to be entitled to the same amount, but 510,000 will be worse off, and 450,000 will lose all entitlement.
And, of course, disabled people are among the groups hardest hit by the changes that aren’t specifically aimed at them, that are just designed to make life worse for all poor people. Raising benefits by just 1% a year, no matter how high inflation is, hits everyone on benefits, but disabled people have been hard hit by that. The Bedroom Tax wasn’t particularly targeted at disabled people, but they’re among the groups losing most.
The Council of Europe says British benefit levels are “manifestly inadequate”. The callousness isn’t specifically about hurting disabled people, but the Council says that, as it happens, one of the worst benefits is Employment and Support Allowance.
Of course, the government doesn’t want to be blamed for this, so they always make sure they have get-out clauses. One of the best examples of this cowardice and irresponsibility is the government’s attempt to change the definition of failure, so it now counts as success.
We know Iain Duncan Smith wanted to do this with the definition of child poverty. I’m glad to say that the children’s charities and anti-poverty groups made that impossible (something the Lib Dems are now trying to take the credit for), but they did get away with it on fuel poverty: they introduced a clause in the Energy Bill to change the definition of the key poverty indicator, reducing the number of English households counted as “fuel-poor” from 3.2 million to 2.4 million overnight.
Another tactic is to make sure there’s someone else to take the blame. Many of the service cuts disabled people face are being carried out by local authorities, who also have to fill the gap left by the Bedroom Tax and the removal of Council Tax Benefit. The government’s defence is that the Council shouldn’t cut benefits and services for disabled people and other groups facing extreme poverty because there’s extra money for a grant called discretionary housing payments.
Whenever ministers are challenged they tell us the Department for Work and Pensions have more than tripled the money they give to local authorities so they can give discretionary housing payments to vulnerable people who have been hit by policies like the bedroom tax. In fact, compared to the size of the cuts the money for DHPs – £190m this year – is tiny.
And even if you are lucky enough to get a payment, it will only be for one year. You will have to apply time and time again, and each time you won’t know if this is the time the council’s DHP budget has run out and they turn you down. In December, the National Housing Federation surveyed local authorities and found that that on average 29% of disabled residents – nearly one in three – had their requests for a DHP grant turned down.
Another way of deflecting the blame is contracting-out services to companies like Atos. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with selling off public services to ruthless corporations like Atos. But the effect of hiving the service off is that you only have to say the word “Atos” and people who don’t know much about benefits know enough to boo and hiss – but they leave alone the government that designed the policy Atos is carrying out.
Kaliya Franklin has revealed that DWP’s contract with Atos Healthcare specifies an artificially imposed ‘statistical norm’ of just 11% of the people assessed being assigned to the Support Group. In other words, the contract says that if Atos assesses more than 11% as being in the support group, DWP will want to know why. In the trade union world we’re used to something like this in pay systems. It’s called ‘forced ranking’ and we treat as one of the worst systems.
In forced ranking, your manager, when assessing their staff, cannot put more than, say, 10% in the top group, and must put a certain proportion in the bottom group. Only the top group get bonuses and the bottom group get singled out for extra attention – in some companies, dismissal. In the trade union movement we hate it. And it’s the same approach for Atos.
Which is why we should hate the system – I don’t have much time for Atos’s senior managers who happily signed up to this system – but we should be more sympathetic to the doctors working for them. At the end of the day, it’s the government’s policy, but they’ve made sure Atos get all the hate mail.
But facts and figures are dry, I want to finish this angry article the way I started it, by remembering just who pays the price for all this.
There’s Mark, who was ruled fit for work against the advice of his GP and despite having complex mental health conditions. He weighed 5 and a half stone when he died of starvation.
There’s Sheila, who had a severe mental health condition, but was pushed onto a government work programme, with no support from specialist services, and also had to start paying the bedroom tax. As she began falling into poverty, she became increasingly agitated, and eventually was sectioned. A few days later, at the age of 47, she had a heart attack, and fell into a coma.
Try to remember them the next time the papers are full of stories about fraudsters.