A prime minister who talks about caring for his disabled son is about to unleash a new wave of benefit cuts on Britain’s most vulnerable people. People like Paula
George Osborne won’t have a clue who Paula Peters is, but he has shaped the past five years of her life. And when the chancellor delivers his emergency budget in parliament early next month, he should look up to the public gallery. He may well see Paula staring back at him.
As a disabled woman, she’s among those most hurt most by Osborne’s cuts. Now she wishes to hear for herself what the cabinet’s going to do to her next.
I want you to hear Paula’s story precisely because it is not the one David Cameron would have you believe. As the prime minister tells it, he’s a champion of the rights of disabled people. He has talked about how the strain of caring for his own severely disabled son, Ivan, almost led to his family “falling apart” I have no wish to doubt Cameron’s sincerity – but this month he will scrap the independent living fund, a small pot of cash that allows very disabled people to live in their own homes and communities. Without it, people with similar conditions to Ivan will become prisoners in their own homes, or shut away in a residential care facility.
During the election campaign, the Conservative leader promised that “the most disabled should always be protected”. Yet the Centre for Welfare Reform calculates that his austerity programme has so far hit Britons with disabilities nine times harder than the average. Those with severe disabilities were whacked 19 times harder. And now those same people are about to be devastated all over again.
I met Paula at the end of last week, a couple of days after Cameron refused to rule out further cuts to disability benefits. The 43-year-old has a range of health problems, physical and mental – among them rheumatoid arthritis, which accounted for her swollen hands and the chipped walking cane. Rapid-cycling bipolar disorder makes her prey to vertiginous mood swings. “Up, down, up, down: you want to get off the rollercoaster but you can’t. Your mind won’t quieten down.”
In 2010 Cameron and Osborne trained their sights on people like Paula, thanks to a chain of three choices. First, they chose to try to wipe out the deficit, rather than spur growth. Second, they chose to do this not by raising taxes, but almost solely by spending cuts. Finally, ministers decided they had to slash welfare, but couldn’t take money off pensioners – all that inevitably meant hacking back support for children, or people with disabilities.
What that’s brought for Paula is a profound anxiety about how much money she has to live on. In an attempt to bring down the bill for disability benefits, Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary in charge of welfare, commissioned the private firm Atos to test every single claimant of employment and support allowance, the successor to incapacity benefit. Paula has been through two such tests in two years, each time seized with worry about what happens if she “fails”.
“It gets to the point where you’re frightened of the thud of the postman coming up your path,” she says. “You’re fearful of a brown envelope, in case it’s from the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions]. You’re fearful of a white envelope in case it’s from Atos.” The worry got so much that once she was admitted to the local psychiatric unit, where staff were warned not even to mention benefits in front of her.
Some have been less resilient. A friend of Paula, also suffering with bipolar, received a letter saying that she’d been paid too much in benefits. This was early in the austerity regime, when the lexicon of “skivers and strivers” was still new and shocking. The friend told others that she wasn’t able to cope with the stress. A few days later, she threw herself under a train, leaving behind three small children. “She’s not the only friend I’ve lost; this government’s got blood on its hands.”
So far Paula has kept her benefits. But she observes that they’ve barely risen in five years, while the price of food and energy has shot up. Sometimes she goes without eating. The Wednesday before we met passed without a single meal.
It’s not just benefit cuts that have hurt disabled people – it’s the drying up of public services and funds for care packages, or the difficulties in getting home adaptations and equipment. And, says Paula, it’s the suspicion from politicians and the public.
Official statistics show hate crimes against people with disabilities have been rising year on year since 2011. Some of this must be the responsibility of the government, and what Paula calls its “horrible rhetoric”. She was on the bus a couple of years ago, coming back from hospital when a man spotted her mobility aid and jeered: “I bet you’re one of those spongers.” Not a single passenger spoke up. “I couldn’t leave the house for a week after that.”
Of each £100 spent on benefits, only 70p is fraudulently claimed. Yet Tory MPs still talk of people claiming disability benefits as a lifestyle choice. Some lifestyle. “You try living with chronic pain and tiredness, with throwing up in the toilet, or bowel incontinence when it gets bad, with feeling like shit every day,” says Paula. And the same Tories who talk about getting disabled people working cut funding for the Access to Work programme that supports them at work.
read the rest of this article in the Guardian here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/08/cameron-disabled-champion-paula-peters-cuts-most-vulnerable?CMP=share_btn_fb