A leading disability campaigner, author of a hard-hitting new report on Disability Living Allowance reform, says government consultation on 'disastrous' welfare changes has now been shown to be 'a sham'.
The report 'Responsible Reform', published today (9 January 2012) finds that government has misled MPs and peers over the hostility to disability benefit reform.
It is being presented to parliament as members of the Houses of Commons and Lords return to Westminster to debate the final stages of the controversial Welfare Reform Bill.
'Responsible Reform' is based on the responses to the government's own consultation on its planned DLA reforms, which were only made public once disabled people requested them under the Freedom of Information Act.
Among the report's key conclusions are that:
* Only seven per cent of organisations that took part in the consultation were fully in support of plans to replace DLA with a Personal Independence Payment (PIP)
* There was overwhelming opposition in the consultation responses to nearly all of the government's proposals for DLA reform
* The government has consistently used inaccurate figures to exaggerate the rise in DLA claimants
* The report shows that nearly all of the recent increase in working-age claimants of DLA has been associated with mental health conditions and learning difficulties. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of working-age DLA claimants - excluding those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties remained remarkably stable
* 98 per cent of those who responded opposed plans to change the qualifying period for PIP from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months
* 90 per cent opposed plans for a new assessment, which disabled people fear will be far too similar to the much-criticised work capability assessment used to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA)
* Respondents to the consultation repeatedly warned that the government's plans could breach the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
London's Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, has also objected to the proposed changes, creating unwelcome publicity and political embarassment for David Cameron's Conservative-Liberal Democrat government.
Co-author of 'Responsible Reform', Sue Marsh, writes in the Guardian newspaper: "As we point out, social security is not an abstract term. It is often, literally, the security to live in society with the same inherent freedoms that anyone might enjoy. Politicians made emphatic statements pledging to support the most vulnerable, all the while arguing for policies that would make them more vulnerable still. They assured the public that changes were being made in consultation with disabled people, yet ignored our concerns at every stage. We see this lack of regard for the views of disabled people in David Cameron's comment on Tourette's. It is this ignorance that seems to underpin the entire bill."
She continues: "As the months passed, the voices of sick and disabled people grew stronger. Every day, hundreds of new supporters read our research and joined our campaign. They were not the feckless, needy and incapable portrayed to the public, but scientists, statisticians, researchers, lawyers and writers."
"It became clear that if we didn't oppose these plans ourselves, no one was going to do it for us. Politicians were united over the need for reform, and unwilling to speak for us. The media either ignored our struggle or discredited us with ever wilder rounds of 'scrounger' headlines, creating a climate of fear and prejudice," she writes.
"We attended political conferences and welfare forums yet still politicians refused to engage with us. Last October, the government published a final impact assessment into DLA reform that was almost identical to the original. The overwhelming opposition of disabled people had been entirely ignored," declares Ms Marsh.
Chancellosr George Osborne announced in his emergency budget in June 2010 that there would be a 20 per cent cut in Disability Living Allowance. Later, in his comprehensive spending review, he limited sickness benefits to just one year, halved tax credits for disabled children, scrapped the Independent Living Fund and severe disability premiums, slashed local authority care budgets, changed housing allowances and threatening the homes of disabled and vulnerable people, critics point out.
The new report has already been backed by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and disability experts including Disability Alliance, Mind, Papworth Trust, Scope, and the thinktank Ekklesia, along with Sir Bert Massie CBE.
Simon Barrow, Co-Director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "This is an excellent piece of research. There remains a gaping chasm between the government's rhetoric about maintaining support for disabled people and the actual evidence about the impact of the changes and cuts it is imposing. The voices of those at the sharp end are not being listened to in a way that shapes policy. The concepts of justice dignity and social solidarity are being eroded and replaced with a piecemeal approach to provision which sees care as essentially voluntary."
Ms Marsh, a disabled blogger and activist who led the research, alongside Dr Sarah J Campbell, said: "For some years now, poorly designed Social Security reforms have created a 'trust deficit' among disabled people towards government.
"We believe that reform must be measured, responsible and transparent, based on available evidence and designed with disabled people at the very heart of decision-making. Currently, we do not believe this to be the case.
"While disabled people welcome reform of DLA where it will simplify the system and better support their needs, they do not want a new benefit. They believe it is a costly irrelevance during a time of austerity.
"We urge members of the House of Lords - across party political boundaries - to take note of this research and the strength of opposition to the proposals. It is not too late for them to halt these deeply damaging reforms," concluded Ms Marsh.
* The full report, 'Responsible Reform' is being made available online at Ekklesia and elsewhere. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA 
* The Guardian article by Sue Marsh, 'Disabled people listened to on welfare plans? It's a goverernment sham' -
* Press release here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16008 
* Show your support by tweeting with the hashtag #spartacusreport and use that tag to follow what is going on
* DLA coverage from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/disabilitylivingallowance