Leading disabled figures have warned that the chancellor’s “ominous” failure to mention disability or social care in this week’s budget could be a sign that he plans to target disabled people’s support and services for fresh cuts.
George Osborne promised £12 billion-a-year in further cuts from the welfare budget, and £13 billion in other cuts, without providing any detail on where they would be made.
But there was also anger at the failure of the Labour leadership to mention disabled people in its response to the budget speech.G
Although Osborne promised more money for mental health treatment, some disabled activists were also concerned at measures that hinted again that claimants with mental health conditions could face compulsory treatment if they wanted to keep their benefits.
Osborne told MPs that the coalition had made £21 billion of welfare savings in the last five years, but that even more would be needed after the May general election.
In addition to £13 billion of cuts to government departmental spending, and £5 billion from “tax avoidance, evasion and aggressive tax planning”, he also wants to see £12 billion more in cuts to social security by 2017-18, telling MPs: “We have done it in this parliament; we can do it in the next.”
The Treasury said later that it could not provide any detail on where the welfare cuts would come from, as this would be a “political decision” for the next government.
But in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Osborne repeated the pledge he made at last year’s Conservative party conference that he would freeze working-age benefits after the election.
He told Today that this would not affect disability benefits, but when he made the same promise at the party conference, Disability News Service later confirmed that his plans would include a freeze – a real-terms cut – on some disability benefits.
If the policy has not changed since the party conference, disability living allowance, personal independence payment, and the support element of employment and support allowance (ESA) would still be allowed to increase every year to take account of rising prices, but the work-related activity component of ESA and the main component of ESA would be frozen.
The Conservative party has yet to comment on whether this policy has changed.
Osborne did announce an extra £1.25 billion over the next five years for mental health services for children and new mothers.
This will include funding to complete the roll-out of the Children and Young People’s Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies programme, which will, according to the budget document, ensure “talking therapists in every part of the country providing the best quality treatment for children”.
But there was concern at the implications of a new package of measures to improve “employment outcomes” for people with mental health conditions.
From this summer, the government will begin to locate “talking therapists” in more than 350 jobcentres, to “provide integrated employment and mental health support” to claimants with mental health conditions.
And from early 2016, it will provide online cognitive behavioural therapy to 40,000 ESA and jobseeker’s allowance claimants, as well as individuals being supported by the new Fit for Work service.
Rick Burgess, co-founder of New Approach, said he believed this would mean “wholly unethical” coerced treatment.
The Conservative party has already commissioned a review to look at the possibility of cutting out-of-work disability benefits for people with obesity and addictions who refuse treatment, and has refused to say if the review will also consider mental health conditions.
Although Labour leader Ed Miliband warned in his response to the budget that a Conservative government would force “massive cuts” to social care, he only spoke about older people, and not working-age disabled people, and there was no mention of disability elsewhere in his speech.
Only two MPs mentioned disability – the SNP’s Stewart Hosie and Labour’s Sheila Gilmore – and even then only briefly, in the five-and-a-half hour debate that followed Osborne’s speech.
The disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell said it was difficult to know how disabled people would be affected by the last budget before May’s general election, because Osborne had not referred to any groups that would be affected by cuts such as the £12 billion from welfare.
She said: “I must admit, a chill went down my spine as I read the statement in full yesterday; the virtual absence of any tangible mention of the NHS, social care and poverty prevention measures, does not bode well.
“It feels like one needs to be super fit, have an entrepreneurial drive and rely on as few public services as possible to be untouched by this budget.
“For those who don’t fit this profile, well, they will probably be consigned to the same invisibility as the missing areas in the budget…”
Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives and professor of social policy at Brunel University, said there was little if any mention of disabled people in the budget, with the focus instead on the “divvying out of large cash sums to buy votes”.
He said the need for austerity was only mentioned “when it’s in line with Conservative ideological ambitions to hack away the welfare state… but not when it’s all hands to the pumps to make sure the Tories can get re-elected to continue with this terrible task”.
He said that the Institute for Fiscal Studies had suggested that the Treasury would need to find “unprecedented” welfare savings over the next three years for the government to achieve its public spending plans.
He added: “What this will mean for disabled people, let alone the country as a whole, doesn’t bear thinking about. This must be the most divisive government and budget in recent memory.”
Philip Connolly, policy and development manager for Disability Rights UK, said: “In his budget speech the chancellor says Britain is walking tall again.
“There are two ways of walking tall, firstly by getting up off the floor and secondly by climbing on the backs of others. The budget contains elements of both.
“In the former, we support the new funding for mental health services; in the second, we oppose the cap on welfare spending and projected £12 billion of planned cuts in welfare spending of which the only detail the chancellor has so far made public is a freeze on working-age benefits.
“Of course, the right way to walk tall is through being voluntarily lifted by all those able to contribute to the lifting.
“In this approach, disabled people would be given agency to contract for effective support and wider choice over who and where to obtain it from.”
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, a crossbench disabled peer, highlighted the lack of clarity in where the cuts would be made, such as social care.
And she said she would like the “very major changes” already made to the social security system to “bed in before we go through it all again” with further welfare reforms, while she wanted to see the problems with the number of appeals and poor decision-making on benefit claims addressed “as a matter of urgency”.
John McArdle, co-founder of the Scottish-based, user-led group Black Triangle, said that disabled people “were dying due to the cuts already carried out to disabled people’s support, estimated by a Scope report to be more than £28 billion [by 2018]”.
He pointed to comments this week by Rob Webster, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, who said that social care was “on its knees”, with budget cuts meaning that “there are now 400,000 fewer people getting publicly funded social care help”.
McArdle said: “It’s clear that disabled people are bearing the brunt of Osborne’s austerity. His long-term economic plan means long-term misery for sick and disabled people in Britain.”
But he said that the refusal of Labour’s shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, to promise to reverse any of the budget measures was “even more disturbing”, and he suggested that “the cuts that are to come will be far larger than anything we have seen over the last five years, under either Labour or the Conservatives”.
He said: “The only hope that we hold out is that there will be a strong representation of SNP MPs at Westminster to fight back against unconscionable policies that are destroying the lives of sick and disabled people throughout Britain.”
Michelle Maher, from the WOWcampaign, said Osborne’s budget speech was “ominous”, because it failed to mention the words “sick”, “carer”, “disabled” or “disability”.
She said: “What did feature was the £12 billion welfare cuts which for sick, disabled and carers means more cuts to services and support.
“I believe Osborne purposely avoided using the word ‘disabled’ so as usual his plans could not appear inhumane.”
And she accused the government of hiding behind “a rhetoric of spin and lies”, illustrated by its failure to carry out an assessment of the cumulative impact of its cuts and reforms on disabled people.
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said it was “profoundly disappointing” that there was no mention in the speech of the impact that £12 billion of welfare cuts might have on disabled people.
She added: “There was also no mention in the speech about providing money to get step-free access installed at the 80 per cent of UK railway stations and 75 per cent of tube stations that have no proper access.”
19 March 2015