We’ve now passed the midway point with our current government, but what impact has the coalition had on the lives of disabled people? We find out.
“Fairness means giving money to help the poorest in society. People who are sick, who are vulnerable, who are elderly – I want you to know we will always look after you. That’s the sign of a civilised society, and it’s what I believe.”
Prime Minister David Cameron made this statement at the Conservative party conference in October 2010, his first address to the whole party in the role of PM. Now, two and a half years on, the big question is whether or not Mr Cameron and his colleagues have remained true to their word.
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as positive as government chiefs, or disabled people, would like it to be. The facts and figures speak for themselves. Since 2010, disabled people have experienced a £500m drop in income. Local authority care budgets have been cut by £2bn. Charges for essential services such as transport and meals on wheels have rocketed. Almost 80% of disabled people say that their health has worsened due to the stress caused by reassessments and changes to their lives. This is not a happy situation.
So how has this happened? When the Tory party won the 2010 general election, they inherited a pretty bleak-looking economy and a colossal deficit. Budget deficit occurs when government spending exceeds revenue over a period of time – the UK’s annual deficit had surpassed £150bn by the time Cameron’s coalition government came into power. Chancellor George Osborne was tasked with reducing government spending, increasing taxes and slashing spending on welfare benefits dramatically. Much of this has impacted on the lives of disabled people.
“We’re not denying that there’s a deficit,” commented a spokesperson from the Hardest Hit coalition, a group of disabled people, charities and disabled people’s organisations fighting cuts being made by the government. “We’re not in the business of saying that there can’t be any cuts in the UK economy, but the government really does need to stand by its commitment to disabled people; they’re the people who need greatest protection.”
Over the last two and a half years, cuts have been announced and new policies put in place to reduce spending further, and as a result, the welfare system is undergoing a complete overhaul. Research carried out by think tank Demos and disability charity Scope has shown that, by the end of this government’s time in parliament, £9bn of the £18bn of cuts being made to welfare will come from benefits and grants which help disabled people.
For starters, Disability Living Allowance is being phased out and replaced with Personal Independence Payment, a move which is set to save the government £2bn. With PIP, claimants have to be reassessed, and an estimated 600,000 people will lose the benefit all together by 2018.
Employment and Support Allowance has also changed. Claimants are split into two groups – the Support group, people who are limited in their ability to work, and the Work Related Activity Group, who are deemed able to move towards the workplace with the right support. Under the Welfare Reform Act, you can only claim contributory ESA for one year if you are in the Work Related Activity Group, after that, support will stop. 400,000 people will lose all or some of their ESA payments by April.
It would seem that the money-saving measures brought in by the government might not be quite as savvy as first thought either. With thousands facing the loss of DLA, three quarters of disabled people say that they feel they will have to rely more on their local authority for support as a result. Others are quitting work as they can’t afford to live without extra support, meaning they aren’t paying as much tax. While money may be saved in one area, it’s going to be lost in others.
In April, a cap will be introduced to the amount households can receive for a range benefits. The cap will be set at £500 a week for couples and lone parents and £350 a week for single adults, and implemented via a deduction from housing benefit until Universal Credit is introduced in October of this year. It will only be rolled out in four local authorities from April – Bromley, Croydon, Enfield and Haringey – but by September, it will be in place across the country.
There will be some exceptions – those in receipt of disability living allowance, attendance allowance, working tax credits, war widows, war widowers or war disablement pension, Employment and Support Allowance (Support Component), industrial injuries benefits or armed forces compensation scheme payments will not be affected by the cap. However, with reassessments looming, many fear that they might not be safe for long.
Welfare reform is just the tip of the iceberg. The ‘bedroom tax’ is set to hit thousands of households, attitudes towards disabled people are at an all-time low, spending on local authority care services have been slashed dramatically and there’s yet more to come. It’s estimated that 88% of changes have yet come into place – a frightening prospect for thousands of people who have seen their lives change already.
THE OTHER HAND
There is no denying that this is a fairly bleak picture. But it hasn’t been entirely negative. Ministers are, for instance, working more with disabled people’s organisations and charities, recognising that people on the front line are in a better position to enable disabled people to contribute to and participate in their local communities. It was Cameron’s government, too, who implemented the Equality Act in 2010, which has given disabled people more protection in areas such as employment and education.
The Prime Minister spoke of being part of a civilised society, of looking out for those who needed the most help. But when you look at the impact that his government’s actions have had on the lives of Britain’s disabled people, it’s hard to see exactly how and when Mr Cameron will achieve this.
FIND OUT MORE
Benefit cap information
Government benefit enquiry line
0800 882 200
Image courtesy of the Hardest Hit campaign
Enable magazine, March/April 2013