Just over 100 days in office and the brutality of the coalition government towards disabled people has been relentless. Much of the Tory welfare reform agenda is “a chronicle of a death foretold” but the speed of implementation and the scale of the proposed reforms have been breathtaking.
So far the coalition has been successful in creating a political climate where open hostility towards disabled people is acceptable. Many of the submissions on the treasury “How to cut public spending?” website target disabled people and range from the unpleasant: all disabled people claiming benefits should be subjected to frequent, unannounced visits from Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) officials; to the unjust: all disabled people should be denied legal representation at benefit appeals tribunals; to the overtly intimidating: all disabled people should be compulsorily sterilised. Like some baleful conjuror, David Cameron has managed, through sleight of hand and with the assistance of a compliant media, to transform disabled people from stereotypical objects of pity into stereotypical malingerers and Incapacity Benefit (IB) cheats.
The coalition has always been uncharacteristically honest in stating that one of its first priorities would be testing the 2.5 million people who get IB and moving them to the “less generous” Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). At the beginning of June it announced plans to complete the reassessment process in just over three years.
Despite protests from disabled people’s organisations, disability related charities and the Social Security Advisory Committee, currently 10,000 disabled people a month are being assessed for ESA.
A points-based work capability test has been introduced, dividing people into three groups: those who are assessed as not eligible for ESA and who are told to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance; those who are required to look for work but will be given “specialised” help from a plethora of dubious private and third sector providers; and those who are placed in a “support group” and are not required to look for employment unless they wish (an estimated 5 percent).
Assessments for ESA are carried out by Atos Healthcare, an offshoot of the multinational Atos Origin. A significant number of people appealing the decision about their ineligibility for ESA are having their cases upheld at tribunals and there have been numerous concerns raised by the BBC and the Guardian and Independent newspapers, among others, about the quality of these assessments. Unsurprisingly, there are at least four petitions on social networking sites calling for the DWP to end their £100 million contract with Atos.
The majority of disabled people will face severe sanctions if they cannot prove they are actively looking for work while employers who discriminate against them will face few. Neither of the coalition partners acknowledges this systemic discrimination, and the resurgence of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network is in part a response to the repeated claims by the government that disabled people can only achieve status and self-esteem through employment. When Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, stated in a recent interview that disabled people would be made free by working, it was presumably said without any sense of irony or history.
This is an unprecedented onslaught on disabled people, and the fact that it has only been challenged on a piecemeal basis has given the coalition sufficient confidence to move on to attack those in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA).
From 2013 people claiming DLA will have to go through a strict new medical assessment to help “reduce dependency and promote work”, with many existing claimants set to lose out. George Osborne, supported by Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, has talked about targeting DLA at people who are in “the greatest medical need”. This may leave disabled people who have learning difficulties but who do not have “medical needs” in a very precarious position. The government estimates the move will save £1.4 billion by 2015, suggesting many of those seeking support will simply not meet the new eligibility criteria.
Much will depend on the determination of the coalition government to bulldoze through these reforms and the capacity of the disabled people’s movement to resist the most vicious ideological attack since the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. The reality for some disabled people may very well be “Fight or Die”.
We have to choose “Fight”.
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