Britain has a new Minister of State for Disabled People - Mark Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean. As he gets to grips with his new brief – the fourth person to do so in this government – Kate Ansell outlines some of the responsibilities he has inherited.
The coalition is making substantial reductions to welfare spending, as well as making significant budget cuts elsewhere, as part of its reforms.
The new disability minister will be responsible for overseeing the wide-ranging changes to disability benefits, from the high living costs some disabled people have, to support for those who can’t work at all, or those who find themselves temporarily unemployed.
He’ll be taking on board recent rule changes to allowances which enable disabled people to work more effectively, and the narrowing of entitlements to funds which allow disabled students to access assistive technology and other services.
The government says they currently spend 50 billion pounds on disability benefits, and that Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claims alone have increased by 35% in the last decade. There may be some agreement that reform was needed, but campaign groups believe disabled people have been hit disproportionately by the changes.
Though often reported separately, it is possible that individuals are affected by more than one reform. For example, many of those who lose their entitlement to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) are likely to find themselves hit by cuts to DLA too.
The Independent Living Fund (ILF) – which gives financial support so that severely disabled people can live independently – is earmarked for closure next year. The government says that the money will be transferred to local authorities who will be solely responsible for care provision in the future, but the funds won’t be ring-fenced, meaning local authorities could use it for other services.
Sue Elsegood from Greenwich is 47 and has received ILF since the early 90s. She has a team of five paid personal assistants on rota and says she is “terrified” that her local authority will put her in residential care rather than pay for the level of support she currently receives with help from the ILF.
She has a room for her assistants at home and had to apply for a discretionary housing payment so she didn’t have to pay what critics have dubbed the “bedroom tax”. “It turned out fine, but it takes time and effort,” she says.
DLA has been given to disabled people since 1991 to pay for extra costs related to disabilities. Now changing to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) the government says they want to help those with the greatest need. As a result, some people will lose the benefit.
Lisa Egan, who runs the campaigning blog Where’s The Benefit? believes she meets the criteria for PIP, but is worried about being reassessed every few years – everyone will be, which is one of the major differences between DLA and PIP. She fears she will be turned down and have to appeal against the decision and is worried she won’t receive support in the interim.
Egan most fears the removal of Severe Disability Premium (SDP), a payment made to some disabled people on low incomes, which is being gradually cut as part of the changes to Universal Credit.
“My impairment causes overheating. I’m sitting here with three fans pointed at me. I forked out for a half-price air conditioner a couple of years ago.” She also bought a dishwasher because she lacks the energy to cook and wash up – extra costs she says she couldn’t have afforded without SDP, or DLA.
Access to Work
The government says the benefit changes are designed to help get disabled people into work and have also set up a programme to give employers confidence in employing disabled people, the other side of the employment problem – only 49% of disabled people have a job.
Those who can work but need support to do so can currently claim an Access to Work grant. Recently, however, criteria have been tightened and the system changed. The government says it has increased the funding available overall, but the changes have not been welcomed by everyone.
One of the groups hardest hit by these changes is deaf people. Charlie Swinbourne, editor of the Limping Chicken blog, says: “Our readers have told us that when they’re trying to get support from Access to Work, they are often told to phone which is crazy considering they are deaf.
“People are finding their jobs in jeopardy because they’ve had support taken away, or reduced, or because they’re waiting too long to know if they’ll get support.”
Last month, the government announced it was reviewing the changes, including the impact on deaf people, suspending some of the measures which affect deaf people in the meantime. Although this review has been welcomed, [Swinbourne says] uncertainty remains and adds to other work and welfare anxieties.
Outside the national benefits system, disabled people report that cuts to council and NHS budgets have had a huge impact on their lives. Jemma Brown has had direct experience of this. She is both blind and has mental health problems. She has been assessed and it has been agreed that she needs care but her local council will only pay a small proportion, indicating she will need to pay the rest. Brown says she can’t because they haven’t taken her debt into consideration. She says: “I was awarded seven pounds a week for care – putting me in a position where I can’t afford the basic care I need to live a normal life.”
Brown has also been waiting over a year for a major needs assessment from an occupational therapist, but says that, on an everyday basis, cuts to council services have created a string of difficulties. She regularly walks into trees with overhanging branches because she can’t see, she says this didn’t happen before the council changed the way it manages open spaces to save money.
On a national level, the DWP told the BBC they carry out thorough impact assessments on all their policies, as well as equality impact assessments on any policies that might have a disproportionate affect on disabled people.
There’s a general election next year, and the indications are that welfare reform will be a huge issue. Nick Clegg has withdrawn his support for the so called “bedroom tax” in its current form, stating he doesn’t believe disabled adults should have to pay. This is a significant change, considering that it was his own party that helped vote the reform through in the first place, and commentators have speculated this U-turn is to win back votes.
It is another policy which has contributed to the much-reported general unrest in the disability community. “One of the biggest fears is uncertainty,” says Sue Elsegood. “Things are very stressful at the moment. I’m anxious at not knowing what will happen. There are so many bureaucratic barriers.”
More cuts are expected though charities and campaigners have already voiced concerns that disabled people have been too harshly affected by the austerity measures. It remains to be seen how Mark Harper will take on the challenge.
Kate Ansell is a disabled journalist specialising in social affairs. She has directed two Panorama films about the way welfare reform is affecting disabled people.