Disabled people face new hardship under welfare reform

The government last week finally published its flagship welfare reform bill. After more previews than a summer blockbuster, most of it came as no surprise. By Ruth Scott

The bulk of the measures announced months ago will be enabled by the bill, delivering the biggest shake-up of the welfare system for decades.

Disabled people will be hit from all sides by these measures, and the many other changes being introduced across government.

Over the next four years many disabled people will see a reduction in the overall value of their benefits, as well as specific reductions in the levels of housing benefit; unemployment benefit; the loss of disability living allowance (DLA), which contributes towards the – often significant – extra costs of living as a disabled person; as well as reduced access to social care services as a consequence of local government funding cuts. Over the next parliament disabled people as a group stand to lose £9 billion in financial support and that doesn’t even include the loss of local services like care and support, subsidised transport and respite services.

The government has always maintained that the cuts will be ‘fair’ and that those with the ‘broadest shoulders will carry the heaviest burden’, but it doesn’t take a forensic accountant to work out that a comprehensive raid on the welfare pot will mean the poorest will bear the brunt of the impact.

As disabled people are more likely to be out of work, living in social housing, have lower incomes and higher living costs, and need care and specialist transport services there is little doubt that the pain of cuts will not be felt equally.

The government, like many before it, has put work at the heart of its plans to reduce welfare spending.

Under the government’s new system the vast majority of the two-and-a-half million disabled people currently on incapacity benefit will be reassessed and found officially ‘fit for work’ with barely a nod to the social, financial and practical barriers they face in finding and keeping a job in the real world.

Access to specialist support to find work will be tightly rationed and all support will be time-limited. Providers of government ‘work programmes’ will be paid by results, but in a recession, where the economy is stagnant, the public sector is shedding staff and 20% of young people are unemployed, it’s hard to see where the millions of extra jobs that will be needed to deliver these ‘results’ are going to come from.

Through his new ‘universal credit’, Iain Duncan Smith wants to “increase the incentives to work, and reduce the incentives to stay out of work”.

But an ‘incentives’-based approach only works for those whose only obstacle to employment is financial. Making work pay more than benefits makes sense for the single mother who would end up paying out more in childcare costs if she did a low paid job than she would receive if she remained on benefits. But if, like many disabled people, no-one will give you a job or you don’t have the support you need to physically get to work in the first place, the fact that work now pays more makes little practical difference.

The real focus needs to be not on finding people fit for work and sanctioning them when they aren’t successful, but in helping them overcome the real barriers to getting and keeping a job. For that to succeed we need jobs, employers that are willing to give disabled people a chance, and a work programme that supports those who are furthest from the labour market into real, sustainable employment that pays. Without this, these changes will not achieve the step change we need in disabled people’s employment rates and poverty will be exacerbated, not reduced.

Last week’s publication of the bill brought some good news. The government has decided to drop plans to penalise people on job seeker’s allowance who don’t find work within 12 months by cutting their housing benefit by ten per cent. While this is clearly a victory for common sense it is disappointing that politicians and organisations like Scope have had to spend months lobbying the government to drop a policy that was so utterly counter-productive in the first place.

A further development was that, although the government is still pushing ahead with plans to reform the disability living allowance, they have paused for thought on plans to remove this vital benefit from disabled people in residential care. DLA exists to help disabled people meet the extra costs of living as a disabled person. When these extra costs are taken into account levels of disability poverty jump from 23% to between 40% and 60% and we have been inundated with thousands of calls and emails from disabled people who fear losing their independence altogether if DLA is withdrawn.

DLA is the key to the outside world for disabled people in residential care, giving them the chance to leave their homes, get out and about in the community, go shopping and visit friends and family. The basic, everyday activities that non-disabled people take for granted, but are not funded by most social care packages.

The decisions to backtrack and pause on some of the most punitive and unfair of the policy proposals is a positive development, but getting even these minor concessions has taken a huge amount of time and effort. Taken together the raft of welfare and other changes will seriously affect disabled people’s income and opportunities and risk undoing the momentum towards a more equal society that has taken decades to build.

We’re glad Iain Duncan Smith has finally begun to listen to the concerns of disabled people and we hope that this is the beginning, rather than the conclusion, of a much-needed conversation between disabled people and the government that exists to represent them.

Ruth Scott is the director of policy and campaigns at Scope, the disability charity for children and adults with cerebral palsy.