So here we are again nearly ready for the Christmas break. As my family complete their preparations, tree decorated, milk order increased, most presents wrapped, arrangements to pick Granny up on Christmas Eve in place, cards written and dispatched, mince pies and sherry ready for Santa, I can’t help thinking about those families where Christmas won’t be so pleasurable. Swingeing cuts in benefits, mass redundancies, and cost of living increases everywhere. Times are definitely getting more difficult for those with the most severe disabilities and their families. 2011 has seen some small wins in challenging the Welfare Reform Bill but the future doesn’t look great. It is vital that those of us committed to equality of opportunity redouble our efforts in 2012 to ensure “the hardest hit” have champions and feel that some in society give a damn.
Finally thank you for reading this year’s ramblings and I hope they have been informative. Have a really good break over the Christmas holiday and the very best for 2012.
Government caught out on DLA statistics… again
Serious doubts have emerged about crucial statistics used by the minister for disabled people to justify the government’s sweeping disability living allowance (DLA) reforms.
Maria Miller was appearing this week before MPs on the work and pensions committee as part of its inquiry into coalition plans to cut spending on working-age DLA by 20 per cent and replace the benefit with a new personal independence payment (PIP).
In her evidence, Miller twice stated that DLA spending had grown by 38 per cent over the eight years to 2010-11, as a justification for the government’s cuts and reforms.
But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now admitted that this figure refers to total DLA spending, including payments to children and older people, even though only working-age DLA is being cut and reformed.
The DWP told Disability News Service that the real growth in working-age DLA spending was only 28 per cent.
But even this figure of 28 per cent is almost certainly too high, as it fails to exclude demographic factors – such as the general growth in the population – which the DWP has previously admitted is an important consideration in determining the true rise in DLA claimants.
Miller suggested to the committee that demographic factors would remove a third from the figure of 38 per cent that she quoted.
This could mean the growth in working-age DLA spending is as low as 18 or 19 per cent over eight years, rather than the 38 per cent quoted by Miller – but the DWP has been unable to produce the relevant figure.
A DWP spokeswoman said the percentage increase for working age spending – taking into account demographic factors – “does not exist at the moment”.
It is the second time the government has been caught using misleading DLA figures to justify its reforms.
In August, the government claimed official statistics showed the number of DLA claimants had risen by 30 per cent over eight years, when the growth in the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding demographic factors – was just 13 per cent.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the work and pensions committee, said Miller had been “evasive” throughout the entire evidence session.
She said there were “concerns about the government’s use of statistics” and that Miller had failed to provide a “proper explanation of where this 38 per cent figure came from”.
Tanni’s Lords bid to derail cuts to disability benefit falls just short
A disabled peer has failed by just two votes to overturn plans that will see a steep cut in financial support for many families with disabled children.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson told peers the measure in the welfare reform bill would halve the financial support currently provided through child tax credits to most families with disabled children.
Those whose children do not currently qualify for the higher rate care component of disability living allowance – or who are not registered blind – will see these extra tax credits drop from about £54 to £27 a week.
Most families with a disabled child will lose about £1,400 a year, affecting about 100,000 disabled children.
The government claims it wants to align the financial support provided to disabled children with that offered to disabled adults when it introduces the new universal credit, its plan for simplifying the benefits system.
Proposing an amendment to the bill that would have prevented the cut, Baroness Grey-Thompson said the government’s measure would “damage thousands of families who rely on this support for their disabled child”.
She received widespread backing, including from fellow disabled peers Baroness [Jane] Campbell, the Liberal Democrat Baroness [Celia] Thomas, and Labour’s Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, who said: “Are we really becoming such a mean-spirited nation that we are willing to take away funding from less disabled children as the only means by which more severely disabled children can benefit?”
Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, said that, under universal credit, severely disabled adults would receive an extra £45 a week.
He said: “We are trying to get money to the most severely disabled in our community.
“There is a real decision here: maintaining the existing rates for children without doing that – without finding this money – would cost an extra £200 million a year. I simply do not have that money.”
Baroness Grey-Thompson’s amendment was defeated by just two votes.
Later in the week, the government was heavily defeated on another amendment to the bill, which overturned its plans to tighten the rules on unoccupied bedrooms for working-age tenants of social housing.
The so-called “bedroom tax” would mean households losing an average of £14 a week in housing benefit if they had at least one unoccupied bedroom in their home.
Research by the Housing Futures Network suggests that more than 70 per cent of the households affected would include someone with an impairment or significant health condition.
The amendment – proposed by the crossbench peer Lord Best – limits penalties to households with at least two extra bedrooms and those with one extra bedroom who have been offered suitable alternative accommodation.
The amendment was passed by 258 votes to 190, despite Lord Freud announcing an extra £30 million a year to help disabled people in “significantly adapted” housing, and foster carers, who would otherwise have been caught out by the new rules.
But Lord Best’s amendment is likely to be overturned when the bill returns to the Commons in the New Year.
Discrimination advice cut will be ‘catastrophe’ for disabled people
Government proposals to remove funding from organisations that provide expert legal support for discrimination cases will have a “catastrophic” impact on disabled people, experts have warned.
The Government Equalities Office (GEO) has quietly published its response to a consultation on plans for a new equality advisory and support service.
In its response, GEO confirmed its plans to replace the helpline currently run by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) with a new national service providing information, advice and support to victims of discrimination, although it admitted that only “a minority” of those responding to the consultation had agreed with its plan.
But it also announced that it would not replace millions of pounds in grants currently provided by the EHRC to legal organisations across the country, with “future central government funding for legal advice on discrimination cases” now to be provided “solely through legal aid”. Again, only a minority of respondents agreed with the decision.
Disability Law Service (DLS), which is led by disabled people, said the proposals would mean a “drastic” cut in its funding.
It receives £50,000 a year from the EHRC, which allows it to take on about 50 complex discrimination cases every year.
That funding – about 10 per cent of its annual revenue – will end in March 2012, and will not now be replaced, which could mean DLS having to make a member of staff redundant.
Although it will still be able to secure legal aid funding for discrimination cases, this only pays a fixed sum of £200 for most employment and consumer cases, many of which are complex and can take months of expert legal work to prepare.
Wonta Ansah-Twum, DLS’s head of disability discrimination and employment, said: “We needed the funding from the EHRC grant to support the work we do.
“It is going to have a devastating impact on our service-users. Disabled people are going to be marginalised. They will not have anywhere to turn if services like ours do not continue. It is appalling.”
She also said that the government’s new helpline would simply be a “generalised” service that would lack the specialist knowledge to help disabled people with advice on discrimination.
She said: “That is just unacceptable. They have failed to take into account the fact that discrimination cases are complex and need specialist caseworkers to deal with them. The government has completely ignored the concerns we raised.”
DLS is already facing the threat of losing grant funding from London Councils, which represents London’s 33 local authorities.
London Councils was forced by the high court earlier this year to reconsider plans to slash its grants programme, and is due to announce the results of this rethink next month.
Ansah-Twum said: “If we do not get a replacement for the EHRC and London Councils funding, I don’t know how we will survive in a year’s time. It is putting the organisation at risk.”
A GEO spokesman said: “The government has not been convinced by the consultation responses that discrimination cases uniquely merit central government funding in addition to that which is available through civil legal aid.”
He added: “The government has come forward with a new service which will be cheaper to run than the EHRC helpline.”
He said the government was “confident” that the new helpline would ensure that information, advice and support on discrimination would be “available to everybody in a fair and accessible way”.
An EHRC spokeswoman said: “The GEO has made the decision to end our funding so any questions about future funding need to be put to the GEO.”
She also declined to comment on the government’s proposal for a new helpline.
Welfare reform bill ‘could breach human rights’
A committee of MPs and peers has suggested that parts of the government’s controversial welfare reform bill could breach disabled people’s human rights.
The joint committee on human rights (JCHR) – whose members include the disabled peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell – said some of the most controversial measures in the bill could contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.
These include cuts of 20 per cent to spending on disability living allowance (DLA), a housing benefit cap, a proposal to time-limit employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement of DLA with a new personal independence payment (PIP), and the introduction of tough new sanctions for those on out-of-work benefits.
The committee said there had been a “significant lack of clarity” from the government on how it would cut spending on working-age DLA by 20 per cent, while it had failed to provide “reasonable justification for the negative impact” of introducing PIP on disabled people’s right to independent living.
The committee also called for the proposed new PIP assessment to use a more social model approach, taking greater account of the barriers faced by disabled people.
And it said the government should trial the new assessment before it was widely introduced, mirroring a suggestion made by Baroness Campbell during a debate on the bill in the Lords last month.
Although disabled people who receive DLA or PIP will be exempt from the housing benefit cap, the committee said it feared that many disabled people who do not receive DLA – particularly as eligibility for PIP will be tighter than it is for DLA – may be forced to move house, leaving behind their adaptations and support networks.
The committee also warned that some disabled people found “fit for work” could face financial “sanctions” if they were not able to carry out compulsory work-related activity.
Although the bill says people will have five working days to alert the authorities of their reason for not carrying out this activity, such a deadline “may be unrealistic for people who are unwell”, the report says, and this could lead to “destitution”.
A DWP spokesman defended the changes to DLA, the proposal to time-limit ESA, the introduction of a housing benefit cap, and the plan to toughen sanctions.
He said: “The changes to the welfare system will protect those who need the most help, with more support, whilst encouraging others to take responsibility for their own lives and the lives of their families. Something the JCHR supports [in its report].”
He said the new PIP face-to-face assessment would “make sure people are getting the right levels of support”, and time-limiting ESA would bring it into line with other benefits, while those with lower savings would still receive income-based ESA.
He said the housing benefit cap would “bring fairness back to the system so that hard-working families no longer have to subsidise people living in properties they themselves could not afford”, while the new sanctions regime would “make the consequences of failing to meet requirements clear and robust”.
But when asked whether DWP believed these measures could breach disabled people’s human rights, he declined to comment further.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com