If you need an insight into the moral fibre of a government, you need look no further than how it treats its disabled citizens.
On Wednesday, the work and pensions select committee released a scathing report into Britain’s disability benefit system, warning “a pervasive lack of trust is undermining its entire operation.” It detailed an assessment process all too familiar to the hundreds of thousands of disabled and chronically ill people pushed through it in recent years—one riddled with fundamental errors, a dire use of medical evidence and incompetent assessors.
This came only a few days after the committee released a preview report detailing the experiences of disabled people themselves (there were so many submissions from individuals—an unprecedented number for a select committee—that MPs chose to release a separate report just to fit them in). A person with Down’s syndrome was asked when they “caught it.” A woman reporting frequent suicidal thoughts was asked why she had not yet killed herself. It’s hard to imagine how any state could run a system such as this—and yet it is happening in Britain in 2018.
This week’s Valentine’s Day campaign by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)—in which the DWP Twitter account threatened couples who hadn’t declared their living arrangements under the tagline “Don’t get separated from your Valentine”—is a particularly crass display of the Conservatives’ disdain for benefit claimants. But as disabled people have long been a key target for austerity measures, this attitude is never more apparent than in reforms to the disability benefit system.
This system is in many ways the worst by-product of the austerity era—a simultaneously wasteful and cruel creation that pulls the safety net from the very people who need it most.
From the roll out under the Coalition of Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)—and its infamous “fit for work” test—ministers have orchestrated a relentless testing regime on people battling illness and disability, resulting in scores of disabled people being incorrectly kicked off the benefits they need. For an insight into the scale of this, the MPs’ report shows almost 290,000 people claiming PIP and ESA only received the correct award after challenging the DWP’s initial decision.
In the committee’s words, this is leading to “untenable human costs.” Research by a collection of disability charities last year showed almost 80 per cent of disabled people on benefits have seen their health deteriorate since the introduction of PIP, leaving many struggling to afford food. I regularly speak to people with depression who are feeling suicidal after losing their benefits, or wheelchair users who are housebound because they’re no longer eligible for help leasing a car (over 50,000 disabled people have so far had their motability vehicle removed).
If the human cost is not enough, this system is also hugely financially costly. The DWP has spent half a billion pounds of public money paying private firms to carry out the failed assessments—and another £100m in tribunal costs in the last two years alone—all whilst claiming it’s the scrounging disabled person that’s draining the taxpayer. (Since 2013, around two thirds of appeals for both benefits have ruled in the disabled person’s favour).
The committee made decent recommendations for addressing these problems—including all assessments being recorded to improve trust and even suggesting outsourcing should be stopped if private companies can’t prove they’re up to the job—but the time has surely come for a radical reform of the system. Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Debbie Abrahams, responded to the reports by saying that Labour would scrap the current PIP and ESA assessments, replacing them with “personalised, holistic support” that addresses other parts of life that impact what social security a disabled person needs, like social care, transport, and housing.
For the cancer patients and paraplegics currently going hungry, this couldn’t come soon enough.