Around 8,000 disabled people have taken to the streets in London to protest against cuts to services and benefits. Channel 4 News hears why.
Under the banner the “Hardest Hit”, protesters marched because they believe the Coalition‘s austerity measures are impacting some of the most vulnerable people in society unfairly and disproportionately.
A report published this week by thinktank Demos suggested that disabled people would lose £9bn in welfare support overall in the next five years.
The protest was one of the largest of its kind for decades, despite the difficulties faced by many attendees in reaching the event due to their health. The organisers said around 8,000 people attended.
Jaspal Dhani, Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Disabled People’s Council, said: “Disabled people are the hardest hit and they are coming together to say loud and clear: stop the cuts and protect our rights.”
Disabled people are the hardest hit and they are coming together to say: stop the cuts and protect our rights. Jaspal Dhani, CEO of UK Disabled People’s Council
A key concern for many disabled people is cuts to services including adult social care, which has been a target area for many cash-strapped councils looking for areas to trim down.
A recent survey by leading charities including Carers UK, Mencap, Disability Alliance and Scope found that nearly one in four disabled and older people and their families have already experienced cuts to services or increased charges for care. The charities said the outlook was “bleak” as nearly half of the 1,000 respondents said they could no longer afford essentials like food or heating, and more than half said their independence and health had suffered due to the changes to services.
Many people also fear changes to the benefits system.
As part of a wider welfare overhaul, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is reforming the Disability Living Allowance by introducing a new assessment and replacing the benefit with a Personal Independent Payment. The aim is to save £1bn by 2014/15 through the new system – but charities fear this will come from many people losing support completely, rather than through efficiencies from the new system.
The Government has also already begun testing all incapacity benefit claimants to ensure that they have a valid claim for their benefit and either cannot work, or need support to do so.
It says that the reassessments are necessary to ensure the right people are getting the right money, but campaigners are worried by how the testing process, which also takes into account medical and other evidence, will work.
Department for Work and Pensions statement
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "Our commitment to help support disabled people live independent lives runs at the heart of our welfare reforms and severely disabled people who need support will always get it. The system we have at the moment is not fit for purpose and is failing disabled people.
"We are reforming welfare to make sure that the billions we spend on benefits goes to those who need it and that for the first time disabled people get proper help and support to live independent lives and work in the mainstream jobs that they want."
Since the test first came into use for new applicants in October 2008, the latest figures from the Department of Work and Pensions show that 40 per cent of claimants were assessed as fit for work. However, 36 per cent of these people have already had an appeal against the decision heard by the Tribunals Service.
Of those people, 39 per cent won their appeal, meaning many decisions are overturned after an expensive appeal process. Charity Disability Alliance estimates that there were an average 15,000 appeals every month over 2009-2010, 6,000 of which were successful, costing £19.8m. But the DWP points out that, of all the new claims to ESA in that period, only 6 per cent in total have had a fit for work assessment overturned by the Tribunal Service to date.
One advocate, who represents claimants at appeal, told Channel 4 News he had never lost an appeal because the decisions were “ridiculous”. For example, he said one wheelchair-bound applicant had been assessed as if there was nothing wrong with him and he was completely fit for work.
Helen Thomas, who has multiple sclerosis and receives Employment Support Allowance – the new version of incapacity benefit which came into use in 2008, along with the new test – told Channel 4 News she had found the process “appalling”. She said some people had died from their conditions while waiting for their appeals to be heard.
I don’t understand how anybody could make a lifestyle choice to live on these benefits. Helen Thomas
“It’s things like, ‘Can you bend down and touch your toes?’ And you want to be able to do these things but you just can’t, or you can but it hurts to do them, or you’ll have to lie down for an hour. And they don’t take that into account.
“Even though I couldn’t do them I was told that there was nothing wrong. I had a summary sheet, she had said you can do this, you can do that – and I thought, I can’t do any of those things.”
She added: “I don’t understand how anybody could make a lifestyle choice to live on these benefits. They are not a luxury… you get enough to pay the bills.”
A DWP spokesman told Channel 4 News that they were introducing a number of measures to ensure there were fewer appeals, in line with a review of the WCA by Professor Harrington, as they roll out the testing process for all incapacity benefit claimants, rather than just the new claimants.
Disability Alliance is also concerned that one in five of the centres where people are tested are not wheelchair accessible – but the DWP said all of the centres were fully accessible under the 2010 Equality Act and provisions were made for any claimants who could not evacuate safely in an emergency.
Atos, which runs the WCA programme, will also provide transport to an alternative centre if the journey would otherwise represent “exceptional” difficulty for the claimant.