What does disability in austerity feel like?
by Claudia Wood
As we are nearing the first anniversary of the Coalition, no one could criticise the Government for the pace of change it has set. Barely a week goes by without a white paper, consultation, or strategy document being announced. And the vast majority of these will have a direct effect on disabled people.
Back in October 2010, Demos published Destination Unknown – a report looking at the impact on disabled people of the numerous benefit cuts announced in the first few months of the Coalition. We spoke to five typical disabled households, and, looking at their benefits and income, we predicted that people claiming disability-related benefits would be £9bn worse off over the course of this parliament. Families with disabled children looked set to lose £3000 as a result of the freezing of Child Benefit, uprating Disability Living Allowance and other benefits by a lower inflation rate (CPI). Unemployed disabled people risked even more significant losses, up to £9000 over five years, if they were found ineligible for Incapacity Benefit and moved on to Job Seeker’s Allowance.
These numbers were an eye-opener to the Demos research team, and proof that the Government had not considered the cumulative impact that multiple cuts to benefits would have on disabled people, who are often reliant on several benefits to make up the majority of their income.
However, we knew that we had only captured part of the picture – alongside sweeping cuts to benefits, the Government also imposed unprecedented cuts to public services. The impact of this on disabled people – who are disproportionately reliant on public services – meant the figures presented in Destination Unknown were likely to be a significant underestimate.
With this in mind, we decided to revisit our five families in April 2011, to find out how they had fared since October 2010. The findings are the first in a series of 6-monthly updates, entitled The Disability in Austerity study, which will explore the real, lived experience of disabled families through the course of this parliament.
To be frank, we did not expect to see radical changes to our families’ incomes or quality of life in this first report. After all, we are only at the beginning of the financial year for new local authority budgets, and many key benefit reforms (the reassessments of Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance and so on) were only due to start in April 2011.
But the disabled families we spoke to told a different story. All of them reported cuts and closures to local services, as well as increased living costs. This, on top of benefits that were substantially lower (£150-£300 less this year) than they had expected due to pegging benefits to CPI, painted a bleak picture.
One person we spoke to had already been asked to start contributing a third of his Disability Living Allowance to pay for his care costs. Parents of a disabled child had been refused an electric wheelchair – their council could not afford to pay for it. A retired couple had been hit by a £200 per month reduction in their Support for Mortgage Interest payments and a postponement in their pension (part of the government’s steps to increase retirement age), missing out on £3100 they had been banking on to help pay off their mounting debts.
The diversity of issues raised by our families confirmed our suspicions: the Government has not considered how combined cuts - to multiple services and multiple benefits – would affect disabled families. No one seems to have realised, when carrying out the Impact Assessments for these reforms, that it would be the same group of people negatively affected. Disabled people, more reliant on health and social care services, more likely to be in rented housing, more likely to use third sector support, more likely to be unemployed, now face cut backs in every part of life. This disproportionate impact makes the Government’s pledge to share the burden of fiscal tightening a little hollow.
But perhaps the most worrying thing is that this is still the proverbial calm before the storm. Local Authority budgets have yet to come to fruition. The harshest benefit reforms are only just starting to come into force.
No wonder our tracker families all spoke of the incredible uncertainty they felt looking to the months ahead – an uncertainty the government does not seem to recognise as it forges ahead with its rapid reform agenda. When we revisit the families in October 2011 to see how they are faring, we expect a significantly worse situation – accumulating debts, repossession, failing health. As a mother caring for her disabled child told us: 'If there are further cuts to benefits it will have to come from heating and food bills as there is nothing else we can cut back on.' The question is, how bad do things need to get before the government has another look at the real life impact of its policies?