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'Those Who Need It Most'? The Disability Benefits Discourse Has to Change

01/04/2016 11:23 | Updated 01 April 2016

Speaking at a European council summit in Brussels last month, David Cameron stated that welfare payments to disabled people had increased by £4bn in real terms during his time in office. Disability benefits, he said, "will be more than £46 billion a year by the end of this Parliament compared to £42 billion when I became the Prime Minister." The announced cuts to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) in the most recent budget rightly caught the attention of a public who can recognise victimisation and neglect of the vulnerable when they see it. Witnessing the many impassioned responses to what is so clearly an injustice has been reassuring for anyone who believes in the obligation to support people who need it. For those like myself who have required disability benefits for independence, social inclusion and dignity, the scrapped changes were especially alarming and pertinent to our empowerment as individuals. For us all, the unfolding of events over recent weeks and the language used by politicians in defence of their actions reveals an approach to disability taken by our current government that is at best myopic and worse than this, quite conceivably immoral. This has to change.

For a start, we need honesty and transparency in evaluating what an increased disability benefit spend actually means. Yes, the £4bn increase cited by the prime minister has happened and represents a 'real terms' increase in the overall budget. In this sense, it is an honest statement. In relation to those who need benefit in order to redress the balance of autonomy in their lives, it would be misleading to represent the increase in disability payments as happening on an individual level. Whilst the overall spend increases, what does this mean for each claimant? The increase represents an increase in the number of claimants, not the increase in the amounts paid to each in 'real terms', with figures showing that there has been a 39 per cent increase in people who are homeless and disabled since Mr Cameron came to power in 2010. Yet the way each person with a disability is facilitated to live their lives and the assistance they get, aren't these the 'real terms' of meeting the needs of the disabled? What does it say of this government that their real terms are entirely economic, that the real agenda is not to meet individual need but to pursue budgetary goals irrespective of the impact on real lives?

As well as this lack of clarity about how disability benefit policy plays out on the ground, this justificatory reference to increased spending is disingenuous. An increase in disability benefit spending does not mean an increase in disability spending in total, or an increase in the provision of support required by the disabled. It means an increase in disability and need which is more an indicator of systemic failings of public health policy and the provision of the array of services required to keep people well. The needs of disabled people aren't just financial and met by benefit payments - there are many areas of public services that are being cut which are vital for social participation, mental health and wider wellbeing, all of which are the real terms in which disability affects life. The rising disability bill is incriminating for the government, not just financially, and is something that it is quite right to want to decrease. The rise in long-term health conditions and disability in society is deeply concerning, but the desire to reduce the welfare bill for this must surely be more than wanting to save money alone. Yet a policy to reduce disability rather than a policy to reduce the benefit bill would not be accompanied by the introduction of a bedroom tax which hit the disabled unfairly or cuts to mental health services which are so desperately overstretched in supporting the needs of those often with physical as well as mental disabilities. It would not involve an intimidating and unfit application process which has so systematically failed to identify the needs of those disabled people who do apply for it.

As someone who has worked for mental health services and is able to validate and articulate the severity of my own chronic mental health problems, I found the process of applying for Personal Independence Payment hugely distressing. Having been turned down and assessed as needing "no assistance" with my mental health (despite living with a life-threatening eating disorder and providing specialist evidence as well as my own written and oral evidence), I had to endure a lengthy appeal process against the Department for Work and Pensions during which I lost nearly all my benefit entitlement and faced eviction from my accommodation for being unable to pay rent and bills. Eventually, a tribunal unanimously overturned the original decision, even though I provided no additional evidence to that which I originally submitted. After further delays, the many months of payments were finally given, but during the intermediate time my mental heath dramatically deteriorated to the point of feeling suicidal as a result of a loss of independence, financial difficulties and effectively being told that my problems were not real. What concerns me more than this painful time is what happens to others who may be less confident or determined to go through the ordeal of fighting for what they need. When we hear Nicky Morgan, Sarah Wollaston or George Osborne talk about targeting benefit payments to "those who need it most", perhaps we need to remember that there will be many who are not currently in receipt of benefit but are still in significant need, who may lack the independence and support to navigate the obstacles of today's welfare system at all.

The most striking thing for me about the events of the last budget's disability proposals however is the manner in which actions were taken and the way disability is talked about. On the day of the budget announcements, the prime minister said that the government "will always protect the most vulnerable people in our country and make sure they get the help they need." He must surely be divorced from the reality of the lives of those relying on disability benefits, because in what sense is it protecting the vulnerable to throw their security into question? Security is key to independence, stability and health - to be able to predict the support you will have from one year to the next when you have a long-term health condition or disability. The very act of making these announcements is damaging, whether or not further consultation is going to take place. The confusion over whether adequate consultation took place before the announcement of these cuts only adds to a sense of this government being prepared to safeguard and assure corporations and high-eaters, but willing to play fast and loose with the support of the most vulnerable who are at risk of real human costs from budgetary changes like this as well as economic ones.

Whilst the reversing of changed to PIP is good news, the budget passed a £30 per week cut to Employment and Support Allowance, apparently because giving disabled people more help is, according to government sources, a "perverse incentive". Implied here is that disabilities such as long-term mental health conditions are something that can be chosen - as though a loss of dignity, declining health and independence, increased reliance on other services, poverty and increased likelihood of addiction, homelessness and social exclusion are something that people would exchange for £30 a week. More than this, talking of "those who need it most" is representative of just how flawed and damaging the discourse around disability benefit has become. Need is need. Although some people have more complex needs than others, all needs are valid and by definition, all needs must be met. The only morally acceptable way to reducing the disability benefit spend is to reduce need in the first place, rather than withdrawing assistance from those already requiring it. To act with foresight and look at the systemic drivers of disability and ill health may require initial investment, but this doesn't make it incongruent with the economic health of our country in the long run. This is surely more important than a short-term attempt to balance the books at the cost of the vulnerable.

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