Sunday, 16 January 2011

This is not the time for insubstantial opposition, Labour

The government proposals to reform Disability Living Allowance are extremely worrying. They've been strongly condemned by numerous disability rights groups and charities. There is a petition to Maria Miller MP, the government minister responsible for the consultation, asking for the proposals to be withdrawn, which you might be interested in signing.

What's also worrying is that Labour, as the main "opposition" party, doesn't seem to be doing much to actually oppose these changes. There have been a couple of ministerial statements about some of the details, but the broad proposal to reform DLA - and significantly reduce eligibility - seems to be being accepted by Labour, with Douglas Alexander MP (the Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions) stating that:

Labour’s position is clear: we want to work with the government to reform Disability Living Allowance and introduce a new gateway as set out in the Budget.

I've written the following letter to my MP to try to get Labour to oppose the plans, or at least to find out why they aren't already doing so.

As usual, feel free to modify it for your own MP if you want, though this one more than most of my letters is very much written for a Labour MP, and would need considerable modification for tone to be suitable for a coalition MP.

You can write to your MP online using Write To Them.

Dear [MP]

The Department of Work and Pensions are currently running a consultation on the Disability Living Allowance, proposing to replace it with a "Personal Independence Payment". While the DLA system is flawed, the coalition government's proposals will make the situation even worse.

The proposal is based on flawed assumptions, claiming that the award of DLA discourages people from working. While there is a correlation between low employment and receiving DLA, this hardly implies causation. People with disabilities are both likely to receive DLA and less likely to be employed due to either the nature of their disabilities making many forms of employment impossible, and/or a refusal by employers to make the necessary adaptations and other discrimination in the workplace. Concluding from this that DLA contributes towards unemployment is absurd.

The consultation claims in paragraph 14 of Chapter 1 onwards that DLA is "not fit for purpose", but nowhere in the following paragraphs is it explained why. Instead, statements are made to imply this. Here, the real purpose of the reform becomes obvious. Paragraphs 14 and 15 note that receipt of DLA has expanded considerably since its introduction, but why this is a bad thing is not explained.

Their aim, as other public statements by government ministers have made clear, is to reduce the number of people receiving disability benefits. They have stated that one of the aims is to reduce the number of people claiming disability benefits by around 25%. They have put forward no evidence, however, that the people in this 25% - over half a million people in total - do not need the support that DLA provides. Meanwhile, the fraud rate for DLA is the lowest of any benefit.

We can therefore conclude that the people currently receiving DLA have a genuine need for it. To introduce a new scheme that would leave up to a quarter of them without the money they need to lead their lives is a cruel decision, made with thought only for the bottom line and not for the people who will be affected, many of whom will have to give up their jobs, or their homes, or their independence, if their DLA is removed.

This fits with the general pattern of this coalition government so far, cutting vital services not because it is necessary but because their ideology demands it. This proposal, targeting people with disabilities, is particularly insiduous, because of the increased barriers to participation in the democratic process, through lobbying or protest, that many of them face.

It is clear that they intend to make the assessment for the "Personal Independence Payment" considerably harsher than that for DLA, which itself has been criticised for being too restrictive in its criteria.

There are additional cut-backs in the document, such as the removal of mobility allowance for those in publicly-funded hospitals or care homes (but not from those rich enough to afford private treatment - a reverse means-test), or the inclusion of assistive technology in an assessment of eligibility when the benefit may be necessary to afford that equipment in the first place.

Could you state whether you will personally oppose any reforms to disability benefits which are intended to reduce eligibility and so leave hundreds of thousands unable to afford basic necessities, and whether the Labour party, as the main opposition to the coalition government, intends to present a united opposition to these plans?

Yours sincerely,

(I am, of course, indebted to sites such as Where's the Benefit?, The Broken of Britain and One Month Before Heartbreak for much of the information used when writing the letter)