Monday 9 January 2012

Back to the 80s: #spartacusreport

Reading Responsible Reform today was like going back to the 80s, to the days when the government did its best to give a kicking to any poor, marginalised people it could think of (think Norman Tebbit). I have felt until now that this government is better than that, particularly with the LibDems in it to curb the worst excesses of right wing fervour. In some ways we have been pretty successful at that. We have won some and we have lost some. Unfortunately for some of the most marginalised people in the country, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has been one place where we have failed – and it is becoming apparent that we have failed badly.

Partly the bad news emerging from the DWP is made worse by the fact that Iain Duncan Smith is in charge. Rightly or wrongly I have always felt that, although he's very right wing, he is a fundamentally decent man, and unlikely to emulate the worst habits of some of his predecessors. But that view is being rudely disturbed by the antics of his department.

For the entire length of this government Mr Duncan Smith and his department have been repeating that work is better than welfare, and that people who are in work are happier and healthier as well as better off than if they are on welfare. Nobody really disputes that. But they seem determined to make everyone work whether they are capable of it or not. And they also seem to think that the way to get people into work is to take their benefits away. (And that is even more remarkably silly when there is no work to be had.)

But the rhetoric has gradually (or perhaps not so gradually) shifted into a campaign of demonisation. People who cannot work are being labelled as scroungers. The language of the media and the language of politics has shifted subtly but definitely into a language of hatred. And the effects of this are evident in people's behaviour. Scope's press release last May “Deteriorating attitudes towards disabled people” shows that public attitudes to disabled people have worsened and even become more violent in recent times.

Not so long ago the DWP were roundly criticised by the Work And Pensions Committee for issuing misleading press releases which emphasised the number of people being found fit for work in Work Capability Assessments, despite the overall figures showing increasing numbers of people being found eligible for support and not for work. Mr Duncan Smith appeared to be quite unapologetic about effectively writing the Daily Mail's news items for it. He and his ministers claim that they can't be held responsible for what the press write – yes they can, if they are as selective and misleading as they have been about the statistics and cases they report in their own press releases. That is bad enough but the department's behaviour has worsened.

The report Responsible Reform was released today by a group of disabled people who used a Freedom Of Information Act request to obtain all the responses to the government's consultation on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and the proposed move to Personal Independence Payments (PIP). The move is a thinly disguised attempt to save 20% of the DLA bill by simply removing people from eligibility for it. The government issued its own summary of the consultation, which was highly selective about the way in which it reported the responses it had. Responsible Reform shows just how misleading the government's published response was. “Misleading” is almost the most used word in the forty page report. And we know that “misleading” is Parliamentary language for “lying”.

I urge you to read the report for yourselves. It can be downloadedhere. It may look like deathly boring statistical stuff but the accumulation of evidence about the responses themselves and about the government's systematically misleading response to the responses is, quite frankly, devastating. Forty pages takes quite a while though, so here are the main points:

  • the government asserts that disabled people support and are in agreement with their plans to replace DLA with PIP; analysis of the responses shows only 7% of organisations that took part in the consultation were fully in support.
  • There was overwhelming opposition in the consultation responses to nearly all of the government’s proposals for DLA reform.
  • The government claims there has been a 30% rise in DLA claims between 2002 and 2010. It uses this figure to justify the need to save money. Detailed analysis in Responsible Reform shows that this figure is entirely misleading. The government has actually admitted that it is misleading, and yet it continues to use it.
  • The report shows that nearly all of the recent increase in working-age claimants of DLA has been associated with mental health conditions and learning difficulties. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties remained remarkably stable
  • 98% of those who responded opposed plans to change the qualifying period for PIP from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months
  • 90% opposed plans for a new assessment, which disabled people fear will be far too similar to the much-criticised work capability assessment used to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA)

There is a lot more, but what is most disturbing about the issues dealt with here is the systematic way the DWP set out to misrepresent the responses to it from disabled people and organisations. It is a modern manifestation of the nastiest Thatcherism of the 80s. Probably the nastiest part of the government's response has been in their attempt to find a "DLA factor". They claim that just having DLA inclines people not to work. (Find victims - then blame them.)  This starts from the observation that fewer disabled people in work claim DLA than disabled people out of work. (pp13 - 15 of Responsible Reform) So in the DWP's mind that must be because they are receiving DLA. It never occurs to them that disabled people receiving DLA might be more disabled than the disabled people who are not receiving DLA. It also never occurs to them that getting a job automatically triggers a review of DLA, with the possibility that it might be taken away; the way to get rid of that disincentive is to stop automatically reviewing DLA when a recipient takes up work. There are some cases where people believe that DLA is automatically removed if they get a job - it is not. DLA is awarded for disability, not for working status. The way to deal with that is to educate people not to blame them.

Responsible Reform has already been dubbed the Spartacus Report. Its reception on twitter can be followed with the hashtag #spartacusreport. There is a petition to sign:

Please let family, friends, colleagues, anyone you can think of know. Please write to your MP. Please do whatever you can.

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