These cuts will intensify the pain of the disabled

Geoffrey Lean on why he is angry about the latest example of Blair's `principled' politics
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The Independent Online
The dearest ambition I have ever had - far surpassing the lure of prominence or promotion, or even the journalist's hunger for column inches - was to turn over in bed. Never have I wanted anything so fiercely as to be able to make what is, when you have to relearn it, an astonishingly complicated manoeuvre.

Others, I admit, ran it close: to lift the fingers of one hand; to feed myself; to move under my own steam, in a wheelchair; and, finally, to walk. And no triumphs have been sweeter than slowly surmounting such seemingly Himalayan hurdles.

These memories go back eight years to when I suddenly became a quadriplegic, after a simple operation went wrong. And they have been flooding into my mind all week as the row about cutting pounds 750m from disability benefit has all but paralysed the Government.

On Friday Tony Blair suffered his greatest setback yet - when 80 of his backbenchers rebelled against the cuts by voting against their own party, or abstaining. Despite two days of unpleasant arm-twisting by the whips - after the first attempt to get the cuts through the Commons had to be abandoned in the face of possible defeat on Tuesday - his majority fell by three-quarters, his authority took a damaging blow, and his whole programme of welfare reform was put in jeopardy.

And I was cheering. For the more I have looked at the Government's proposals, the more alarmed I have become at what they threaten to do to the kind of people who shared my ward, the kind of person who, for a while, I became.

Disability is a strange and distant country. You think you know a fair bit about it, until you find yourself there. And then it is hard to get used to the culture-shock. Paralysis for me was to see an immensely fat woman walk through the ward and to reflect that everyone's body seemed to work except my own. It was to sit in my wheelchair a few yards from my small son, as he played on a rocky shore, and suddenly to realise that if he fell into the sea, I could do nothing to save him. And, of course, it was to have to ask to be turned over in bed.

It was worst when I was deprived of choice. The staff of the ward in which I spent most time well realised the importance of the dignity of decision - to the point of even making me choose, when dressing me, which arm they put into my pyjama jacket first. When I briefly moved to a rehabilitation unit which decided everything for me, I became depressed for the first time, even though by then I was close to recovery.

And then there was the possibility of poverty, one of the greatest of all constraints on choice . Early in my six-month paralysis, a stocky, moustachioed man materialised by my bed, introducing himself as the ward's adviser on social security. I was soon confused as he explained the complicated benefits for which I might have to apply; confused on all but one point - the amounts on offer were terrifyingly small.

I was lucky. I proved to be a visitor rather than an immigrant to this strange country. I recovered fully. And I didn't even have to go back to the man with the moustache - my then employer generously continued to pay me until I returned to work. But I glimpsed enough of what life could have been like - and is like for hundreds of thousands of Britons - to make me angry at most of what the Government is trying to do.

Even after Thursday's vote, Downing Street was insisting that the cuts were "principled and right". They would end abuse, target help on those who needed it most, "and provide greater security for the most vulnerable people in society". Tom Levitt, one of the Labour MPs who did support the Government, said they would redirect funds "from some relatively wealthy people to those who have nothing".

Not so. The measures would deprive many of the most destitute disabled of any special benefit. They would penalise the prudent poor rather than the relatively rich. They would reward those able to work at the expense of those too disabled to do so. And in the name of curbing abuse, they would cut the income of hundreds of thousands of blameless people.

Not many would argue with the Government's stated intention of concentrating help on the most needy. But if this is their idea of accurate targeting, Mr Blair and his Social Security Secretary, Alistair Darling, could usefully take lessons even from the bunglers at Nato. Take their proposals for curbing incapacity benefit, a payment of some pounds 66.75 a week, paid for by National Insurance. One is designed to hit those who have taken out pensions, often paid for with money scrimped from scanty wages, to give themselves some security.

The axe starts to fall when those pensions yield pounds 50 a week: enough with the incapacity benefit to provide the princely income of pounds 6,041 a year. From then the benefit is reduced by 50p in the pound and is stopped altogether at a pension income of pounds 9,542 (still less than half the average wage). These, presumably, are "relatively wealthy people" to Mr Levitt (parliamentary salary, pounds 47,008 a year). And what of those who are well-off enough to have money stashed away in a building society or invested in shares? They are exempted; the penalty is only for those who have pensions, often prudently taken out on the Government's own advice.

Another mean-minded little provision would remove the benefit altogether from people who had not paid NI contributions for two years. This, of course, is neatly targeted at the poor - the unemployed, and those who (like 2 million Britons, mainly women) are paid too little to qualify for the contributions. So someone who had paid his or her insurance for 20 or 30 years, then fallen on hard times for two years, would get no special benefit on becoming disabled.

Launching the Bill which includes the cuts, Tony Blair pronounced it the end of "the something-for-nothing culture". Many of the 335,000 people expected to be affected by these changes to incapacity benefit over the next 10 years will have paid much more than something - but get nothing in return. Up to now there has been a safety net for those too poor to have paid National Insurance contributions - Severe Disablement Allowance, at an even lower pounds 40.35 a week. For good measure, the planned cuts would abolish it, hitting 16,000 people a year.

Ministers make much of allegations that fit people may be getting the benefit. If so, the remedy is in their own hands. Claimants now have to satisfy the Benefits Agency's own doctors rather than allegedly sympathetic GPs. If undeserving cases are indeed getting though, ministers should tighten the test for incapacity, not penalise hundreds of thousands of the genuine disabled.

Some of the Government's plans are good, especially moves to find work for the disabled. But it doesn't seem right to pay for these programmes by cutting the benefit of those who cannot work. And so far they have helped only 320 people find employment. Indeed, this government agreed just over a year ago to concentrate on "helping disabled people to get jobs, rather than reducing benefit entitlement". It looks as if it values its own promise even less than it does the disabled. "Principled" cuts, indeed.