Rhian Davies says that a quarter of the Welsh population are threatened by the Westminster Government’s welfare changes
Disabled people in Wales, already almost twice as likely as non disabled people to live in a low income household are now experiencing the full ravages of Welfare Reform as changes in the benefits system unfold. Added to reduced financial circumstances from loss of benefits is the stress and anxiety caused by flawed assessments, poor prospects of obtaining work together with the fear of reprisals through being stigmatised as ‘fraudsters’ and ‘fakers’.
Over and above the impact on individuals and families are the wider social and economic implications for Wales given that 23 per cent of the population has some form of physical or sensory impairment, learning difficulty or mental health condition. Furthermore 10 percent of the working age population in Wales receive a work related benefit such as Incapacity Benefit or Employment and Support Allowance and similarly 142,000 are on Disability Living Allowance. The scale of impact on Welsh Government and local services cannot be underestimated.
The latest manifestation of Welfare reform began in 2008 when the last government replaced Incapacity Benefit with Employment and Support Allowance. Presented as supporting people on long term sickness benefits back into work, it was primarily motivated by escalating welfare expenditure and claims of widespread fraud. The infamous Work Capability Assessment was introduced to establish whether Employment and Support Allowance claimants are in fact fit for work and if so are expected to attend work focussed interviews and prepare for future employment.
However, the assessment process contracted out to French Company Atos has been fiercely criticised. Failings include assessors not having relevant expertise about claimants’ conditions or heeding GP and Consultant’s reports. Claimants also report feeling humiliated during assessments with a presumption that they are faking their condition. Given that at least 40 per cent of those assessed as fit for work subsequently have their decisions overturned on appeal, verifies these allegations. Nevertheless it does little to assuage the impact of loss of benefit and months of stress and anxiety endured by claimants as they await their appeal.
The new Welfare Reform bill – shortly to receive Royal Assent – will introduce the Universal Credit, replacing existing in and out of work benefits from 2013. While aimed at simplifying the system and reducing dependency on welfare it has serious implications for many disabled people.
For example, the Coalition Government want those in receipt of work related Employment and Support Allowance to be means-tested after 12 months. Attempts by the Lords to extend this to 24 months, exempt cancer patients and allow young disabled people who have never worked to continue receiving it were overturned by the Commons. The UK employment rate of disabled people is 48.8 per cent compared with 77.5 per cent for non-disabled people. In Wales it is 9 per cent lower again. Many will find themselves in considerably reduced circumstances if through no fault of their own they have been unable to secure work within a year.
A ‘spare room’ penalty or ‘bedroom tax’ of £670 a year on average for those in receipt of Housing Benefit who live in ‘under-occupied’ social housing is also proposed. The Department of Work and Pensions’ own assessment indicates that disabled people will be disproportionately affected by this penalty including:
- Those who have adapted properties.
- Families with a disabled child requiring night care for whom sharing with a sibling may be inappropriate.
- Couples needing separate rooms for medical or impairment related reasons.
In Wales disabled people are more likely to live in social housing than non-disabled people and given the rarity of adapted properties, downsizing is unlikely to be an option. A further concern is that the Disability Living Allowance is being scrapped and replaced with the Personal Independence Payment. The Disability Living Allowance helps meet the additional costs of impairment which may include greater use of taxis, obtaining support with everyday tasks around the house or garden, and with shopping. For some it assists with the purchase of specialised equipment including an adapted car or meeting higher heating and lighting bills.
Whereas the Disability Living Allowance is based largely on self-assessment, it is feared that claiming Personal Independence Payment may be more like the flawed Work Capability Assessment. Moreover, given that a clear government objective is to reduce expenditure, its own estimates suggest that nearly 50,000 people in Wales currently receiving Disability Living Allowance will not qualify for Personal Independence Payment. Many disabled people in Wales and their families will experience a dramatic loss of income and independence at a time of cutbacks in other support services such as community care plus rising living costs.
As well as saving money, a further government objective is to tackle fraud. Alongside views that benefit recipients are ‘scroungers’ and ‘workshy’ it is now perceived that many disabled people are ‘faking it’. Writing recently in The Sun newspaper, columnist Rod Liddle invited readers to “pretend to be disabled for a month or so, claim benefits and hope this persuades the authorities to sort out the mess”. Ministers have also been criticised for encouraging such views by asserting that the majority of Employment and Support Allowance claimants ‘are found fit for work’ and that the Personal Independence Payment will offer a more ‘robust’ system that can be ‘respected’.
In fact fraud levels are minimal and the Disability Living Allowance tends to be under claimed. However, there is growing concern that ‘benefits cuts are fuelling abuse of disabled people’. For example, Scope’s regular polling of disabled people shows that almost half said that attitudes towards them had deteriorated in the past year. Given the numbers of disabled people in Wales claiming benefits, there is a considerable risk that such hostility will escalate into serious incidents with perpetrators feeling ‘justified’ in their abuse.
Yet, the barriers facing disabled people are systemic and more so in Wales than elsewhere given its demography, geography, industrial legacy and somewhat paternalistic culture. As it is a non-devolved issue, the Welsh Government has little direct influence over Welfare Reform. However, it will inevitably have to respond to its consequences as thousands of disabled people face poverty and increased dependence on local services which are also under threat.
Following high profile Disability Wales campaigns we have been working with Welsh Government and other public bodies on addressing barriers to independent living and tackling disability hate crime. Both feature on the list of emerging issues to be addressed via Wales’ new public sector equality duties introduced under the 2010 Equality Act. The challenge ahead is utilising the new duties to mitigate the impact of Welfare Reform on disabled people while creating a ‘made in Wales’ approach that achieves genuine social and economic inclusion.
Allen, J (2011), ‘Disability Poverty in Wales’, Leonard Cheshire Disability
Office for Disability Issues (2011) Fulfilling Potential: Working together to enable disabled people to fulfil their potential and have opportunities to play a full role in society. A discussion document, HM Government,
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2011) Hidden in Plain Sight, An Equality and Human Rights Commission Inquiry into disability-related harassment, Wales Summary
National Assembly for Wales (2011), ‘Welfare in Wales series: Welfare statistics’