Surveys, studies and a Commons debate paint grim picture of austerity


newslatestA parliamentary debate, studies and surveys have this week exposed yet again the impact of the recession and the government’s austerity programme on disabled people.

Concerns about food banks, a drop in the number of those receiving council-funded care and support, and changes to housing benefit, combined to paint a fresh picture of poverty, despair and misery for disabled people.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP for Aberdeen South, told fellow MPs during a debate on food banks in the Commons that she believed their rise was not just a “passing phase born out of the global banking crisis and the recent years of austerity”.

She said: “One thing that has changed is the government. Another thing is the government’s social security reforms.

“The attitude of the government towards those on welfare has changed, too. So even in relatively affluent areas such as Aberdeen, families are depending on food parcels to eat.”

She suggested the rise could be due to an increase in the use of benefit sanctions, and in long delays and mistakes in benefit payments by Jobcentre Plus.

Dame Anne said: “All too commonly, people are using them because they have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own.

“People are still falling ill and losing their jobs as a result, only to face a long delay in getting any benefit. Those delays have got worse in recent years.”

She added: “The government need to recognise that the increase in the use of food banks is no accident, that it is not just a result of the economic downturn, and that it is not happening just because the food banks are there.

“It is a result of the policies being actively pursued by the government.”

Meanwhile, with MPs debating the care bill for the first time this week, the Care and Support Alliance released a study which showed the number of disabled and older people receiving social care support from their local council fell by 347,000 (including 97,000 disabled people) in the five years from 2007-08 to 2012-13.

Adjusting for demographic factors, this means that nearly 500,000 disabled and older people who would have received care and support five years ago do not receive it today, according to the study, carried out by the London School of Economics.

And a survey of nearly 4,000 disabled people by the Disability Benefits Consortium found that more than one in nine of those hit by housing benefit changes – including the introduction of the so-called “bedroom tax”, which sees tenants in social housing punished financially if they are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes – had needed to use a food bank.

A similar proportion of those hit by council tax changes had needed to use a food bank.

And for those affected by changes to both housing benefit and council tax,  about 15 per cent had been forced to use a food bank.

The consortium – whose members include Disability Rights UK, Transport for All and RNIB – warned that the replacement of working-age disability living allowance with personal independence payment could see even more disabled people driven to use food banks.

Sally Bell, a disabled woman from Bristol, told the consortium that she had been forced to use her local food bank to feed herself and her 17-year-old daughter after being hit by increased council tax contributions.

She said: “Although the staff at the food bank are very respectful, being forced to use the food bank and having to rely on such little money has made me feel less of a human being.”

Meanwhile, Freedom of Information Act requests by the National Housing Federation (NHF) have revealed that nearly a third of disabled people in England who were affected by the bedroom tax and applied for support were turned down by their local authority.

The research found that demand for discretionary housing payments (DHPs) across England rose by nearly 240 per cent in the period from 1 April to 30 September this year, compared with the same period in 2012.

In some parts of the country, the likelihood of securing help through DHPs was far lower, with nine in 10 disabled people unsuccessful in parts of Kent, and more than seven in 10 unsuccessful in north-east Derbyshire, Basildon, Rotherham and parts of Lancashire.

David Orr, NHF’s chief executive, said: “Whenever ministers are challenged on the bedroom tax, they tell us vulnerable people are not at risk because of these discretionary housing payments.

“But many disabled people and vulnerable families are facing miserable odds of getting help.

“Even those who are lucky enough to get support will have to reapply time and time again, each time facing the stress and worry that the funds will be withdrawn, while councils are being inundated with applications.

“This support fund is ineffective and deeply unfair – just like the bedroom tax itself. The only real solution is to repeal it.”

19 December 2013