As we celebrate these super-fit athletes, benefits for disabled people are being cut and views against them are hardening
The flames are lit, the torches are on the move. Next week an extraordinary spectacle unfolds, revealing super-fit, finely muscled Paralympians doing things few able-bodied people could ever achieve. But will it change public attitudes – and if so, for better or worse?
Polls show public views hardening against disabled people. Once deserving, now they are malingerers. A Glasgow University study of media reporting shows a sharp increase in the use of “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” in relation to disability. TV shockumentaries have relished tales of roofers and marathon runners on sickness benefits. Official figures showing fraud at less than 1% don’t stick in the mind, but one good cheating anecdote lingers for years. Focus groups now often estimate disability fraud at a preposterous 70%. No surprise that more than half of disabled people say they are experiencing new hostility, aggression and violence from strangers. Cases reported to the police have soared, and Disability Rights UK says harassment is rarely reported.
The Treasury will take back around £2bn when disability living allowance (DLA) is replaced with personal independence payments (PIP) next year. Two-thirds of claimants will lose it, some severe cases will get a bit more, but official estimates say it will be lost by 280,000 in most need. The allowance pays the extra costs of disability, in or out of work, for personal help, taxis or cars. The cuts will be shocking: 90,000 motability cars and scooters will be repossessed. That’s an average of 140 per constituency. Are MPs ready for the outcry?
The Disability News Service has been interviewing next week’s Paralympians, asking how they would manage without DLA. Their answers were sharp: Aaron Phipps, the wheelchair rugby player, said “I’d be completely lost without it”, as his chair costs £1,700. David Clarke, captain of the blind football team, said: “If a minister found himself in the middle of a city with no one to help get a taxi, he would probably appreciate his DLA.” Table tennis star Sue Gilroy said she would be “devastated”, her life would be “impossible” without her motability car and wheelchair. Nigel Murray, winner of two golds at boccia, says DLA is essential, as does dressage rider Natasha Baker, who relies on it for her petrol costs. Gold medallist Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson made powerful speeches in the Lords against these cuts in debates on the welfare reform bill, to no avail. So when you watch and wonder at their performances, remember that they needed DLA to help them get there.
Disability Rights UK has an excellent new handbook, Doing Sport Differently, promoting everyday sport. But the Paralympics may present challenging imagery. Could the sight of vigorous and determined athletes overcoming all odds to compete send an insidious message that anyone in a wheelchair could do that, if only they tried harder? That is the underlying implication behind work capability assessments that currently find more than one-third of incapacity benefit claimants “fit for work”.
The appeals system is gridlocked with a one year backlog. Employment support allowance is cut while people wait, although 40% of appeals succeed, costing £44m. Atos, conducting the tests, is sponsoring the Games, which disabled campaigners regard as an even greater irony than Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sponsoring the Olympics.
But it suits Atos’s work: if these wheelchair users can do this, why can’t you? If paralysed Stephen Hawking can earn a good living, why can’t everyone else in his condition? Atos has just won the £400m contract for the new tests of everyone on DLA, transferring them to PIP. G4S was expected to win it as the firm conducted the early trials, but are thought to have been dropped hastily as ministers saw the looming Olympics fiasco. Atos’s chief executive had a 22% pay rise this year, which helps spur on the UK Uncut protesters, who from next Friday will be barricading the company’s London HQ in Triton Square during the Paralympics. But Atos are only fulfilling government orders.
Here is a shocking figure revealed after a Mirror freedom of information request: 1,100 disabled people died last year after they were found “fit for work”. Weighing up society’s values, is the risk of 1% cheating worse than the state wrongly harrassing so many of the genuinely sick? For as long as there is sin, there will always be cheats, always some families abusing a motability car: eternal vigilance is a necessary part of any welfare system. But ministers at the Department for Works and Pensions bear a heavy responsibility for this unbalanced obsession, as they harden public opinion for next April when the great disability benefit cull accelerates. Sometimes their words are punitive, sometimes unctuous. Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling are about as enticing as the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang child-catcher when they pretend their main mission is to help those left stranded in dependency into a happier life in work. No doubt some are helped, but the great majority feel cut without any realistic chance of a job: the number in work on access to work grants fell by 16% last year.
Disability Rights UK says there’s a curious catch-22 in the new PIP tests: anyone who can move themselves 50 metres unaided will lose the payment, if they don’t earn other points. That means anyone in an electric wheelchair can lose it, because they can move unaided – but when they lose the payment they lose the wheelchair too. (People are warning one another to turn up at the test in a manual wheelchair.) Here’s another curiosity: an estimated 25,000 people will have to give up work when they lose DLA and become immobile. Their DLA was worth around £90m, but on average pay, they contribute £146.7m to the Treasury. Out of work, they will get another £127.7m in benefits. Did no one do the sums?
Housing benefit (HB) cuts for the disabled will cost the state extra too. Needing bigger space for wheelchairs, the National Housing Federation estimates 108,000 will be judged to “under-occupy” their “too-big” homes. Forced to move, they will leave behind expensive adaptations and need the council to fit new ones in their new homes. The money set aside to help doesn’t cover half these cases. The state will save £50m on their HB, but waste £500m on existing adaptations, with more to spend on new fixtures – though as there is no more in the disabled facility grant for adaptations, they will have to do without.
Celebrate the Paralympians – but remember what they say they needed from the state to get them there.