A fresh propaganda offensive against disabled rights

With the government still apparently willing to make sick, disabled and vulnerable people pay for a financial slump brought about by greed, de-regulation and speculation, the press-mediated propaganda assault has begun ahead of the next House of Lords debate on welfare reform (17 January).

Unsurprisingly it is the Daily Mail and the Sun who are leading the charge, with almost identical stories backing the Welfare Reform Bill - complemented by a somewhat half-hearted attempt at joining the anti-Disability Living Allowance lobby by ex-MP Paul Goodman in the Guardian. Expect more to follow.

Thankfully the #spartacusreport campaign has been adept at using social media, reaching beyond the limits of the conventional kind, to make millions aware and mobilise thousands into important actions ranging from petitioning to lobbying. Mind, the mental health charity, is today encouraging people to 'tweet to defeat' the government.

"The Government is planning to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP). We have serious concerns about the impact this may have on people with mental health problems," says Mind, before adding: "It’s vital that as many Peers as possible turn out to vote on the DLA reforms on Tuesday. Conservative Peers are unlikely to vote against the Government’s proposals so we are focusing our efforts on Liberal Democrat, Labour and Crossbench Peers."

More on that in a moment. But back to tabloid mendacity first. The basic charge in both the Sun and Daily Mail on 16 January is that "shock figures" show "claimants will soar by 1,000 every WEEK to 3.5million by 2015 unless there is urgent reform" (Sun). Except that no actual evidence is provided for this speculative claim. It's a guess hazarded on the back of unspecified figures, rather like the "hundreds of millions overspend" DWP claims.

And it gets worse. Already, we are told, "the number on DLA has TREBLED" (they like these shouty capitals) from 1.1million at its launch in 1992." Except that an increase from 1.1 million to 2.1 million isn't a trebling. It isn't even a doubling if you do your maths with any precision. And it is accounted for not by armies of "scroungers" (as many tabloid hacks like to characterise disabled and sick people) but by hard demographics - the reality of an ageing population and greater life-expectancy, where an increasing percentage of people naturally have to face additional physical and mental health challenges as they grow older. All the reason to care and share more, surely?

Even Sun and Mail hacks may join the ranks of the unwell/disabled old eventually, at which point one hopes they might receive some actual sympathy and support from the other 59 million or so (at a ratio rather higher than 17 to 1), even though they have sought to deny this to today's sufferers.

The distortions do not stop there, of course. They go on: the assertion that getting DLA is a doddle (the evidence of advisors and claimants suggests otherwise); the insinuation that if 70 per cent of those receiving the allowance are continuous recipients they must somehow be fiddling (rather than having permanent disabling conditions that aren't simply going to go away with more costly and intrusive assessment); the dramatic claim that "thousands can get DLA without seeing a doctor" (a very small percentage indeed, in other words, not without scrutiny, and entirely because their conditions are so manifest); the statement that "more will get the highest payments under the new PIP system" (without pointing out that a far greater number will lose out relatively or absolutely).

You can get up to £125 a week on Disability Living Allowance, trumpet the Mail and the Sun... as if this was a sinecure. "Yes," one disabled person has responded to the Mail. "That would be the amount if (a) you cannot walk or are virtually unable to walk, and (b) you need constant care throughout the day and for prolonged periods at night. I know. Life of Riley, eh?"

Meanwhile, there is, of course, no mention in these 'attack articles' that the fraud rate on DLA is just 0.5 per cent according to official DWP figures. Or that the billions of pounds in unclaimed benefits is actually above the total price of DLA. Or that the cost of being disabled is significantly higher than being non-disabled in our society, thus the need for assistance. Or that the government has announced a 20 per cent cut before the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) system is even introduced (suggesting that its priorities may be other than ensuring support). Or that Work Capability Assessment (WCA) has been found to be wrong in up to 40 per cent of cases as well as flawed and degrading in a whole series of others, leading to record appeals - 70 per cent of which are upheld.

One could go on. This continuing disinformation campaign, which is hardly likely to be free of input from government spin, is deplorable, of course. But then, as the #spartacusreport, 'Responsible Reform', shows in considerable detail, the public consultation around DLA - which will be discussed in the Lords this week - has been little short of what one campaigner understandably called "a sham". Some 74 per cent of the expert respondents from 500 charitable, medical and other organisations opposed the government's DLA propsals overall, with up to 98 per cent (including Boris Johnson) disagreeing over one or more specific major provision. The DWP failed to reveal this until a Freedom of Information request and a huge Twitter campaign outed them.

Given these tactics, it is perhaps no surprise, then, that Lord Freud found himself in an "information pickle" and "data deficit" situation in the Lords debate last week, before recovering politically (rather than morally) to sneak through a late procedural motion when no-one was looking in order to overturn the first of his unprecedented three defeats -- the one rejecting the government’s plans to cut non-means tested support for disabled people who have never been able to work, and thus have no National Insurance contributions.

The issue here is effectively taking away the capacity for independent living from severely disabled people. No small matter, whichever way you look at it, though no doubt below the 'significance radar' of tabloid poodles.

Curiously, as Daniel Elton astutely pointed out, this particular disgrace is compounded by the fact that one of the ministers concerned appears not to know what is going on with key aspects of his reforms.

On BBC Newsnight on 13 January 2012, Chris Grayling claimed that under government proposals, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) would not be means tested for those who have never been and will never be able to work. This is not so. Otherwise Lord Freud's "dirty trick" (as it has been described) to maintain the Welfare Reform Bill's status quo would not have been necessary.

People working for proper reform of the welfare system in the interests of those disabled by society are hoping that further humane amendments can now be made to the Welfare Reform Bill, and most of all they are seeking a responsible legislative pause to facilitate better proposals founded on a decent evidence base. They may not have the DWP or certain tabloid editors on their side, but it is heartening to see that journalists like Sonia Poulton are able to get an alternative message across, even in the Mail. Meanwhile, the 'Sparticii' (as 'Responsible Reform' co-author Sue Marsh calls them) have their work cut out again in the face of considerable political and media odds. That means all of us who care, and who can do something.

One of the things we can do is take up the Mind 'tweet to defeat' idea, building on last week's work. If you use Twitter, say the charity's supporters, you can help by tweeting at Peers (and other decision-makers and influencers) with one or more of the following messages:

* Disabled people need to access support asap. Pls vote for amendments 51-54 on qualifying period for PIP, 17 Jan #ttd

* Those on DLA shld not be reassessed until we know that PIP is working. Pls vote for amendment 50AA on 17 Jan #ttd

* #SpartacusReport shows changes to DLA have not been properly scrutinised – need a six month delay to revise reforms #ttd

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, and a supporter of the #spartacusreport produced by sick and disabled people themselves. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/spartacusreport Download the report: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA

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