Don’t be fooled by government’s callous weasel words – disability benefits cuts are still planned

Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb.

Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb.

Mystery still surrounds the fate of the threatened cuts to the UK’s Personal Independence Payment paid to people with disabilities. including Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, blindness and mental illnesses.

Just look at the timetable:

March 11, Justin Tomlinson, Disabilities Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, officially announced plans to make changes, to make cuts, to Personal Independence Payment.

March 16, in his budget speech, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne gave details of the cuts the government was proposing.

Following the budget, and for a further two days, uproar ensued. Not just protests from those likely to be affected but from disability charities too. And the government, which has a majority of just 17, suddenly found itself facing almost certain defeat in the House of Commons when around 20 of its own MPs said they would oppose the move.

Back-peddling was the order of the day, publicly hinted at by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan on BBC Question Time, when she said that the proposed cut was only ‘a suggestion’; with the Chancellor saying that he would look again to get things right.

March 18 saw Iain Duncan Smith resign as Work and Pensions Secretary, calling the planned cuts ‘a compromise too far’.

Prime Minister David Cameron, in his reply to Duncan Smith’s resignation letter, said “Today we agreed not to proceed with the policies in their current form and instead to work together to get these policies right over the coming months.”

Look at that closely, read it carefully. The Prime Minister did NOT say that those policies, the cuts, won’t happen. What he did say was that they would not go ahead in their ‘current form’ and that the policy would be got ‘right’ in the coming months.

Then, yesterday March 19, Stephen Crabb was promoted from being Welsh Secretary to take over at Work and Pensions. And, on his first day in his new post, he said the cuts to disability benefits will “not be going ahead.”

Well, actually, no he didn’t! Let’s look at it carefully.

These are the words that the new Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb really said: “We’re not going to be going ahead with these cuts to disability benefits that were proposed on budget day.

“The prime minister has confirmed that himself. I was very clear when I discussed the offer of the job this morning we were not going to go ahead with the cuts that were proposed.”

Sounds good, right? Well, err, no. The key words in the first sentence are ‘that were proposed on budget day’. Similarly, two sentences later the telling words are ‘that were proposed’.

Now, call me a cynic if you like but I have worked as a journalist, spent time in public relations and been around politicians long enough to recognise this for what it is – the use of prepared phrases, or callous weasel words, designed to trick us into thinking the cuts won’t happen.

The government is just trying to buy time to find a way to get them through in another form and without rebellion from within their own MPs.

Trust me, despite what we are being led to believe, the cuts are still very much on the table.

Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation and government’s benefit cut ‘rethink’ may not change anything

Chancellor George Osborne presenting his 2016 budget to UK's parliament.

Chancellor George Osborne presenting his 2016 budget to UK’s parliament.

Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from his position as UK’s Work and Pensions Secretary gives the government a chance to abandon its planned cuts to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – but don’t hold your breath, it probably won’t happen.

Gone: Ian Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary.

Gone: Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary.

In his resignation letter, Duncan Smith said that while the benefit cuts are “defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they were placed within a budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers.”

Every government has its finances to consider, with so much to gather in, so much to spend, so much to borrow and so on. Then there is the matter of the surplus or, more usually, the deficit that has to be controlled.

It was with all this in mind that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, equivalent to other countries’ finance ministers, presented his budget to parliament on Wednesday.

Of course there were lots of items in it but nothing so controversial as plans to hit disabled people who claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP). And, unlike the recent move to reduce Employment Support Allowance (ESA) from next year for new claimants, the proposed PIP changes will affect those already receiving it when their claims are next reviewed.

There is no need, here, to go into the full details but it could mean anyone affected could lose £55 a week – which is a significant amount to a person with MS or any other disability.

But not everything is smooth sailing as the often turbulent waters of parliament are threatening to get stormier by the minute.

Voices are naturally being raised against the move – and not all from expected quarters. You would count on opposition from MPs of other political parties but, now, a sizeable section of Conservative backbenchers is threatening to rebel against the government.

Maybe they have been alarmed by the massive show of public opinion that has so far led to three MPs being required to stand down from their roles as patrons of charities after voting for the ESA cuts.

Then, on BBC television programme Question Time, government Education Minister Nicky Morgan said that the PIP cuts were just a “suggestion” at this stage and that further discussions were needed.

And, although this has been dismissed by someone described as close to then Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, her views have since been reflected by the Chancellor.

BBC News was told that Mr Duncan Smith was saying that the government is not in “concession territory”, adding: “I don’t know how Nicky is explaining what she said but she doesn’t quite seem to have understood what Iain has been saying.”

Since then, however, Mr Duncan Smith has resigned while Mr Osborne has said he will revisit the £4.4billion cut to PIP “to make sure we get this absolutely right.”

The Daily Mirror newspaper reported:

Government sources confirmed the cuts will now be “kicked into the long grass” and could eventually be scaled right back.

“This is going to be kicked into the long grass. We need to take time and get reforms right, and that will mean looking again at these proposals,” a source said.

“It’s not an integral part of the Budget – it’s a package that came out beforehand. We are not wedded to (saving) specific sums.”

A word of warning, though. It is important not to take this a face value. The planned cuts have not been dropped, “Revisiting them” does not mean they have been abandoned. Even “scaling back” does not mean dropping the cuts.

Like all politicians in a difficult place, they are wriggling, using phrases to encourage us to think the situation has changed while being just as committed to the cuts. Even though Iain Duncan Smith has gone, don’t be fooled.

Lies, damn lies, and IDS’s statistics

Ian Duncan Smith has made unreliable claims about sanctions as well as his education.

Ian Duncan Smith has made unreliable claims about sanctions as well as his education.

Mired in controversy over his handling of what the Government calls welfare benefit ‘reform’ and critics call ‘cuts’, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith (pictured, above) is now being accused of having ‘lost the plot’ after making an incredible statistical claim that 75% of people who have had their benefits stopped under his department’s sanctions regime said it helped them “focus and get on.”

And that is something that Labour is challenging and threatening to report to the UK Statistics Authority – and that civil servants at his department have not confirmed.

Add to that the controversy over his education – and his suitability and qualification for his current role have to be called into question.

Daily-MirrorIn an article in the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper, the sister of ex-soldier David Clapson, who died starving and penniless after having his benefits stopped said: “I don’t think my brother said it had helped him get on.”

The report continued:

After hearing Mr Duncan Smith’s comments, Gill Thompson said: “I think they’re losing it. They’re losing the plot.”

In a string of jaw-dropping claims, IDS dismissed protests against benefit sanctions as “classic buzz from the left” and that protesters were “never going to vote for us. They hate us”.

And he claimed Job Centres were “running out of people” to put back to work. Despite a fall in overall unemployment, there are currently 1.68m people out of work in the UK.

The audacity of the man is unbelievable as he made his comments to local councillor Johnny Bucknell, during a visit to London’s Belsize Park to campaign for Tory Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith.

framework_cnj_logoThose comments may never have been kept private had they not been caught on video and subsequently published by the Camden New Journal local newspaper.

But what of his education controversy? In Mr Duncan Smith’s biography on the Conservative Party website as well as his entry in Who’s Who, it was originally stated that he had studied at the University +of Perugia in Italy.

In 2002, an investigation by the BBC found that statement to be untrue. In response to the BBC story, Duncan Smith’s office stated that he had in fact attended the Università per Stranieri (University of Foreigners), a different institution in Perugia, for a year. He did not complete his course of study, sit exams or gain any qualifications there.

Duncan Smith’s biography, on the Conservative Party website, also stated that he was ‘educated at Dunchurch College of Management’ but his office later confirmed that he did not gain any qualifications there either, that he completed six separate courses lasting a few days each, adding up to about a month in total. Dunchurch was the former staff college for GEC Marconi, for whom Duncan Smith worked in the 1980s.

  • Duncan Smith was educated at what is now St. Peter’s RC Secondary School, Solihull, until the age of 14, then at HMS Conway, a Merchant Navy training school (since closed) on the Isle of Anglesey until he was 18. In 1975 he attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Scots Guards.

Government advisers say benefit system is ‘broken’

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Government ministers in the UK may be celebrating the forcing through of their planned cut to welfare benefit paid through its Employment Support Allowance from April next year but a new think-tank report is describing the benefits system as broken and is calling for a complete overhaul.

broken.smfThe Social Market Foundation1 report includes a recommendation that the notorious Work Capability Assessment should be scrapped. This is the test that has been used to decide, often wrongly, that people with disabilities are fit to work.

So, who is behind this report. Is it people with disabilities? No. Is it welfare rights campaigners? No. Is it political opponents? No. So who is it?

Matthew Oakley.

Matthew Oakley.

The answer may surprise you. The report was written by Matthew Oakley2 who used to be a Treasury adviser and until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange think-tank. What is more, he’s on Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.

In other words, this hard-hitting report, with its analysis and criticism is coming not from the opposition but the Government’s own advisers.

In place of the WCA, the report says the Government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or with disabilities preventing work should have a “level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society”.

In the UK’s The Guardian newspaper a couple of days ago, Frances Ryan3 wrote that the report also says ‘the Government should abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability’ – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a ‘steps to work wage’ on top of their unemployment benefit.

“Many people on disability benefit really do want to work but they feel broken by the system. It is not about providing support; it is about getting them to jump through the same hoops again and again, and they feel defeated,” Mr Oakley told The Guardian.

Ms Ryan’s article continued:

The reality is, the Conservatives have overseen what are simply the most disastrous social policy reforms in living memory. What comes out of Duncan Smith’s DWP is not a concrete, evidence-based plan. It is a series of wishes, based on a foundation of ideology-driven myths and childish hysteria.

The Government talks – almost laughably – of an ambition to get one million more disabled and chronically ill people into work by 2020 while wasting its time – and taxpayers’ money – on faulty testing regimes that are proven to make disabled people sicker, and which as far back as 2010 were declaring terminally ill people ‘fit for work’.

The Government has brought in ‘tougher’ measures such as increasing the amount of money the DWP can take from disabled and chronically ill people when they have their benefits sanctioned (notably, the DWP didn’t even bother to test the impact of this before bringing it in).

Just yesterday, Duncan Smith was filmed declaring that three-quarters of claimants who are sanctioned say it ‘helps them focus’. I’d tell that to the man with learning difficulties who was sanctioned for being four minutes late at the jobcentre, despite the fact that he couldn’t tell the time. He was found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electricity, gas or food. Or the 23-year-old pregnant woman who was receiving out-of-work sickness benefits for mental health problems following the stillbirth of her first baby eight months earlier. Her benefit was sanctioned after she missed one ‘work-focused interview’ on a day she found it too difficult to leave her flat – and she ended up having to walk two miles to a food bank.

The lie that it’s necessary for disabled people to suffer for their benefits is crumbling. The Oakley report shows that so-called ‘Conservative values’ of personal responsibility and low state spending are not incompatible with a humane and competent disability employment system. What the government has created in its place – rocketing number of disability assessments, outsourced to multimillion-pound private contracts mixed with failing back-to-work programmes – is the definition of economic stupidity.

This week the government forced through its plan to cut some sickness benefits by £30 a week – despite evidence this will actually reduce disabled people’s chance of finding work and that many on the current rate are already struggling to afford to eat – typifies the current Government approach: a disdain for both facts and people’s lives.

We have reached the point where even the Government’s own advisers can’t pretend this system is anything but rotten, her article concluded.

1 The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. We engage with policymakers and opinion formers, including Ministers, MPs, civil servants, regulators, businesses, charities and the media. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.
2 Matthew Oakley joined the SMF as Senior Researcher in July 2015. Prior to SMF Matthew had been Chief Economist and Head of Financial Services Policy at Which?, Head of Economics and Social Policy at Policy Exchange and an Economic Advisor at the Treasury. He is also a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee and he led the Independent Review of Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions that reported to Parliament in 2014. He is a recognised expert on public policy, welfare reform and consumer issues
Frances Ryan is a journalist for The Guardian and New Statesman. She writes predominantly on austerity, disability, feminism and social mobility. She has a doctorate in politics, exploring inequality in education. She tweets as @DrFrancesRyan and her website is differentprinciples.co.uk

Government wages ‘disability war’ on benefit claims

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ids

For those of you outside the UK, as I am now, it must be difficult to understand what is happening there with government policies seeming to be continually targeting disabled people including those with multiple sclerosis and all other physical and mental disabilities.

Well, it’s true. It is easy enough to find news stories about various different policies striking at yet another aspect of life of those least able to contend with it.

Now, I want to make it absolutely clear that every reader of this post fully realises two things. Firstly, this is not being written from a political perspective as there are good and bad policies of all parties; and none match my beliefs entirely. Secondly, there is no element of sour grapes involved as, so far at least, the British government’s welfare cuts have not affected me.

And the key words to the whole problem affecting the UK are ‘welfare cuts’, the implementation of which has now degenerated into what should be termed the ‘disability war’.

From the government’s point of view, faced with a huge budget deficit when it first came to power in 2010, it introduced a massive programme of spending cuts across all departments.

One of these, the Department for Work and Pensions is headed by former, failed Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, pictured above. Its responsibilities include the administration and payment of welfare benefits including those for the unemployed and those with disabilities. IDS was appointed to head the department with a remit to cut welfare spending.

Basically, most of his actions have centred on two areas – besides state pensions that are another matter completely.

Unemployed people used to be able to claim a benefit called Job Seekers Allowance while those unable to work through sickness including disabilities were paid Incapacity Benefit. Well, in a supposed cost-cutting exercise, both of these were gradually replaced by Employment Support Allowance but, within that, it is divided into the Work-Related Activity Group, for those judged able to work, and the Support Group, for those unable to work.

People with disabilities who were previously paid Incapacity Benefit had to complete a lengthy application form and, in many cases, go through a face-to-face medical assessment, in an attempt to gain the new ESA. The problem is that many were assessed as fit to work – a decision that has time-and-again been reversed on appeal.

Completion of the introduction of the new benefit has been seriously delayed and has cost the country so much in terms of money and goodwill.

Another benefit being replaced is Disability Living Allowance. This does not depend on ability to work but by an individual’s abilities and disabilities – and not only physical. Now everyone being paid DLA, even those already granted a lifetime award, are gradually being required to apply for the new Personal Independence Payment.

Once again, all is not going well for the claimants, many of whom have lost some or all of the benefit, while the government’s own timetable for completion of the transition makes the worst bus and train timetables look perfect.

And that does not even touch the introduction of the so-called Universal Credit. That’s another mess.