An Open Letter to the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary
Dear Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP
The WOW Petition is a crowd-sourced grass roots campaign created and supported by disabled people, people with physical and mental health illness, care workers, carers and family members. We have come together because we are frightened. We have each been affected by the devastating consequences of the Welfare Reform Act and feel we are fighting for our lives.
We are determined to continue and build upon the achievements of Pat’s Petition. We are not satisfied that the government will understand or care about the consequences of the cuts and changes to benefits and services until a comprehensive impact assessment has been completed. We are aware of the Prime Minister’s intention to scrap impact and equality assessments. It is vital therefore, that a cumulative impact assessment is carried out with urgency.
Since the WOW Petition was launched on December 18th 2012, at the time of writing almost 18,000 people have supported us. We expect to reach the 100,000 target as we expand into new initiatives and the campaign grows.
Our petition has been championed by disabled actress and comedian Francesca Martinez. Francesca has spoken out publicly against the arbitrary cuts and the unfairness of disproportionately targeting the benefits sick and disabled people rely on. She has appeared on Newsnight and BBC This Week Programmes to voice her concerns. Baroness Grey-Thompson has also supported our campaign.
Sick and disabled people do not understand why the government wishes to wage a “war on welfare” against them. People who are genuinely too sick to work have been cruelly labelled as “feckless” and “scroungers” by government ministers. Welfare statistics have, we believe, been purposefully misrepresented, and the tabloid media has chosen to wage a campaign of misinformation and misleading stories about the level of welfare fraud. This in turn has altered public perceptions of disabled people and hardened attitudes towards benefit claimants.
Where is the sense in forcing people suffering with long-term and chronic conditions onto a depressed employment market where eight people on average are fighting for every job? People with mental health problems find it especially difficult to overcome employment discrimination and to establish themselves in work even when the economy is buoyant. The greater cruelty is that many of these people will not have access to treatment or therapy.
Sick and disabled people do want to work, but the Work Capability Assessment completely fails to recognise their limitations or how they can realistically function in the workplace. The consequences of forcing people to look for work and mandatory Work Related Activity under threat of losing income could cause illness to deteriorate and place a further burden on stretched NHS and mental health services. Sick and disabled people can and do make huge contributions to society. This does not have to be purely based on their ability to make money. Voluntary work and caring is vital for the economy but isn’t paid. For some “making work pay” will not improve their life chances, opportunities and finances. These people deserve to be better supported.
The third ‘Harrington Report’ revealed that just 9% of people expected to recover within twelve months had found work eighteen months later. The support to get people back to work isn’t working. Less than 1.5% of disabled people referred to the Work Programme had found employment.
We are certain that you are already aware of the failings of the fitness to work test, and the increasing numbers of recorded deaths resulting from the loss of income and stress. The fear of the Atos envelope landing on the doorstep is real. When people know that they are not going to have a fair and honest assessment that takes the opinions of their doctors and consultants into account they feel frustrated, helpless and terrified.
Over 330,000 people have been forced to appeal a decision they believe to be wrong. 40% of these are overturned, rising to 70-80% with specialist advice. The government is removing legal aid to make obtaining legal advice at the tribunal stage even more difficult, and we can only presume that it is a cynical attempt to deter people from appealing rather than fixing a broken system.
Under clause 99 of the Welfare Reform Act sick people could be forced onto Jobseekers Allowance whilst potentially waiting many months for the DWP to reconsider a challenge to a decision. These changes are going to have a huge impact on people’s lives. It is insufficient and dismissive of government ministers to blame Labour for introducing Employment and Support Allowance and to complain that they have inherited a flawed assessment process. This is an unacceptable defence for a serious failure.
We want a reassurance that the current fitness to work test will be scrapped and replaced with a credible medical assessment carried out by medical professionals who are allowed to apply their discretionary judgement based on their medical expertise. People feel they are being ‘tricked’ by confusing forms, tick box assessments and an impossibly narrow set of descriptors which excludes severe and enduring illness from the support group. Assessment recordings should be made available to all who request them to reassure people that the face to face tests are above-board.
People will and do work when they are well and able and appropriately supported. Battling illness and battling the current benefits system for some, unfortunately, is simply too much to cope with.
Universal Credit is yet an untested system of delivering benefits but the uncertainty surrounding it is causing a great deal of worry and confusion. Contributory ESA is excluded but the means tested component is not. Some people receive an element of both.
Hundreds of thousands of sick people have lost and will lose all of their Employment and Support Allowance after 365 days because they have a working partner, regardless of whether they are recovered or not. This arbitrary cut is penalising working families and proves that the government’s aim was to cut the budget and not to support sick people back to work. Without access to specialist employment advice they will be further excluded and isolated from the workplace.
We learn that in Merseyside alone the cost of the new “bedroom tax” to social tenants will be £16 million annually. What is most disturbing is that three-quarters of the households include a disabled person. Depending on the locality some people will be asked to pay council tax from their disability benefit incomes.
The government promised vulnerable people that “they had nothing to fear” and that “disability benefits are being protected” but Coalition MPs voted to cap the annual benefit rise of Employment and Support Allowance at 1%. This also includes the support group as only the disability premium is excluded from the cap. With food prices expected to rise above 5% this year sick and disabled people will struggle to buy the basic necessities. Many, including households with disabled children, are already having to cancel hospital appointments due to transport costs, take out loans to buy essentials and are choosing whether to heat their homes or buy groceries.
Local authorities are being forced to cut back massively on the care and support services they deliver to vulnerable people. The charity Scope report a funding gap of £1.2billion for adult social care. 40% of disabled people who require care are saying that their basic needs are not being met.
Disability living allowance is being replaced by the personal independence payment and the ‘goalposts’ are being moved so that by 2018, 600,000 fewer disabled people will be entitled to the benefit as would have received DLA. This is another arbitrary cut as changing the eligibility will not change the disability. Just because someone is ‘less disabled’ than another doesn’t mean that they don’t require the additional support to allow them to stay in work, maintain their dignity, be independent and have an equal chance in life as their peers. 100,000 disabled people are expecting to lose their mobility vehicles because they can move a mere 20 metres. Not even the length of the Commons floor. How is this “supporting disabled people”?
The cumulative impact of these cuts and changes, inadequate social care, along with many others such as the cuts to Children’s Disability Premiums under Universal Credit, the scrapping of Independent Living Fund for disabled adults who live alone, closure of day-care centres, degradation of mental health services, NHS services, amongst others, is too much to bear.
- We would like to know how Labour intends to correct the injustices sick and disabled people are currently having to cope with under the policies implemented by the Coalition government?
- What reforms to the welfare system does Labour have planned?
- Will Labour scrap and replace the Work Capability Assessment with an objective and trustworthy medical test?
- How do you plan to support those disabled people who have lost work through the Remploy closures?
We would like to thank you for considering our concerns and we look forward to your response. Our hope is that we can co-operate together for a better and fairer future for all sick and disabled people in the UK.
The WOW petition team
We call for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of Welfare Reform, and a New Deal for sick & disabled people based on their needs, abilities and ambitions
Responsible department: Department for Work and Pensions
We call for:
A Cumulative Impact Assessment of all cuts and changes affecting sick & disabled people, their families and carers, and a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act.
An immediate end to the Work Capability Assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association.
Consultation between the Depts of Health & Education to improve support into work for sick & disabled people, and an end to forced work under threat of sanctions for people on disability benefits.
An Independent, Committee-Based Inquiry into Welfare Reform, covering but not limited to: (1) Care home admission rises, daycare centres, access to education for people with learning difficulties, universal mental health treatments, Remploy closures; (2) DWP media links, the ATOS contract, IT implementation of Universal Credit; (3) Human rights abuses against disabled people, excess claimant deaths & the disregard of medical evidence in decision making by ATOS, DWP & the Tribunal Service.