Monday 23 April 2012

Across the pond

We all know that DLA and social care cuts are going to result in more disabled people being institutionalised. When the money to fund independent living is taken away you have no choice but to acquiesce to being banged up. Tonight's Panorama is one of many recent examples of how horrific institutionalisation is. Remember Winterbourne View?

Over here disabled people have almost no support from the mainstream in fighting the cuts that will ultimately result in more people being incarcerated in these places. The media campaign decrying all disabled people as faking scroungers being so pervasive; people are even less likely to stand alongside us than they ever were.

Not so in America.

Today ER star Noah Wyle has been arrested at a disability rights protest in DC organised by ADAPT. They're fighting the proposed cuts to Medicaid; the scheme that funds independent living over there.

Noah Wyle being led away by police with his hands cuffed

Photo tweeted by @NationalADAPT

Wyle is the second ER star to be arrested for protesting in recent weeks. Last month George Clooney was arrested protesting outside the Sudanese embassy in DC. Does anyone have Alex Kingston's number? I ask purely for activism purposes, obviously... *innocent face*

It's both exciting and saddening. Exciting that a Hollywood star is willing to stand up for disabled people's basic right to live outside of an institution. But saddening because you can guarantee that it'd never happen over here.

Edit 24/04/12: Here's a brilliant interview with Wyle in which he explains that: "To institutionalize a disabled American costs four times as much than to give assistance for independent living."

It's the same story here, of course. Disability Rights UK have carried out an impact assessment of the cuts to DLA and found that the costs of cutting the benefit will wipe out any planned savings.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Guest post: Personal Independence Payment – The Next Great Welfare Train Crash

This is a guest post from @johnnyvoid and originally appeared here.

Banner with 'cuts kill' painted on in red
Brutality combined with incompetence are becoming the hallmark of the current Tory administration and the plans to abolish Disability Living Allowance (DLA) are riddled with both. The Government is driving ahead with their plans to replace DLA with the new Personal Independent Payment (PIP). The aim of this is to strip benefits from a fifth of disabled people.

This will be achieved by using an independent medical assessment as the key part of the decision making process when considering a claim for the new benefit. That assessment will be carried out by a private company.

We already have an effective model of how the new scheme might operate. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is a short computer test carried out by French IT firm Atos which is used to determine eligibility for the out of work sickness and disability benefit Employment Support Allowance. For everyone other the Government and Atos themselves, it has been an unmitigated disaster. The constant assessment and re-assessment regime has driven an increasing number of people to take their own lives. A recent Daily Mirror investigation found that 32 people a week die after being declared ‘fit for work’ by Atos. Around 40% of appeals against Atos’ decisions are successful and the appeals system is in meltdown due to the number of cases being brought.

Despite some tampering around the edges due to a recent review of the process, there are no plans to abolish or significantly reform the WCA. This should serve as a stark warning to people facing the new PIP testing regime. The Government are happy with Atos the way things are. Lots of people are losing their benefits. That was always all they wanted.

The stated agenda of PIP is to remove benefits from 20% of disabled people. All other mealy mouthed attempts at reform are secondary to this. It will be down to the private sector to carry out this cull. In many ways the PIP process will be identical to the WCA. It may yet even be Atos who carry out the assessments.

This will not only prove traumatic for the people forced to undergo demeaning health tests, but will bring devastating social costs. The Government’s plan that “entitlement will depend on the person’s circumstances and the impact of their health condition or disability on their everyday lives” is vague and open to all kinds of interpretation.

How it will be measured in practice is anyone’s guess. Given it’s the private sector who will be carrying out the bulk of the work the answer is likely to be the cheapest way possible. It will be difficult to imagine how, for example, being in full time work can be ignored by any assessment. Under the WCA claimants who have admitted to watching Eastenders have had it used against them as evidence of being ‘fit to work’. It is therefore very likely that having a job will come to be seen as a disqualifying criteria for claiming PIP, if not formally but as a reality of people’s experiences. This may not be the Government’s intention, but in practice it seems unavoidable.

Atos, as well as human rights abusers G4s and private sector sharks Serco, are some of the companies believed to be bidding for the PIP contract. They should be warned it is a thoroughly poisoned chalice. Atos have already seen their reputation destroyed by the WCA, with the name of their company becoming a dirty word. This will seem trivial should they take on the PIP Assessments.

DLA is a non means tested benefit designed to help people meet the additional costs of disability or ill health. In many ways it should be seen as an adjunct to the NHS rather than a benefit comparable to those paid to people unable to work. DLA is used for things like additional transportation costs, specialist equipment or personal care. For many working disabled people these things are essential to help them remain in work. As Disability Rights UK have recently pointed out (PDF), the removal of DLA from over half a million people may drive many into unemployment.

People currently claiming DLA include doctors, lawyers, journalists and MPs. Whilst those claiming out of work benefits are by their very nature economically disempowered (in that they don’t have jobs and are forced into the poverty of the benefits system) many DLA claimants are highly skilled professionals. We could face the unedifying spectacle of Doctors having their health and disability needs assessed by the two bit NHS rejects at Atos. Disabled legal professionals may yet be forced into the appeals system and are likely to prove ferocious. Any company which takes on the PIP contract will face unprecedented resistance at grass roots level, from people in some cases far more qualified than their own assessors. It will be doctors, lawyers and journalists lining up alongside benefit claimants to take action against the companies concerned.

Imagine becoming public enemy number for not just the three million plus DLA claimants, but their friends, families and carers. People with many more skills and resources to fight than those on out of work benefits. Every mistake, appeal or careless remark by an assessor will be scrutinised. Assessment centres and other business sites could find themselves thronged with disabled protesters. An avalanche of legal challenges seems almost inevitable.

It is possible that on the ground a two tier process will develop. Disabled doctors and lawyers may be informally waved through the process in the hope they won’t make too much fuss. Can we honestly believe that David Blunkett or a Paralympian Gold Medal winner will face the same kind of scrutiny as an out of work disabled single mum living on a Council Estate?

The alternative is that the PIP assessment will become an unofficial ‘means test’. Those in work, or able to lead more active lives, may find themselves punished as any sign of independence is used against them. However the upcoming farce plays out it will prove catastrophic not just for disabled people themselves but for the wider credibility of the system.

As we have seen under the WCA regime, there will be more suicides, more appeals and more people having conditions made worse by the stress of endless testing. The Government says that only in very few cases will PIP be awarded for life. This will mean for example, that people who may have lost a limb will be forced back to continual re-assessments, presumably to check it hasn’t sneakily grown back.

Despite lurid headlines DLA is not an easy benefit to qualify for. A wealth of medical information is required, from GPs, consultants and other health professionals. As with the WCA, this is likely to become secondary to the short assessments carried out by private companies. As more disabled people are forced into poverty it will be down to Local Authorities and the NHS to pick up the slack. Just like so much of this Government’s Welfare Reform, it may yet cost more money to go down this road than simply leaving things as they are.

The Government are currently consulting on the changes and you can make your feelings heard here. If past consultations are anything to go by then don’t expect them to listen. The over privileged tory toffs have made their intentions well and truly clear. Don’t think that this scum will shed any tears for those driven into poverty or even suicide by these changes. As Maria Miller, the Minister for Disabled People has already said, the cost of disabled people is simply ‘unsustainable’. That tells us everything we need to know about this Government’s attitudes towards sickness and disability.

Join the growing protests against Welfare Reform including action called in Central London by Disabled People Against Cuts on the 18th April (tomorrow!).

Friday 13 April 2012

PIP Survey - Can you Help?

The wonderful Sam Barnett-Cormack and have designed this survey to help them put together an official Spartacus response to the PIP consultation.

We'd be REALLY grateful if you could spare a few minutes to take part. The more people that reply, the more reliable the results will be.

We don't feel that we should speak for you - but would love to base our response on what YOU think and need.

Thank you so much.


Tuesday 10 April 2012

Guest post: When "the vulnerable" have everything to fear

This is a guest post from @Spoonydoc and originally appeared here.

Many disabled people are currently living in fear since the welfare reform bill became law. Some benefits are due to be replaced with stringent new criteria which mean that many disabled people will no longer qualify for support. With social services cutbacks many will be left with no help whatsoever.

I am not quite in that position. I am among what the government likes to call "the most vulnerable". Currently in receipt of the highest levels of disability benefits and having easily passed the new dreaded draconian Work Capability Assessment I am in the support group of what is called ESA and am not expected to be able to work again. Having seen the criteria for the new benefits it is clear that even being as harsh as possible, I should easily qualify for the highest rates of these too.

With the government having promised that the reforms will see more support diverted to the "most vulnerable in our society", you would therefore think I have nothing to fear.

You couldn't be more wrong.

I currently live independently.
As I live alone I receive an extra payment called SDP (severe disability payment) which helps cover the extra costs of care and disability.
However a large portion of this and my other benefits goes to social services and in return I receive direct payments, money with which I employ carers to help me with every day tasks such as getting dressed, washed, eating, shopping, etc.
My LHA (Local Housing Allowance) is upgraded to a 2 bedroom rate so that carers or family can stay when my illness is so bad that someone needs to stay overnight.
My flat was adapted 8 years ago so that it is wheelchair friendly.

When the changes start coming in next year, all this will go.

a) SDP is being abolished completely.
b) The 2 bedroom allowance is no longer guaranteed.
c) I will continue to have to pay most of my benefits towards my care. I cannot manage without it.

I calculate that I will be around £80 per week worse off (around half from SDP and half from LHA).
At first I might be ok. Apparently there will be a transitional protection as far as SDP goes, which means I will only be £40 worse off and might be able to get that together somehow. As time goes on however, that will be eroded by inflation and benefit freezes.

The second big issue is : I cannot manage without a second bedroom.
Even if I could, there are no wheelchair friendly 1 bedroom flats available for rent privately (I've been looking). As far as social housing goes there is little wheelchair accessible housing available and in any case I am not allowed a bungalow until I am 50, ie in 17 years time!

So I either have to go into non wheelchair accessible accommodation without provision for my carer or go bankrupt!

The only other solution is for me to go into a care home at the ripe old age of 35. Ironically this will cost far more than if I were to stay put and continued to be paid benefits.

Before the election David Cameron said "If you are sick, disabled, frail, vulnerable, or the poorest in society you have nothing to fear."

Sir, please look me in the eye and say that now.

Thursday 5 April 2012

32 deaths a week.

I haven't been able to write here for a while. After the Welfare Reform Bill came into law it has all felt a bit pointless. I felt helpless, that all was lost.

Whether or not that is the case remains to be seen, but I've been prompted back into action after seeing this story: 32 die a week after failing test for new incapacity benefit.

32 people every week.
We've used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that, between January and August last year, 1,100 claimants died after they were put in the "work-related activity group".

This group - which accounted for 21% of all claimants at the last count - get a lower rate of benefit for one year and are expected to go out and find work. [...]

We don't know how many people died after being found "fit to work", the third group, as that information was "not available".

But we have also found that 1,600 people died before their assessment had been completed.
Go and read the whole thing, and kick up a fuss, put this to the top of everybody's agenda. It can't go on.

Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies #esa #wrb #nogobritain

It all sounded such a positive idea; reform Incapacity Benefit by introducing Employment Support Allowance to ensure those who are too sick or disabled to ever work receive life long financial support, those who could do some work with the right support get that support, and those who've been 'gaming' the system get kicked off the benefit. What's not to like about that? Those in need of protection get it, those in need of support to work receive it and the 'drains on society' drain jobseekers allowance instead of sickness benefit so hard working tax payers can rest easy knowing their money is going to the right place. It's such a lovely idea that its impossible to argue against. It's why welfare campaigners have had such an uphill struggle to explain to the public that the "I don't mean people like you" they always exclude from benefit scrounging justifications are actually almost all "people like me" and not the amorphous drain on society type that everyone knows exists...until you actually ask them to name just one person they know and head scratching ensues.

Support for the genuinely sick or disabled is so entrenched in British thinking that it doesn't get questioned until people are in that position themselves and discover that at the time they are most vulnerable those nice little bungalows and free cars they thought would be there to enablee the practicalities of life never really existed. It's why slashing welfare can be done on the premise that it won't affect 'people like me', because until you don't know any better you'd assume people like me are getting all they need to support their ill health or disability.

We've had 18 years of laws the government insist make Britain accessible to disabled people, laws now being used to justify removing financial benefits designed to help us pay for those access needs. Laws which have seen great progress but that are so poorly enforced that a Baroness found herself needing to crawl off a train dragging her wheelchair and a famous yachtsman told he could not travel on a train because "those things will damage the floors".

Against that background of promises to always protect the most vulnerable its proved impossible to explain to the public that the welfare cuts are disproportionately falling upon sick and disabled people. Impossible to demonstrate that this was in fact a giant exercise in simply redefining what to be sick or disabled means, whilst the media floundered around struggling to understand the different names of benefits, what they are for, let alone what losing that support might mean. As campaigners, we always knew what that would mean was being unable to alert the public to the long term human consequences of this until after the changes became law and enough time had passed to collect evidence of what happens to people.

That evidence is still at best patchy, and will gradually emerge over the next 18 months as the tribunal service struggle to process soaring number of appeals against denial of benefit. It will continue to be obscured by the confusion between responsibility caused by outsourcing the medical testing part of the system to a private company not known for their competency, leaving the final decision with an administrative employee of the Department of Work and Pensions and the appeals process by another arm of the civil service. A private company who have failed to provide adequate access to examination centres, failed to inject any humanity into their working processes, frequently failed to acheive the required standards for those working processes but been astonishingly successful in obscuring the true heart of this problem, the deliberate redefinition of sickness and disability designed by the Department of Work and Pensions.

Because, really that's the key to this issue. And slowly, but surely now the evidence will start to emerge that these cuts are very much targeted upon 'people like me', people like the mum with a fractured spine who's lost her adapted mobility car, the mum who used to be a nurse, but now recovering from breast cancer complicated by severe osteoporosis declared fit for work, or the 1100 people who died last year after being found fit for some work and put in the Work Related Activity Group. That's the same group of people now receiving letters to inform them the benefit they believed they'd paid for all their working lives is now being time limited retrospectively if their partner earns more than £7500 a year. These ARE people like me, and when life brings the events we all most instinctively fear they will also be people like you.

So as the government continue to tell their sweet little lies, remember that one day "people like you" will become "people like me", the people you so wanted to believe were somehow so different from you they could be excised from conscience with clever words and promises to protect.

Monday 2 April 2012

♫...Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London; I'll show you something to make you change your mind. ...♫

Visit any American city and it's unlikely you'll get to the end of your first day before you've seen a rough-sleeping wheelchair user. Most seem to sleep in that awkward contorted position usually reserved for trying to sleep on a plane, though I have seen people try and achieve some semblance of horizontalness by laying with their head and upper torso on their chair seat and their butt and legs on a bench or low wall. That's the wheelchair users that haven't had their legs blown off in service of their country, of course. I'm assuming that if you laid down on the floor to sleep in a doorway that your essential mobility aid wouldn't still be next to you in the morning.

The first time I went to America it really shocked me. I'd never seen a wheelchair user sleeping rough in the UK. My parents explained that it's because our health service and welfare state were less brutal than there and we don't tend to leave wheelchair users destitute. I was 11 when I went on that trip and the only thing I'd known was Thatcherism: She was elected as PM 13 days before I was born and in October 1990 when I left this island for the first time she was still a month short of handing the reins over to Major.

Our system has always failed people with mental health and substance abuse problems and they make up a significant proportion of our rough sleepers. Wheelchair users aren't immune from ending up without a home to call their own - especially down to the fact that accessible housing is in such short supply - but we tend to end up as hidden homeless rather than living on the streets.

For 21 years since that first trip to America it remained the case that I never saw a wheelchair user sleeping rough in Britain.

As more and more applications for disability benefits are turned down disabled people are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet. Things will get worse in the near future when people in WRAG claiming cESA start to lose their income, and yet worse still in little over a year when half a million genuinely disabled people lose their DLA.

The fact that cuts are already starting to bite can be seen on the streets of London: Over the last few months I've seen 3 different wheelchair users hunkering down for the night on the streets of my city.

Welcome to compassionate Conservatism: Even more brutal than Thatcher.