My heart sinks each time another cut to the welfare budget is announced. First the universal credit, then the disability living allowance, the bedroom tax and now the fiasco about introducing the universal credit.
The announcements of welfare cuts come thick and fast and we can easily fall into the trap of accepting the logic that welfare cuts are necessary if we are ever to climb out of recession. It is surprising how easily we have bought into austerity and saddening how we have tolerated cuts in the living standards of the poorest and least able in the community.
In the last month, applications for discretionary housing relief, as a result of the bedroom tax, are up 500% in Gateshead, North Tyneside and Northumberlnad. The numbers become meaningless.
And then something happens that challenges my resignation. I receive an email from a friend asking me to support his petition to Ian Duncan Smith to change his mind about closing the Independent Living Fund.
The Fund supports 20,000 people with severe disabilities to enable them to live in the community. It pays for carers who support their clients with dressing, toileting, eating and getting out, which most of us would regard as our basic human rights.
The recipients include paralympians, actors, TV presenters, chief executives, a life peer and two stand up comedians ( according to Independent journalist Laurence Clark who relies on ILF himself). They also include Anna Worsley, who is my friend’s niece.
Mike is extremely proud of his 40 year old niece. Since her family organized a care package for her in 1997, which involves day care facilities, respite care, disability living allowance and the independent living fund, life for Anna has been much enriched. She is well known and liked in her community.
Anna’s father died in 1997 and Mike is convinced that the years battling to achieve the life style for which Anna was entitled shortened his life. I mention this in the context of the Royal College of General Practitioners report last week that carers neglect their own health and are more likely to suffer depression.
Anna’s mother is now 67 and on medication for depression. She has lived through three years of bad news and dubious consultations about the future of welfare benefits for people with severe disabilities. She now faces reassessment of Anna’s condition for benefit purposes. All this at a stage in life when Helen sees her friends retiring, whilst she is taking on more responsibility for Anna.
As expected, government consultation showed that the majority of ILF users were opposed to the ending of the Fund because it threatened their livelihood. The government claims to have ‘listened’ to their concerns but has pressed ahead regardless.
Last month, five ILF users lost their judicial review in the Royal Court of Justice, that the consultation process was flawed. The judges ruled that the minister had properly considered the facts and reached a decision to close the Fund. The appellants were baffled by the judgment and will appeal. They were not present as the court room was not accessible to wheelchairs users.
The Department of Work and Pensions had always maintained that ILF was being handed over to local authorities so that all welfare payments were dealt with locally. In the course of the appeal, the Department was forced to admit that the money was no longer available and that the benefit would end in 2015. In other words, what had been described as a reform was in reality a welfare cut.
Many ILF users will no longer be able to live at home because ageing parents not be able to cope without the additional support. The cost of ILF is £320m and the comparable cost of residential provision is bound to be much higher.
Where does this leave Mike, his sister Helen and Anna? They feel as if years of battling for a decent life for Anna are coming to an abrupt end; that her quality of life will deteriorate and that the strain on her family will increase
They feel as if they are shouting into a void. Two articulate people with campaigning skills feel helpless to do anything about a politicians decisions and a high court judgment.
People with learning disabilities do not have a voice or political muscle. They are an unseen community. Most parents and carers will suffer in silence. Their unpaid work is estimated to save the taxpayer £119bn a year.
The severely disabled are a curious object of government ire. They cannot be accused of being scroungers and skivers. The costs involved are low compared to other welfare costs – the largest welfare beneficiaries are the elderly – and much less than the £1bn on tax reliefs for the nannies of high tax payers.
It doesn’t make sense. The ILF users have been caught in the Coalition’s passion to cut back on welfare dependency and make people stand on their feet. None of the party manifestos before the last election was committed to clawing back benefits from the severely disabled.
There is little public sympathy for the learned disabled. As Mike puts it, “ Even friends don’t get it”. And there is something horribly populist about the welfare cuts which are vote winners and greeted with glee in the Daily Mail.
It was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Lord Beveridge last week and, in a small hilltop church in Northumberland, the Archbishop of York remembered his work in protecting us against the giant evils of the day. What a coup for the local vicar, Mike Slade, by the way.
What would Beveridge make of the way we are now victimizing the most vulnerable in our society and taking away hard fought benefits that have improved their quality of life? Is this the kind of future that we want for ourselves?
It is time to make the case for welfare; that in a humane society we should look after those unable to do so even if at a personal cost to ourselves.
If you feel the abolition of ILF is a step too far, please sign Mike Worthington’s petition at http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/ian-duncan-smith-rescind-the-decision-to-end-the-independent-living-fund-ilf.
George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene http://www.shepherdsdene.co.uk