I was born with congenital muscular dystrophy, a condition which has caused my muscles to weaken and waste. I use a powered wheelchair, and need help with everyday things that people take for granted. Financial support has been a lifeline for me. It’s allowed me to get a degree, to be a social and active person – and to look for work.
Watching cuts to the Employment Support Allowance stubbornly being pushed through this week against a wave of opposition spelled further doubt, anxiety, and, ultimately, financial loss for myself and many others. The cuts add to an already bleak picture of welfare reforms for disabled people like me, who can afford it the least.
The ESA cuts had previously been delayed by the Lords, but were finally pushed through by the Commons. Through people like Baroness Grey-Thompson and Lord Low of Dalston the House displayed real opposition to the cuts. They constantly called for the Government to carry out a full assessment before the proposals are rolled out. But worryingly, the Government doesn’t think an assessment is necessary.
Then again, neither do I - as I can tell them the outcome already. The struggle it will cause. How it will stunt my independence. How it will cause me stress and anxiety. How it will deny me of funds vital to maintaining links with the outside world through taxis and support towards independent living.
I am one of three campaigners, all of us living with muscle-wasting conditions, who will meet with the Disability Minister Justin Tomlinson this afternoon. At the meeting we will discuss our alarm at the latest cuts and of the repercussions of a blunt approach to the welfare system. We will speak of our fears that many disabled people are being stripped of their dignity, treated with a lack of respect and asked to pay an increasingly high price just to stay engaged with society.
The new round of ESA cuts will create further blocks to social inclusion, all while being sold to the country as somehow incentivising us to gain employment.
7 ways the Tories have ‘helped’ disabled people
7 ways the Tories have ‘helped’ disabled people
1/7 Closing Remploy factories
The Work and Pensions Secretary called time on Britain’s system of Remploy factories, which provided subsidised and sheltered employment to disabled people. People employed at the factories protested against their closure and said they provided gainful work. “Is it a kindness to stick people in some factory where they are not doing any work at all? Just making cups of coffee?” Mr Duncan Smith said at the time, defending the decision. “I promise you this is better.” The Remploy organisation was privatised and sold to American workfare provider Maximus, with the majority of the organisation’s factories closed. The future of the remaining sites is unclear
2/7 Scrapping the Independent Living Fund
The £320m Independent Living Fund was established in 1988 to give financial support to people with disabilities. It was scrapped on July 1 2015, with 18,000 often severely disabled people losing out by an average of £300 a week. The money was generally used to help pay for carers so people could live in communities rather than institutions. Councils will get a boost in funding to compensate but it will not cover the whole cost of the fund. This new cash also doesn’t have to be spent on the disabled
3/7 Cut payments for the disabled Access To Work scheme
Iain Duncan Smith is bringing forward a policy that will reduce payments to some disabled people from a scheme designed to help them into work. The £108m scheme, which helps 35,540 people, will be capped on a per-used basis, potentially hitting those with the more serious disabilities who currently receive the most help. The single biggest users of the fund are people who have difficulty seeing and hearing. The cut will come in from October 2015. The charity Disability UK says the scheme actually makes the Government money because the people who gain access to work tend pay tax that more than covers its cost. The DWP does not describe the reduction as a “cut” and says it will be able to spread the money more thinly and cover more people
4/7 Cut Employment and Support Allowance
The latest Budget included a £30 a week cut in disability benefits for some new claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The Government says it is equalising the rate of disability benefits with Jobseekers Allowance because giving disabled people more help is a “perverse incentive”. The people affected by this cut are those assessed as having a limited capability for work but as being capable of some “work-related activity”. A group of prominent Catholics wrote to Mr Duncan Smith to say there was “no justification” for this cut. Mental health charity Mind, said the cut was “insulting and misguided”
5/7 Risk homelessness with a sharp increase disability benefit sanctions
Official figures in the first quarter of 2014 found a huge increase in sanctions against people reliant on ESA sickness benefit. The 15,955 sanctions were handed out in that period compared to 3,574 in the same period the year before, 2013 – a 4.5 times increase. The homelessness charity Crisis warned at the time that the sharp rise in temporary benefit cuts was “cruel and can leave people utterly destitute – without money even for food and at severe risk of homelessness”. “It is difficult to see how they are meant to help people prepare for work,” Matt Downie, director of policy at the charity added
6/7 Sending sick people to work because of broken fitness to work tests
In 2012 a government advisor appointed to review the Government’s Work Capability Assessment said the tests causing suffering by sending sick people back to work inappropriately. “There are certainly areas where it's still not working and I am sorry there are people going through a system which I think still needs improvement,” Professor Malcolm Harrington concluded. The tests are said to have improved since then, but as recently as this summer they are still coming in for criticism. In June the British Psychological Society said there was “now significant body of evidence that the WCA is failing to assess people’s fitness for work accurately and appropriately”. It called for a full overhaul of the way the tests are carried out. The WCA appeals system has also been fraught with controversy with a very high rate of overturns and delays lasting months and blamed for hardship
7/7 The bedroom tax
The Government’s benefit cut for people who it says are “under-occupying” their homes disproportionately affects disabled people. Statistics released last year show that around two-thirds of those affected by the under-occupancy penalty, widely known as the ‘bedroom tax’, are disabled. There have been a number of high profile cases of disabled people being moved out of specially adapted homes by the policy. In one case publicised by the Sunday People last week, a 48 year old man with cerebral palsy was forced to bathe in a paddling pool after the tax moved him out of his home with a walk-in shower. The Government says it has provided councils with a discretionary fund to help reduce the policy’s impact on disabled people, but cases continue to arise
For many disabled people who already struggle to afford food and heating, it could prove devastating. A Muscular Dystrophy UK study found that two out of five families affected by muscle-wasting conditions struggle to pay their bills due to the extra pressure this causes. A further four out of five families do not think that the benefits system adequately covers these costs. It doesn’t seem like we’re the right group to target for making savings.
The Government speaks of the value of work, while creating barriers to our employment by the toughening of schemes many rely on for independence. Changes to Access to Work guidelines mean that disabled people are now often required to make increased contributions to equipment vital to employment. People are struggling to secure funding for wheelchairs and vehicles, leaving many stranded, stressed and struggling to find or retain a job.
The ESA cuts have been barged through at a time when many disabled people feel under increasing attack from welfare reforms that are, at best, clumsy – and, at worst, hostile. With the creation of Personal Independent Payments came stricter rules about the ‘mobility component’ of the benefit, which goes towards covering transport and offsetting the toll of an inaccessible public transport network.
A more brutal assessment came with it, which requires people to be able to walk just 20 metres, as opposed to the original 50. 20 metres down a corridor, without any of the steps, curbs, slopes, or bumps that you encounter the moment you walk out your front door.
We’ll be representing the voices of disabled people today against a system that’s failing many and putting many more under needless strain. For disabled people like me, the Government’s planned cuts to ESA represent another black gathering of clouds on an already darkening horizon.