Opinion: Welfare reform – LibDems must stand up for the vulnerable

The Commons have already passed, and the Lords are currently voting on, the Welfare Reform Bill. It contains provisions which will scrap the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and replace it with the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). It also contains changes to time limit receipt of contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) (a sickness and disability benefit) to a maximum of 12 months.

As has been pointed out by Lib Dem blogger Caron Lindsay, the change to ESA is utterly destructive and senseless.

The arbitrary time limiting of ESA is, incidentally, also directly against official party policy as set out in the motion passed unanimously at conference back in September.

But DLA is what I want to talk to you about today. The changes include a cash freeze in the amount spent on it. Because of inflation, that effectively works out as a 20%+ cut over five years. The number of disabled in need of help won’t fall – it’ll just be that less of them get the help they need.

Meanwhile, shockingly the official Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) consultation on the changes to DLA has still not been published, despite the fact that parliament is on verge of signing the changes into law. On top of that, the consultation didn’t finish until after the legislation had been written – making a mockery of the idea of listening to responses.

Thankfully, a group of disabled people have used very clever Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to force disclosure of much of the consultation. Their report on what they’ve discoveredis published today and shows just how dangerous the changes are.

They found that the overwhelming majority of responses to the consultation raised serious concerns about flaws within the changes that could be devastating to disabled people. Only 7% of organisations that took part in the consultation were fully in support of plans to replace the DLA with the PIP.

One of the responses was from Boris Johnson who came out with damning criticism of the changes to the DLA. He rightly points out that the changes are unnecessary, that they will cause undue stress to claimants and that the effective abolition of the lowest tier of DLA is likely to remove the benefit completely from many people who depend on it – especially those with mental health problems, because the lowest rate of DLA is the only one they can qualify for.

And where are we as a party when it is the Tory Mayor of London whose voice is the loudest in defence of Britain’s most vulnerable? This is about to become a huge issue. Yet, our parliamentarians have known this was coming for months but have stayed silent.

If we don’t stand up on this issue then politicians from other parties will. And when they do, we will (rightly) be condemned for failing to stand up for disabled people. We are supposed to believe in fairness, in compassion, in looking after the vulnerable. To be seen to remain silent on this issue will be hugely damaging to us as a party and will utterly destroy any claim we ever had to be protecting the vulnerable from the worst excesses of the Tories.

* George Potter is a councillor in Guildford

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  • Mr Antony Webber 9th Jan '12 - 3:16pm

    Look instead of a Liberal Democrat sympathiser saying what the Liberal Democrats should be doing isn’t it about time the Liberal Democrats did it and resign as a coalition partner and trigger off a general election competition that the Liberal Democrats can campaign on as a separate party and then can show what they truly believe in and if it’s what i think, i hope they get wiped out as a party never to be seen again!

  • Thanks George!!

    Just to be clear – the government did publish their response to the consultation – but it was so woefully brief and used cherry-picked out of context quotes to back up their preordained plans, that it was totally obvious that they hadn’t done any proper analysis. How could they have done when they published the plans for replacing DLA with PIP BEFORE the consultation on whether it SHOULD be replaced had even closed!!!

    I urge you all to read the report – “Responsible Reform” to see just how badly done and totally misleading this consultation, and the DWP’s consequent actions, have been.

    George is right – if the Liberal Democrats do not stand up and stop this welfare reform bill from going any further until it all consultations, reviews, impact assessments etc are done PROPERLY, then they will go down in history as the party that stood by and watched whilst the welfare state was dismantled and the sick and vulnerable were trampled and beaten down on the way.

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Jan '12 - 3:18pm

    I know I’ve disagreed with you (slightly) about ESA; but I think you’re absolutely right about this shoddy business of the DLA. I didn’t know that there was still technically a “consultation” going on — how ridiculous is that? — but it shows that there is a determined wish to delegitimise and roll back welfare provision permanently under the cover of attacking the deficit.
    If it was about the deficit, they could simply freeze the benefit — it wouldn’t be nice, but it could be argued for as an emergency measure.
    If it’s about rethinking a benefit that may or may not be well-designed and well-targeted (I’ve been out of the welfare business too long to know), then have a proper consultation and discussion.
    But there’s no excuse for bringing in substantial changes at a rush (except the political one, of course, that they don’t want to be caught up in an argument about it just as the next election approaches). Shoddy and despicable. Where’s Steve Webb?

  • Simon Bamonte 9th Jan '12 - 3:58pm

    Thank you for this timely and important article, Mr. Potter.

    I’ve looked at bits of the report today and I was taken aback quite a bit. I knew the government had been using dodgy stats and trying to downplay the sheer volume of opposition to this bill by disabled people, but I had no idea they were going so far with their obfuscation.

    I’m actually appalled that the consultation officially ended *after* the findings were to be announced. This just makes a mockery of the whole process and democracy itself at the same time. It proves the government wants to push forward changes even against a large tide of opposition from the very people these changes will negatively affect. It’s clear that the government wants to implement these changes even though disabled people don’t want them. As it says in the report, during the 60s the slogan was “no change about us without us” or words to that effect. Those words are just as true now, maybe more so, than they were back then.

    Our party needs to be the champion for sick and disabled people once more. I don’t have very high hopes it will happen, based on how our MPs and Peers have voted since the coalition formed, but maybe now this report will make them wake up and see what is really happening. When Boris disagrees with the plans, it truly says something. We need to be on the right side of this argument: supporting sick and disabled people to our full extent. Anything less and we will have yet another large group of people who will vote against us at the next election.

    We’ve been warned!

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Jan '12 - 4:11pm

    @George – yes, I understand a freeze would be a real terms cut. And indeed that replacing a benefit with another one would involve administrative costs even if the new benefit weren’t more complicated and therefore costly to administer than the old one. That’s my point: they’re rolling two quite different imperatives (to save money and to reform welfare) into one and probably achieving neither as a result — and all “on the backs of the vulnerable”, to borrow a phrase. (Did I mention I’m on your side, here?)

  • George Potter Caron Lindsay 9th Jan '12 - 4:29pm

    I certainly think the Spartacus Report should make the Government stop and think. You would expect disability charities to argue strongly against such a big cut in the disability benefit total. It’s their job. But for a Tory mayor of London to come out so strongly against it is another matter completely.

    The Government either needs to rethink or to reassure people that those in need are not going to lose out, something they have so far failed to do.

    One thing this does flag up, though, is the difference in what Tory and Lib Dem ministers bring to the Government. From Steve Webb in pensions we get the biggest cash terms rise in State Pension ever. From Grayling and Miller, the Tories, we get arbitrary time limits for ESA, working for benefits and the DLA reforms.

    It’s important to recognise, though, that DLA isn’t perfect and doesn’t always reach the people it needs to. Anyone with any experience of helping people with benefits claims will have plenty stories to tell about people who have been inexplicably turned down for it.

    Responsible Reform disputes the Government’s calculations on the cost of DLA. The Government says it went up 30% in 8 years while RR says it’s 13%. It also shows that the rate of fraud on this benefit is very low, 0.5%. Where, then, is the 20% cut going to come from, if not from disabled people.

    There are many aspects to the Welfare Reform Bill which are really, really good. Most especially the Universal Credit which will get rid of the poverty trap. The cuts to benefits to the sick and disabled, though, are broadly wrong and need to be rethought.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 9th Jan '12 - 5:05pm

    @Mr Anthony Webber – resigning from the coalition would not necessarily trigger a general election as per the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011.

  • It’s a real shame that a lot of the initial stages of legislation went through when our MPs were in their “make the coalition work” stage. Attacks on disabled people like this should be opposed by every Lib Dem parliamentarian.

    I’m very proud to be part of a party that’s always stood up for disabled people and those with longterm illnesses. Let’s be honest, the Labour leadership are too focussed on looking “tough on scroungers” to protect the most vulnerable here – despite a lot of Labour memvers supporting the #hardesthit campaign, the two Eds probably don’t think the issue is fashionable enough.

    If we are to remain the party that does what’s right rather than what happens to be popular then we need to make our voices heard on this and make sure our MPs and peers don’t wave it through for the sake of coalition unity.

    The Daily Mail et al (supported by Tory and Labour MPs) will undoubtedly continue to demonise disabled people who have the nerve to do something other than sit at home being miserable and will undoubtedly have a go at us too.

    It is a sad thing that people with disabilities are being lumped into this “only give them enough to survive” pot along with those out of work.

  • martin sweetland 9th Jan '12 - 5:55pm

    George , an excellent thread , but i would like to hijack it slightly , to also emphasize where the government will make massive savings unless amendments are made to clause 51.
    My wife suffered a stroke 3 years ago , aged 56. Firstly she had several battles to get any benefits at all . As she was in employment prior to the stroke , she was eventually placed in the “back to work group “. Now it would appear to me that despite the fact she has been declared “unfit for work ” by the hospital consultant, head of physio at the hospital , and the stroke nurse, as well as our own G.P. she was merely placed in this group in the hope that she may one day be able to resume work. Had she never worked , paying income tax and N.I. contributions she would apparently not be due to lose her benefits . How ludicrous is that ?
    Many ,many people must have been similarly catagorised ,and will lose all of their benefit in April if their partner earns over £150 a week , which of course does not even equate to the minimum wage ! This is an absolute slap in the face to someone who was due to retire at 60 , then told the retirement age would be 62 1/2 , then after suffering unforeseen damage to her health that National INSURANCE is in fact , no insurance at all . Her benefits do not go on luxuries but help towards normal household bills , which do not disappear just because you happen to be disabled . I have worked all my life and been fortunate to have never been umemployed , but this legislation makes me very afraid for the future. Only the Liberal Lords can stop this bill now , and it is worrying how many of them realise the real impact on the average working class family.
    I wrote to Lord Freud in some depth about clause 51 , and was pleased to find a reply in the post a few days later . Unfortunately , this detailed reply, from a civil servant named Goff Daft , ( i refrain from comment on his name ) , was informing me about changes in old age pension ! That about sums it up .

  • David Allen 9th Jan '12 - 7:17pm

    “I’m actually appalled that the consultation officially ended *after* the findings were to be announced. This just makes a mockery of the whole process”

    That’s what the judge decided when this government similarly pre-empted the consultation into the feed-in tariff for solar panels. You’d have thought they would have learned….

  • David Allen 9th Jan '12 - 7:33pm

    “One thing this does flag up, though, is the difference in what Tory and Lib Dem ministers bring to the Government. From Steve Webb in pensions we get the biggest cash terms rise in State Pension ever. From Grayling and Miller, the Tories, we get arbitrary time limits for ESA, working for benefits and the DLA reforms.”

    I’m not at all convinced by this. Increased state pensions cost money. It has to come from somewhere. The Universal Credit is obviously the eighth wonder of the modern world, courtesy of Duncan-Smith, and it too costs money. That money also has to come from somewhere. Disability benefits are being cut, and that provides money. Simply to label the Lib Dems as bountiful handers-out while the Tories do the evil clawing-back strikes me as misleading spin.

  • whilst i appreciate this is a Lib Dem site, I would like to point out that the issue here is really not about party politics –

    it is about the fact that the government and the press have conspired to spend the last year or more vilifying sick and disabled people in the newspapers and media in order to make it easier to administer cuts without people objecting too much.

    it is about the fact that sick and disabled people are being made the scapegoats in a plan to scrap the welfare state altogether, a dispensable commodity?

    it is about the fact that those in power (I don’t care which party they are) have broken their own Code of Conduct on Consultations, have mislead politicians, used wrong statistics to back up their case, cherry-picked quotes to suit their plan, ignored the overwhelming consensus of a public consultation and misrepresented the results to the public.

    it is about the fact that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people are going to have the rug pulled out from under them and will have no means of support to enable to live any form of dignified life. Disabled people already live in poverty. Their illnesses and disabilities will not miraculously disappear. So what then? The burden will fall on other services instead, like the NHS. It will not save money. It will cause suffering and hardship. It will cost £675 million just to run the new assessment process for PIP – paid for by cuts to sick and disabled people’s direct support. And, if the current ESA assessment process is anything to go by, it is very likely to cost millions more in appeals. ESA appeals currently costing around £80 million as 41% are wrong decisions on eligibility.

    it is about the fact they are eroding any progress made towards equality and may well be in breach of the Human Rights Act and contravening the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which they are signed up to.

    it is about the fact that the plans are so bad that Disability Alliance have filed a letter of claim giving notice to the government of a Judicial Review,


  • What is truly astonishing here is that as MPs paid a hefty salary and expenses from the public purse, you did not know any of this. Disabled people have been fighting the welfare reforms since the emergency budgey in June 2010 announced radical cuts with more to follow in October 2010. Don’t any of you check statistics fed to you by ministers? We do. Again and again. Why didn’t any of you protest at the non-stop media hate campaign against anyone on benefits? The websites and comments including on the government’s own “tellus what you think website” have been anoffence to decency and morality. Onthe govts own website in2010, comments wereleft umoderated for days, saying disabled people should be shot, sterilised, sent to Afghanistan as mine exploders,put in work camps etc etc. Where were you then, as our representatives? Who protested to have the website taken down? Not one of you. In fact you took public comments and played on them. The scrounger rhetoric has now led to a steep increase in disabled hate crime. Disabledpeople are afraid to go out for abuse and being attacked – as fakers – evenin wheelchairs. You are the MPs, you should have done this work. Not left it to the sick, in pain exhausted and debilitated, coping with severe illness and conditions to do the job fpor you. You should all be ashamed. We have been put through 18 months of hell by this govern ment. Some have died. You supported them. The commentator above only sems to worry if this will lose you votes. Yes, it will.

  • Thanks for this article George, I would’ve liked to have written it myself. I whole heartedly agree and I hope that if any Lib Dem Ministers or Spads are reading this they sit up and take notice!

  • A few points;
    the 20% budget cut will not be shared across all DLA recipients, it is targetted at only those of working age. Some 46% of DLA is paid to people over retirement age, a percentage is paid to children, so in truth the 20% will be carried by less than 50% of the caseload, a 40% reduction in available benefit.

    The demonisation of the sick and disabled, and the increased negative rhetoric has been analysed in this report, and shows a clear increase in negative comments in the press. Ministers claim that they have no control over the press yet 1 in 6 of these negative statements are direct quotes, of the remainder many are based on statistics that are deliberatley misleading and originate with the DWP press releases.

  • Why is the cut focused on people of working age? My then working age mum was given less than a month to live when she had cancer but went on to live another 6 years. In this time my dad had a lot of time away from work helping to care for her during which time our household income was negligible. People of working age are the people most likely to have dependents. Its tempting to think noone in this government has ever had to cope with serious long term illness in the family. Of course Cameron has, but when you have 30 Million in the bank then you aren’t worried about keeping the wolves from the door.

  • I to have commented on the piece by Lord German about PIP, also made comments on other articles in relation to the Welfare Reforms over the months – Up until 4 years ago, I had worked since leaving school, I was diagnosed with a progressive and degenerative neuro-muscular condition at 35, and managed to battle the condition and continued to work until I was 40 before being told by my employers Occupational Health Company that I was unable to continue in the job that I loved. My employer was great, they paid for me to be seen by a Harley Street Consultant, who advised that I was no longer ‘capable of working’ even then my employer and I tried to see if I could homework 3 days a week to help me stay in work, but it was all to clear that my condition meant I posed a risk not only to myself, but also to fellow work colleagues and potentially clients. I finally had to stop working.

    I had to fight and jump through hoops to get any help or assistance. I now have the humiliation of having to go through the ATOS work assessment, having to lay bare all the effects the condition has on me, how I am unable to always get my legs working/ functioning in time and get caught short going to the loo, how my partner has to help me get in and out of the bath, how my partner has to cut up the food on my plate when my hands go into spasm, how I need to help getting dressed – My partner, who I hasten to add is working full time, who at the end of his working day then comes home and prepares and cooks our dinner, who never complains when I suffer neuropathic pain and and night cramps and who I have to wake 2 / 3 times a night to help me adjust my sleeping position.

    My partner had to help me complete the 20 page form sent by ATOS on the 3 December, which had to be returned by the 2 January (A bank holiday!), who even when sending it by recorded delivery on the 19 December, have still yet to pick it up from the ‘generic’ posting address. I have rang the DWP and been left hanging on the phone for periods in excess of 20 minutes,have written to them asking what the situation is with my Work Capability Assessment form, and have never had a response in writing or by phone, who when you do get through to them just tell you, ‘I’ll send an e-mail to ATOS’ – I have never made an issue of my disability, I have always paid my way, I have no debts, have always made sure my bills are upto date, paid our mortgage on time – And now, finally having to face the possibility that the DLA award I won by unanimous descision at appeal indefinately, I will have to go through all the stress/worry and upset again in a a year or so, just leaves me thinking what is it all about? and is it all worth it, putting myself and my partner through all the misery again?

  • I apologise for the rambling response above, but I just feel that we hear all the platitudes, insincere responses to peoples concerns from Grayling etc, and having experienced some pretty hostile and nasty comments directed at me when I have been out and about ‘Maybe you should try working……’, even had a key run down the side of my car parked outside my house in the disabled bay! I do feel that I and other disabled people are seen as soft targets, a section of society that can be ‘used’ for cheap, political point scoring!

  • Just wondering where you get your 20% real terms cut figure from. As I understand it DLA will get uprated in April by CPI and it is the following years that will see a cash freeze. The inflation forecasts for the years after that are around 2% so at very most we’re looking at an 11% cut.

  • @ George Potter

    An excellent article and it is deeply frustrating for me to hear your concerns and know that the Liberal Democrats will do nothing to oppose the vindictive policies of a cabinet comprised of the rich, elected by the rich and existing for the rich who have declared war on anyone unfortunate enough to rely on state benefits. What is worse, the Liberal Democrats are further enfeebled, as Paul Walter points out above, by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 which they supported and which deprives them of the freedom to walk away from the Tory led coalition and gives them the justification for acceding to anything and everything the Tories demand of them.

  • @ Alistair

    ” Its tempting to think noone in this government has ever had to cope with serious long term illness in the family. Of course Cameron has, but when you have 30 Million in the bank then you aren’t worried about keeping the wolves from the door.”

    Truth is though Alistair, That David Cameron is on record, admitting to claiming DLA when his disabled son Ivan was still alive. He is also on record with Mumsnet to admitting to claiming 4 free nappies a day from the NHS for a child that suffers from severe incontinence.

    It goes to show the sheer hypocrisy of this government when “Multimillionaires” are more than happy to claim state benefits when the rules apply to them, but then scream the need for reform, claiming that the benefit bill has now spiraled out of control.

    I can not believe the sheer audacity of this government and especially that of the Ministers who have all had their fingers in the pie in the past, From Osborn and his “alleged” use of tax avoidance, Camerons claims for DWP, David Laws expenses scandal, Other Ministers “alleged” use of offshore tax havens.

    This whole campaign to vilify the sick and disabled by this government and the media is abhorrent, the sooner the British Public wake up and remember what made us proud as a nation, the care and compassion, especially towards those that are less fortunate, the better.

    Britain used to be a champion for equality, campaigned vigorously against discrimination and brought in legislation that was supposed to make it illegal to insight hatred.
    As far as I am concerned, this government through the use of their friends in the media with the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail have deliberately gone out of their way to do just that, to vilify a minority group with constant slogans in an attempt to remove the nations compassion, with the hope of gaining approval for government cuts that effect the disadvantaged and the vulnerable the most.

    Hopefully the good sense of the country will soon turn it’s back on this government and the media and once again re-install the values we once had

  • Simon Bamonte 10th Jan '12 - 2:47pm

    @James Murray:

    I hope you know those figures you quote have been debunked by Full Fact, C4 News Fact Check as well as by disability campaigners. Those figures are actually heavily spun and come from the DWP themselves, but they are highly misleading and inaccurate. Remember ATOS are doing a horrible job and 40% of their appeals are successful, rising to up to 70% when the claimant has a knowledgeable representative. What say you of the people who have been found “fit for work” by ATOS, wrongly, and then went on to commit suicide (there are at least 10 cases of this since the coalition formed)?

    How many of those you are sure can do some kind of work have fluctuating conditions where they could work one day but maybe not the next? How many of them can work with workplace modifications or modified workplace duties? How many could work, but are on medication that allows them to function in life, but unable to do many kinds of jobs?

    And with millions of able-bodied people seeking work, where will all these people who need specialised help to work, or specialised jobs go to find work? In today’s climate, employers will simply chose the able-bodied person over a disabled person as employing a disabled person will probably not be profitable.

    And if you were so sure all those people you worked with could work, why did you not report them for fraud?

  • martin sweetland 10th Jan '12 - 11:53pm

    @ James Murray
    glad to see that you are ex-social worker , ex-welfare officer and ex- legal aid lawyer .I certainly would not want someone with your outlook to represent my family . FACT , my wife , along with many thousands of people face an immediate loss of Contributions based ESA under time – limiting . FACT , my wife has been advised by medical experts that , after time elapsed of 3 years since suffering a stroke , she is as well as she ever will be , and most certainly not fit for work.FACT she worked most of her adult life (she is now 59 ) , paying National Insurance and Income tax . FACT , as i earn over £7500 a year she will now lose all of her benefit .FACT , there is a minimum wage of some £12000 a year , therefore anyone who has a spouse/partner in work will lose all their benefits by being classed as in “back to work group” . Surely even a lawyer can see some injustice here .

  • As a person who has been suffering from mental health problems since 1997, I blame the present government for the deterioration in my condition since I applied for ESA in March of 2011. I can tell you what the Liberal Democrats will be saying in 2014-15: ‘Imagine how much worse it would have been if the Tories had ruled on their own!’ True enough, but that’s like being beaten up by two drunken thugs. You appear in court, and one of the thugs gets a lighter sentence than the other because he didn’t carry a knife. It won’t wash. I voted Tory in 2010 (one of the biggest mistakes in my life), but the chances of me voting Liberal Democrat are now nil. The same, of course, goes for the Tories. I shall swallow my pride and vote Labour.
    In October of this year, people who want to appeal an ESA decision that they are ‘fit for work’ will receive no benefits until a ‘reconsideration period’ has passed while DWP look at the claim again. This period is not limited by statute. Assessment rate ESA will be cut off, leaving the claimant to try and get JSA. Job Centre Plus may decide – probably quite rightly – that the claimant is unfit to work and therefore cannot get JSA. They will tell the person to get a fresh fit note from their doctor and put in another ESA claim… while DWP are still ‘reconsidering’ the first one. At the end of this period, and you decide to appeal, you will reimbursed for the reconsideration period during which you went without any income, and Assessment rate ESA reapplied until the appeal tribunal meets. This might take between nine months and a year. The tribunal rules in your favour, you’re declared not fit for work after all. 2 or 3 months after this, you will be called up for another Atos assessment… The whole heartbreaking and sadistic process rolls on until you’re dead, commit suicide, or sectioned. If you’re lucky you might make it to 60 or 65 – with your mental health problems intact. Yes, the same ones that DWP and Atos refused to believe in. (The ‘reform’ of October is designed simply to DETER people from daring to question the Kafkaesque diktats of DWP/Atos. I link them together symbiotically, just like Sinn Fein / IRA in the old days, or Democratic Party / Ku Klux Klan after the US Civil War.)
    The Liberal Democrat MPs trooped through the lobbies like lobotomised sheep to pass these ‘reforms.’ (Even including that lecherous old beardie who’s mistakenly thought to be ‘useful’ to the Russians.)
    Your party, your members, your MPs, and especially your ministers, are all guilty of the manslaughter of mentally ill people who have died one way or the other since May 2010 as a direct consequence of these ‘reforms.’ (At least ‘Gino’ Newton only managed to shoot Norman Scott’s DOG – he didn’t send Norman through a decade of Atos assessments.)

  • James Murray says lots of people drop their claims rather than face an assessment. Good – but the problem is the anger felt by GENUINELY ILL people. Don’t lump US together with false claimants and benefit scroungers – we despise them as much as you do, if not more.

  • No, I don’t think Mr Murray could ever have been a social worker or a welfare officer – except perhaps in North Korea. He sounds like a brilliant temporary CPN I was assigned once, who suggested that if I fell short of money, I could ‘always clean offices cash in hand – lots of people do it – you’re not as badly off as some people – you don’t want to work do you? – mind you, you wouldn’t get one anyway…’ He was madder than me.

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