For many of us working in the disability sector, welfare reform has been a major focus of our energy for a number of years. Change has been constant, from alterations to housing benefit, to the replacement of incapacity benefit with Employment and Support Allowance (and the introduction of the infamous Work Capability Assessment), and now the replacement of Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment. With charity campaigners battling for news coverage alongside the ‘benefits cheats’ and ‘scroungers’ headlines throughout this whole period, the public must surely either be completely confused or completely bored by it all by now. I work in the sector and sometimes I’ve been close to feeling like that myself.
Dealing with the deficit
This is the fourth of a weeklong series of articles dealing with the fall-out in Wales from the Westminster Government’s efforts to reduce the budget deficit. Tomorrow Hannah Blythyn, Campaigns and Communications Co-ordinator for Unite Wales, says the Westminster government’s changes mean workers will be paying more, working longer, and getting less in their pensions.
So it’s easy to forget that all these changes really matter. After all the briefings, meetings with officials and the desperate search for media case studies in the hope of influencing change on some specific point, all those slightly abstract, often rather technical, words on paper end up resulting in Mrs Jones down the road having £x a week less to spend. This is a Mrs Jones who’s already pretty much living on the poverty line and relies on her Disability Living Allowance to pay for her weekly taxi into town. That weekly trip – to do her shopping, go to the hairdresser and attend a local history class – is the highlight of her week, and usually the only time she gets to leave her home. Her visual impairment means she can’t drive and makes it unsafe for her to use public transport. She might describe her taxi as ‘a little luxury’, a little treat for herself once a week. I think I’d describe it as a pretty basic right – an entitlement she more than deserves.
Unfortunately for Mrs Jones, the Government’s proposed criteria for the new Personal Independence Payment isn’t looking good for blind and partially sighted people. Like the current Disability Living Allowance, the purpose of the Independence Payment is to provide financial support to deal with the additional living costs incurred by people with disabilities. It’s to enable them to get out-and-about, maintain their homes and purchase the aids and equipment they need to live independently.
However, the draft criteria fail to reflect many of the barriers and additional costs associated with sight loss. For example, the part of the criteria related to mobility automatically awards maximum points to people who use a wheelchair, but not people with severe visual impairments, people who may face more difficulties and higher costs to get around.
Equally, the criteria fail to give adequate weighting to the almost unending series of barriers generated by not being able to access standard written communication. There is a cost to buying special equipment to enable you to read labels on medicines and food, or special software to use your computer, or paying a support worker to go through your post with you, or not being able to take advantage of items on sale because you can’t see the prices. The draft criteria also suggest that people who’ve been living with sight loss for longer will receive a lower award than someone recently diagnosed with the same impairment, on the grounds that they will have ‘adapted’ to their situation. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that the costs associated with sight loss diminish over time. Mrs Jones will always need to pay for that taxi.
So, what will happen to Mrs Jones if she is one of the thousands of blind and partially sighted people we fear will have their benefits reduced (or stopped all together) if the Government refuses to alter its criteria? She won’t have the money to pay for her weekly taxi. Maybe she’ll risk a walk to the corner shop for her groceries, and hope she doesn’t fall. Or maybe she’ll shop less frequently, which means a much more restricted diet, with less fresh food. The local history class, her one real opportunity for social interaction in the week, will have to go, and as weeks at a time pass without Mrs Jones having face-to-face contact with anyone, she will find that she minds less and less that her hair (always beautifully groomed at the hairdressers before) is now unkempt and unclean. “What is the point?” she will say, as she surely, inevitably, drifts in to what, we observing from outside, would label depression.
Mrs Jones may be fictional, but the scenario is far from unusual. Our Welfare Rights team see cases like this day in, day out, although normally in reverse. They meet blind and partially sighted people living isolated, restricted and, sometimes, unsafe lives because of the poverty they’re in. In the last year alone, they’ve helped people claim over £1.5 million. This is money that transforms people’s lives in the most fundamental, humbling way. People are heating their homes, eating better, and feeling able to leave their homes safely: exactly the sort of things for which a welfare system should provide.
‘Welfare reform’ can sometimes feel like a distant, rather abstract concept. It can be too complex to understand in detail and too mammoth to try to engage with or influence. What those of us scrabbling around writing consultation responses, or reading about it in the newspapers, must try to hold on to is that it’s not abstract to Mrs Jones. For her and thousands like her, a few words added or removed to a set of regulations can mean the difference between a life worth living and one of barely surviving.