The government’s controversial welfare reform bill – which will see huge cuts to disability benefits among other major changes – has cleared its final parliamentary obstacle and is now set to become law.
Following the failure of peers and MPs to reverse the most damaging aspects of the bill, disabled people’s organisations are now likely to take legal action against parts of the legislation, once it becomes law.
Campaigners pointed out that the bill cleared its final hurdle in the Lords just hours before the publication of a report by the parliamentary joint committee on human rights (JCHR), which warns that the government’s reforms and cuts to disability benefits and services would put disabled people’s right to independent living at risk.
Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), said the coincidence of the report coming out as the bill was being passed was “very embarrassing” for the government.
He said: “The JCHR made clear that there are significant risks for disabled people with the government’s welfare proposals, particularly with the cumulative effect when social care changes are taken into account as well.”
He said he and colleagues had been asking the government for 18 months to carry out a full assessment of the impact on disabled people of all of the cuts and reforms taken together, but it had yet to do so.
Coyle said legal action on the bill was now being discussed by organisations including DR UK.
He said: “A lot of organisations are exploring options right now based on the final proposals [in the bill].”
Many disabled activists expressed despair at the final passing of the bill.
Sue Marsh, who has played a key part in campaigning against the cuts to disability benefits, wrote in a “graphic, uncomfortable” post on her blog how the decision to pass the bill meant that she and others like her had “lost everything”.
She described in depth the huge impact that Crohn’s disease has on her day-to-day life, and said she believes that despite that, the bill means she will soon receive no disability benefits at all.
Another disabled activist who has campaigned prominently against the bill, Lisa Egan, told a Westminster meeting hosted by the Labour MP John McDonnell that she was “terrified and heartbroken” by the passing of the bill and the impact it will have on her own support.
The government is cutting spending on disability living allowance by 20 per cent and says it wants to focus on people with higher support needs, which Egan fears will see much of her support removed.
The bill cleared its final hurdle after peers backed down in their final confrontation with MPs, this time over cuts to housing benefit paid to working-age residents of social housing with spare bedrooms.
Peers had proposed an amendment that would have protected some disabled people from cuts to their benefits, but it was overturned in the Commons last week.
This week, peers proposed a new amendment that would have forced the government to commission an independent review of the new measures six months after they were introduced.
The disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson backed the new amendment, and said: “As we have read in the press yet again today, many disabled people are being portrayed as benefit scroungers.
“That causes me great concern as we make some of these changes. The review is vital if we are to ensure that our worst fears are not realised.”
But Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, refused to accept the new amendment as part of the bill, although he said the government would research the impact of the measures once they were introduced.
1 March 2012