By New Worker
OVER 5,000 people with a wide range of physical and mental health problems last Wednesday came to Westminster to tell Parliament of their anger and outrage at a multiplicity of cuts from all directions that will affect their lives dramatically and could leave some totally destitute.
For most of those present just getting there was a mammoth task. A group of wheelchair users from East Anglia faced the problem that local trains could only accommodate two wheelchairs per train, so they had to travel two at a time and meet up again in London; likewise for the return journey. It made what was in any case a difficult journey a logistical nightmare.
Most needed friends, family or carers to come with them. And most had never been on a demonstration before.
Some were petrified at the prospect the demonstration might be “kettled” – confined by police in one spot for hours on end, denied access to toilets, drinking water and their medications.
But they came all the same. And for everyone who came there were dozens of others who would have liked to come but for logistical and/or health reasons just could not.
They carried placards saying: “I didn’t choose to be disabled” or “Easy target: cuts to the disabled disgraceful”.
The cuts they face are many and varied but add up to a frightening assault on their ability to live any sort of reasonable life.
The Disability Living Allowance – a sum paid to all registered disabled whether or not they have a job in recognition that living with a disability incurs extra expenses – faces cutting if not total abolition.
The replacement benefits will be administered by local authority social services who will assess claimants’ needs on an individual basis. The costs of administering these assessments will eat up half the available budgets.
Eligibility to mobility allowance – usually delivered in the form of a free travel pass or a car for the use of the claimant or their carer – is dependent on being eligible for Disability Allowance.
Without this many severely disabled people will be virtually imprisoned in their homes.
Local authorities are facing huge cuts and are closing all sorts of services like day care centres, places where disabled people can socialise.
Charities also supply support services for the disabled. The Government somehow expects charities, as part of the illusory “big society” to step in and replace the gaps left by the withdrawal of local authority services. But funding for charities is also being drastically cut.
Perhaps the biggest threat is the Government’s “Work Assessment” programme – forcing ever claimant of Incapacity Benefit/Employment Support Allowance or Income Support to have their condition assessed to see if they could do some work, and if they could, to transfer them to Jobseekers’ Allowance. This is paid at a much lower rate and is conditional on claimants being able to prove they are “actively seeking work”. If they cannot even this benefit is withdrawn.
The assessment is not done by people who are medically qualified but by employees of commercial agencies like Atos – who are paid thousands of pounds to reduce the number of benefit claimants.
The assessment is purely mechanistic and full of traps. Many are decreed fit for work simply on the basis that they were capable of getting to the interview. Those who can operate a mobile phone are assessed as being capable of computer work. The mentally ill are deemed cured and fit for work if they are not shivering and shaking in a corner.
Already hundreds of these assessments have been challenged in the courts and reversed – with the aid and support of Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and law centres, which are also due to be cut in the near future. Yet in some cases the assessment agencies have ignored the court findings and still denied benefits to the claimants.
These assessments have already led to a number of suicides and this is likely to increase. The Government knows this and expects it.
Many disabled people would love to do a job that would give them economic independence. But most employers will not even consider them.
One marcher, Kathryn Harrington, who started at 5am to travel from Plymouth, is registered blind. She lives in supported accommodation – but funding for this has been cut by 40 per cent over the last year so there are no longer support staff available in emergencies.
She is an experience computer programmer but says: “When I apply for jobs I’m seen as a heath and safety risk.
Speakers at a rally before the short march included Jane Asher, president of the Arthritis Council, National Autistic Society and Parkinson’s UK. She said: "The Government’s cuts to disability benefits risk leaving the vulnerable people I represent impoverished, confined to their homes and without access to appropriate services and support networks.
“The Hardest Hit campaign is a chance for disabled people, their families, carers, charities and other organisations to come together to send a unified message to the Government – that these cuts must be re-thought.”
The Hardest Hit campaign has been organised jointly by the UK Disabled People’s Council and the Disability Benefits Consortium of over 40 organisations, including the NAS, Arthritis Care and Parkinson’s UK, who are committed to working towards a fair benefits system.
Mark Lever, NAS Chief Executive, said: “We have serious concerns that these cuts will result in people with disabilities missing out on vital services and benefits. Many adults with autism that we speak to are already extremely worried about the possibility of losing their support networks and financial lifelines.
“We hope the campaign will encourage the Government to rethink the impact their cuts may have on the very people they pledged to protect.”
The march was backed by many unions, including Unison, Unite, and PCS. Commenting on the Hardest Hit march, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Today's unprecedented demonstration by the disabled should make even the most hard-hearted members of the government think again.
“The march underlines just how much some of the most vulnerable members of our society have been hit by deep spending cuts that have forced the Bank of England to downgrade its growth forecasts.
“The cuts are hurting but they are not working.”