Disabled people’s organisations and allies have offered strong support for a user-led plan to build a social security system that treats all benefit claimants with “dignity, fairness and respect”, and replaces the government’s “chaotic” universal credit.
The plan has been drawn up by the Commission on Social Security, whose members are all people with lived experience of the current system.
The Plan for a Decent Social Security System was launched at historic Toynbee Hall in east London this week, with nearly 100 more people watching online.
Among those organisations that offered support for the plan at the launch – while also suggesting potential tweaks and improvements – were Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), Inclusion Scotland, Z2K and Gingerbread.
Disabled activist Ellen Morrison, co-chair of the commission, said: “The current benefits system is failing and it needs a major updating, a major overhaul, not just tweaks.
“The commission has come up with a plan for a decent social security system… it’s the most comprehensive blueprint that we’ve got for a progressive and transformative way forward that exists.
“For the plan to have any chance of success it needs other organisations and people supporting it, and working together.”
Seven other commissioners described to the launch event the current flaws in the social security system, and how the commission’s plan would address them.
Nigel Barber said universal credit had “caused chaos, havoc and despair for millions of people”, with many people experiencing it as “a chaotic and unpredictable system”.
He said: “Universal credit does not work. It is not simple, it creates instability, insecurity and debt.
“We need a system that is truly simple to understand and which provides true security and stability for all.”
Sarifa Patel, a disabled carer, spoke of the problems facing carers, disabled women, and people of colour.
She said: “Despite disabled women being more likely to be carers, you constantly face discrimination, and it is harder to access the support I require as a disabled person as it is assumed I can’t be disabled and be providing care.
“And there is institutional racism added to this, and disablism.”
Osmond James said he had applied for personal independence payment (PIP) several times and each time had been awarded zero points following the assessment.
He said: “Each assessment has felt like I am being judged, that I am expected to tell a complete stranger personal and distressing details of my life, for them to determine if I am worthy.”
He said: “The undercurrent through the whole process is one of disbelief or of making you feel unheard, or trying to find ways of denying you support.”
He said the commission found the PIP assessment process left claimants feeling “distressed, anxious, depressed, and feeling humiliated and worn down”.
La Toya Grant said the commission’s plans relied on several key principles.
She said people should have enough money to live on; everyone should be treated with dignity, fairness and respect; claimants should have the right to the social security they need; the system should be clear, accessible and friendly to everyone who needs it, while people who receive social security should be involved in devising the system; and there should be free support and advice for claimants.
Another commissioner, Barry McDonald, said: “Social security should be seen as an investment in people and an investment in the local community.
“There is definitely enough money to provide social security for all of us.”
Mike Tighe said the commission’s proposed replacement for universal credit would be to set a guaranteed decent income (GDI), with top-ups for those whose income would otherwise fall below this level.
He said: “There would be no job search requirements, no sanctions, no two-child limit, no benefit cap, no bedroom tax, no five-week wait, and no reduced rate for under-25s.
“The guaranteed decent income would… be a huge simplification of the current system and have minimal conditions, and would replace standard means-testing with a ‘light touch’ approach.”
Another commissioner, Maria McCaul, said PIP would be replaced by a new, non-means-tested benefit that covered the extra impairment-related costs faced by disabled people and was based on the social model of disability, with its design co-produced with disabled people.
The commission is now working on developing a new assessment process for this proposed benefit, she said.
There was support for the commission’s proposals from organisations that attended the launch.
Ellen Clifford, a former commissioner but speaking as a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said: “Overwhelmingly the plan chimes with what we want to see in the future social security system.”
She said DPAC “particularly welcomes” the proposal for a GDI and for a new benefit to replace PIP, and for a system that puts disability at its heart, with the involvement of disabled people with lived experience of the system.
She said: “We love the way that a GDI would be both targeted at need but also universally ensure that everyone has enough money to live on, with no conditions attached, that would stop people falling through the gaps because they were unable to navigate the system.”
She said it would also “remove the trauma of assessments and sanctions that not only cost huge amounts to administer but also leave a not insignificant section of the population traumatised, destabilised, less able to participate in society and further from employment”.
As with other representatives from organisations who spoke at the launch, Clifford raised questions and offered suggestions for improvements to some of the details of the plan.
Bill Scott, from the disabled people’s organisation Inclusion Scotland, talked about the significant changes to the social security system that have been introduced by the Scottish government and warned that any change to the system across the UK “has to be done collectively”.
He said: “The experts, as far as I’m concerned, are those who live at the sharp end of the problem.
“They know how those problems affect their lives, and they know the best solutions, and if we listen to them, we will achieve change.
“I can see that there might be a change in UK politics in the next couple of years and you need to start building the bridges to the politicians that can affect that change and convince them that the way to do it is in your report.”
Anela Anwar, chief executive of the London-based anti-poverty charity Z2K, said the plan was “rich with proposals that we fully support” and was “transformative and ambitious” and had “dignity and respect at its heart”.
She said: “We, too, believe that adequate, stable income and genuinely affordable housing are key to creating that more equal society where everyone has a chance of a dignified life.”
And Victoria Benson, chief executive of the charity Gingerbread, which supports single parent families, said her organisation was “really supportive of much of this plan”.
More than 1,000 individuals and organisations submitted evidence to the commission, through a public call for solutions, 17 workshops across the UK, a public consultation on its draft proposals – which secured widespread approval – and other activity.
Trust for London awarded funding for the project in 2018 and the commission began meeting later that year, with a brief to develop a new social security system in which claimants would be treated with dignity, trust and respect.
City Bridge Trust, the London School of Economics, and the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University have also supported the commission’s work.
Every one of the commissioners has been or is on benefits, and all of them represent grassroots, user-led organisations that fight for the rights of benefit claimants and disabled people.
The idea for a grassroots, user-led project on the future of social security was first suggested by Dr Michael Orton, the commission’s secretary, a researcher at the University of Warwick and himself a disabled person with experience of claiming benefits.
Picture: (Clockwise from top left): Commissioners Maria McCaul, Osmond James, Nigel Barber and Mike Tighe
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