Brexit and independence dominated the General Election campaign. Brexit deservedly so as it poses a huge risk to our social and environmental protections, our economy and public services, while the independence obsession of the pro-UK parties diverted attention from the Tories’ track record in office.
In particular, I’m disappointed there wasn’t more scrutiny of Westminster’s welfare reforms which have had a hugely negative impact on disabled people.
Holyrood now has powers to legislate on SOME disability benefits, so Scotland has an opportunity to chart a different course from the one that the UK Government has embarked upon. We can create a fairer and more respectful system of social security for disabled people.
People who have disabilities and health conditions are being particularly hard hit by cuts to benefits that help them with additional costs. Most people who receive such support through the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) are being transferred to the new system of Personal Independence Payments (PIP). While some DLA claimants have benefited from the move to PIP through getting higher awards, the opposite is also true. Figures from October last year show that 25 per cent of DLA recipients who were assessed for PIP were denied support altogether, and 23 per cent had their
benefit reduced. The Scottish Government’s annual report on welfare reform suggests that approximately 30,000 people will lose entitlement, with an average loss of £2,600 a year.
The figures for new PIP claims are even worse, as almost 60 per cent of all new applicants to January 2017 were denied help. That risks plunging disabled people into poverty, given that 39 per cent of people in poverty are living in a household with at least one disabled person and that the costs associated with disability average £550 per month.
And it’s not just a matter of recipients having to cut back a little and go without a few extras. Disability Living Allowance pays for the support that people need to live their lives. It pays for essential care or allows them to see friends and family or go out to work. People are losing their right to live independently and with dignity and respect.
One of the most ill judged moments of the election campaign was when Ruth Davidson chose to pose on a Trossachs Mobility all-terrain scooter for a publicity stunt in a week when many DLA claimants lost their adapted car, scooter or electric wheelchair. Many disabled people are now stranded in their homes and are no longer able to get to work, putting them at greater risk of poverty.
The system of testing that is used for the new PIP benefit is a narrow points-based approach that does not capture the real, lived experience of disability and ill health. Instead we should be listening to medical professionals who have dealt with claimants for many years. Testing whether people can walk 50 or 100 metres is an insult as many conditions are complex and change from day to day.
PIP tests cost three and a half times as much as a DLA test, and 62 per cent of the decisions have been overturned. This system is a shocking waste of public money, and a source of great distress to those forced to comply.
The Scottish Government has made some encouraging initial statements on how we might move towards a more dignified and accurate system of testing. It is absolutely right that we should move towards long-term awards for conditions that are unlikely to change, so that recipients do not have to go through the stressful process of constant reassessments. In many cases, medical evidence from GPs and other medical staff should be sufficient of itself to support a claim. That would be a big step forward.
To make these benefits fairer, we need to take urgent action on the mobility element of PIP in particular. According to Inclusion Scotland, 45 per cent of disabled people who were entitled to the higher mobility component of DLA lose that entitlement when they are reassessed for PIP. The Scottish Government must look at what transitional support can be offered to those who are affected.
Regardless of the UK election, Holyrood now has the power to begin to build a fairer system of helping disabled people with the costs of their disability and reject the welfare reforms that are debasing our social security system.
For far too long, under successive Westminster Governments, disabled people have been asked their opinion on welfare changes but then ignored. Scotland can build a fairer system but to do so we must involve disabled people at all levels. Let’s make it happen.
This article first appeared in the National