The Tory blueprint: fund a cruel system, not the disabled people it punishes

On Wednesday, the work and pensions select committee released its much-anticipated report into Britain’s disability benefit system and it pulled no punches. The picture it paints is one of incompetence and outright cruelty: assessments riddled with errors and omissions or even fabrications; poor use of medical evidence that often leads to people’s benefits being incorrectly removed; and a “lack of determination” from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to address its failings. As the MPs damningly put it, the disability benefit system has reached the point at which “a pervasive lack of trust is undermining the entire operation”.

How bad is the situation, exactly? A person with Down’s syndrome asked by an assessor how they “caught” it, according to one submission made to the committee. A woman reporting frequent suicidal thoughts asked why she had not yet killed herself. Another whose assessment said she walked a dog daily, when she can barely walk and does not own a dog. If you’re unsure how far this rot spreads, consider there were so many submissions made by disabled people across the country – 4,000, unprecedented for a select committee – that MPs had to publish a separate report highlighting them.

When I spoke to readers about the reports this week, I heard from a daughter whose terminally ill father was asked by an assessor when he was going to die. A wheelchair user with multiple sclerosis asked how long it would be before she “can walk again”. This week a story emerged of a young woman with a cancer-related bone marrow disease who was denied personal independence payments (PIP) because she had a degree – as if working to gain a qualification is a sign someone isn’t “really disabled”. These are not isolated incidents, a few bad apples in an otherwise decent system. MPs say a “substantial minority” of claimants are being failed. It’s business as usual for Britain’s broken benefit system.

In the committee’s words, this is leading to “untenable human costs.” Research by a collection of disability charities last year showed almost 80 per cent of disabled people on benefits have seen their health deteriorate since the introduction of PIP, leaving many struggling to afford food. I regularly speak to people with depression who are feeling suicidal after losing their benefits, or wheelchair users who are housebound because they’re no longer eligible for help leasing a car (over 50,000 disabled people have so far had their motability vehicle removed). If the human cost is not enough, this system is also hugely financially costly. The DWP has spent half a billion pounds of public money paying private firms to carry out the failed assessments—and another £100m in tribunal costs in the last two years alone—all whilst claiming it’s the scrounging disabled person that’s draining the taxpayer. (Since 2013, around two thirds of appeals for both benefits have ruled in the disabled person’s favour). source

And business is certainly the word. As cancer patients and paraplegics have the money they need to eat pulled away, private companies are being paid hundreds of millions of pounds for carrying out “unacceptable” assessments. As the report says: “Large sums of money have been paid to contractors despite quality targets having been universally missed” (all three contractors have failed to meet their key targets on levels of unacceptable reports in any single period). The taxpayer then pays even more in inevitable appeal costs; this week it was reported that the DWP has spent £100m of taxpayers’ money defending the removal of people’s benefits at tribunals in the past two years alone (around two thirds go in the disabled person’s favour).

The report makes worthwhile recommendations for change, such as improving trust through implementing default audio recording of assessments and, in the longer term, providing video recording. It even goes as far as to say that if private companies can’t show they are capable of delivering a decent standard of testing, the DWP should consider whether assessments “are better delivered in-house”. But while removing outsourcing from the social security system is vital, this misses a key point: if we are to fix this scandal, it isn’t simply the private companies conducting the assessments that we need to get rid of but the ministers who develop the policies behind them.

From their rollout by the coalition to Theresa May’s cabinet today, the very premise of the Conservative’s so-called reforms to disability benefits has been to shrink the “welfare” budget, part of a wider bid to pull back the state. The DWP launched the tests for PIP in 2012 by bragging that half a million disabled people would lose their benefits by the end of it, and last year it slashed employment and support allowance (ESA) – the benefit for people so severely ill that they can’t work – on the premise it would be an “incentive” for them to get a job.

That’s the most grotesque part of this. When ministers design a social security system based on how much money they can cut, unqualified assessors and bloated appeal bills aren’t a sign of a policy gone wrong – it’s a sign that it’s going exactly as planned.

It’s often said that we get the politicians we deserve. We could say the same for the welfare state they run for us. No matter what the normalisation of the mistreatment of disabled people suggests, it’s entirely possible to create a humane and competent disability benefit system – one that spends public money on supporting people in their time of need and uses medical evidence from our own doctors. This report offers more powerful evidence that we need change. But until we rid ourselves of this rightwing government, so keen to vilify the sick and the poor, we will have a benefits system that harms them.

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