The Real Impact of “Welfare Reform”
During my years as MP for Bristol South I have supported thousands of constituents trying to deal with a very wide range of personal issues, from impending eviction to delays in medical treatment, benefit delays to immigration problems.
In recent months however one type of casework impacting on one particular part of our community has grown dramatically. The issue is delays in the payment of state benefits and that part of our community is ill and disabled people.
For most of us, most of the time, we do not have to rely on help from the Government to pay our bills or feed our families. Often we read stories in the local or national media of “scroungers”, seeking to fraudulently exploit the system and get “something for nothing”. But what if the worst does happen and we fall ill or have an accident, surely the support is there for the genuine claimant?
In 2012 the Welfare Reform Act became law, some of the measures in the Act are well known, such as the Bedroom Tax. Others however have not attracted such attention but have had an even more significant impact, such as the introduction of Personal Independence Payments or PIP.
On paper, PIPs may seem like a good idea, replacing the old Disability Living Allowance with a new payment for the long term disabled who need extra money for care and mobility needs. An interview is required before an assessment of whether the claimant qualifies for the money, which can be up to around £550 a month – not a King’s ransom but a significant sum. Importantly PIP is also payable to those in work, and often used to help pay for additional travel or other employment related costs.
But the Government’s implementation of PIPs has been chaotic and incompetent. They appointed the private company ATOS to undertake assessment interviews in our region, who then subcontracted them to other private companies. Inadequately trained staff without the knowledge of complex medical problems have been undertaking the assessments with the inevitable mistakes and delays.
Instead of the process from claim to payment taking a maximum of 13 weeks, some cases have dragged on for 8 months or more. For many people living in Bristol South this has meant mounting debts, turning the heating down or seeking help from a foodbank at a time when they are trying to deal with being very ill or disabled.
When you consider that 60% of those affected by the aforementioned Bedroom Tax are also disabled and that there are even worse delays in the payment of another benefit, Employment Support Allowance, it appears that this Government is deliberately targeting a very vulnerable section of our community.
None of which reaches the headlines of the newspapers or BBC News. Ill and disabled people have little political power and don’t have the ear of rich media owners.
The next time you read a lurid headline about scroungers, remember that you might be the person who needs help next time. I am very pleased that Labour has pledged to scrap the Bedroom Tax and is reviewing all policies affecting disabled people. For many the next General Election cannot come soon enough.