Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and others have raised serious concerns about suggestions that ministers want to cut future spending on disability benefits and merge personal independence payment with universal credit.
The big disability charities have so far remained silent about the suggestion of cuts and moves to a single benefit in last week’s health and disability green paper, Shaping Future Support, which was published just as MPs were about to start their long summer recess.
Disability News Service has yet to see any evidence that the big charities – including Mind, Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire, RNID and RNIB – have raised any concerns about either potential spending cuts or the idea of a new, single benefit.
But DPOs – those organisations run and controlled by disabled people – have spoken out this week.
Many have been alarmed by the green paper’s repeated references to rising spending on disability benefits, which, says the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), “suggests there is more we can do to enable independent living and employment”.
The green paper says that ministers want to “explore making bigger changes to the benefits system” that will mean the system is “more affordable in the future”.
The green paper also suggests that ministers could create a “new single benefit” so as to simplify the application and assessment process, presumably by merging PIP – which contributes towards the extra costs of disability – with the income-related employment and support allowance (ESA) and universal credit.
Others were concerned by references to disability benefits systems in other countries, particularly to Switzerland – which has a “helplessness allowance” designed to contribute towards extra disability-related costs, which is awarded “only in exceptional circumstances” – and New Zealand, where the equivalent to PIP is means-tested and reaches a maximum of only £34 a week.
Ian Jones, from the grassroots WOWcampaign, said the green paper could be re-titled: “How can we pay less money to disabled people?”
He said: “It is important that this exercise is seen for what it is – an exercise to introduce retrogressive cuts to support and reduce the living standards of disabled people further.”
He pointed to the 2016 report by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which found “grave and systematic violations” of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) by the UK government, mostly by DWP and its ministers.
Jones said: “It seems to me that if the UNCRPD cannot stop or at least hinder the government when it tries to make disabled people pay for COVID, having already made them pay for the 2008 financial crash, then it truly is not worth the paper it is written on.”
Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser for Disability Rights UK, said the suggestions about cuts to future spending and a new single benefit were “very concerning… especially as they were not directly raised by the DWP in workshops prior to its publication”.
He said any reduction in spending “could only happen if new rules excluded more disabled people or benefit amounts were reduced”.
He said: “A new simplified single benefit may be a way of achieving both.
“Given its highlighting of benefit spending costs, a concern must be that it could result in a means-tested mish-mash that will exclude some disabled people now receiving PIP.”
And he said the green paper’s idea of replacing benefit payments with provision of aids and equipment was something the government ruled out in 2016, adding: “Shouldn’t aids and adaptations be freely and widely available now under NHS provisions in any case?”
Butler said the green paper was “strangely silent” on continuing flaws in the disability benefits system, such as the government’s original intention of using the introduction of PIP from 2013 to cut spending on disability benefits by 20 per cent; the “20-metre rule”, which has led to thousands of disabled people losing their Motability vehicle and their independence; and DWP rules which mean that disabled people can earn and keep £100 more on the ESA permitted work scheme than they can under universal credit.
The grassroots, user-led mental health group Recovery in the Bin (RITB) said it was “deeply concerned about the spurious comparisons to New Zealand and Switzerland, both countries with cultures very different to the UK”.
An RITB spokesperson said: “Disabled people have borne the brunt of cuts over the last decade of austerity.
“We have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic and the government’s proposals to target some of the most marginalised people for further cuts is state cruelty.”
The RITB spokesperson added: “While we would welcome a simpler benefits process, the governments proposals are not the way to do it.
“We strongly oppose combination of ESA/PIP into a single benefit as it has the potential to remove all a person’s income in one sweep when we know many assessments for benefits are flawed and overturned at tribunal.
“At present, an ill person in receipt of both benefits can challenge a flawed assessment while still receiving the other benefit.
“Combining benefits is likely to cause significant poverty, undermine people’s ability to appeal unfair assessments and increase risk of suicide.”
Caroline Collier, chief executive of Inclusion Barnet, said the “long-overdue” green paper was “asking the wrong questions and implying the wrong solutions”.
She said: “It is clear that the government is worried about the cost of working-age benefits, but this issue can’t be looked at in isolation.
“What they should be focusing on is outcomes: decent social housing, a real living wage, accessible environments and services, good education and employment opportunities, tackling stigma, implementing the Marmot review into health inequalities.
“If they focused on decent outcomes for people, the structural issues and costs would take care of themselves.
“Not only would it be a more effective way of reimagining support in the 21st century, it would allow everyone to live decent lives, be supported if necessary and have the quality of life to which we should all be entitled.”
Mark Baggley, manager of Choices and Rights Disability Coalition in Hull, said that merging benefits and reducing “stressful repeated form-filling” for disabled people could be helpful from a practical point-of-view.
But he said that “sadly, past experience of merging benefits isn’t done to benefit people, but to simply cut costs and reduce spending”.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “The government has a long way to go to rebuild trust with disabled people, especially after they snuck crucial proposals like this green paper through just before recess without any parliamentary scrutiny.
“This government’s green paper makes bold claims but lacks adequate detail or evidence and they have instead initiated a half-baked consultation during summer.
“Reducing the number of assessments needed has potential merit, but simply merging benefits is ill-thought-through.”
She added: “The government must recognise the amount of anxiety this will cause and clarify this isn’t just about a cost-saving exercise.
“We need a system that tackles the deep poverty and inequality disabled people face, including tackling the increased costs disabled people face, compared to non-disabled people.
“The future of benefits must support those who can’t work and help those who can into high-quality jobs and good training opportunities – allowing people to rise to their full potential.”
Dr Sarabajaya Kumar, co-founder of the disability caucus of the Women’s Equality Party, said that taking away the non-means-tested PIP would be personally “disastrous”.
She said: “I receive PIP, which allows me to work part-time to manage my multiple, complex conditions.
“I rely on my PIP (it is intended to cover the extra costs of being disabled, although it doesn’t, especially if one has multiple complex impairments, but it’s better than not having anything); and if it becomes means-tested and is merged with means-tested benefits, which I do not receive and would not receive because of my partner’s income (which is not my income!), I personally would be detrimentally impacted.
“His income does not cover the extra costs of my disability.”
She said PIP was “vital for keeping people in work and in my case also plugging a little of my rather substantial earlier losses [caused by losing a well-paid role through disability discrimination when she became disabled].
“Importantly, as a disabled person, my independence, which is critical, relies on me having PIP.”
Kathy Bole, co-chair of Disability Labour, said the government had taken “10 years to decide to simplify a bad system”, and she called instead for it to be “scrapped and overhauled”.
She said: “The government should stop wasting money on half-baked austerity plans and really engage with us to get the strategy right.
“Disabled people should not have to bear the brunt of the cost for COVID.”
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