Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has been ridiculed for delivering a major speech about his sweeping welfare reforms, without mentioning the disastrous impact that many of the changes are having on disabled people.
Duncan Smith spoke of how the social security system had “created a growing underclass” and caused “social breakdown”, and claimed that every programme he had introduced had been ”targeted at supporting the hardest to help into work”.
He told the Institute of Directors about his Work Programme, which he said was “helping more of the long-term unemployed than any programme before”; the reassessment of 1.3 million incapacity benefit claimants for the new employment and support allowance (ESA); and the imposition of the new benefit cap.
He also discussed the removal of the spare room subsidy – otherwise known as the “bedroom tax” – and the introduction of universal credit, his attempt to simplify large parts of the benefits system.
But Duncan Smith mentioned “disability” or “disabled people” just once in his 5,000-word speech, which came just one day before a coroner ruled that a disabled woman, Stephanie Bottrill, had killed herself, apparently driven partly by anxiety over the “bedroom tax”.
There was no mention by Duncan Smith of the delays and backlogs that have marked the introduction of the new personal independence payment (PIP), or the continuing problems with the ESA system, which has its own backlog of 700,000 claimants awaiting assessment.
Less than two months ago, Duncan Smith admitted in a Commons debate that the huge delays facing thousands of disabled people applying for PIP were “unacceptable”.
In the same debate, he was told by Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, that he had “presided over disaster and chaos” and that his department was “on the brink of meltdown”.
Duncan Smith also omitted to mention in this week’s speech the defeat he faced in the court of appeal last year over the decision to close the Independent Living Fund.
And he failed to mention another ruling by the court of appeal, which found last December that the work capability assessment (WCA) – which tests eligibility for ESA – placed people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism at a “substantial disadvantage”.
He also ignored concerns over his “bedroom tax”, which the Commons work and pensions committee said earlier this year was causing “severe financial hardship and distress” to disabled people, who could do nothing to avoid its impact.
Duncan Smith said there were now 130,000 fewer people on out-of-work disability benefits than at the 2010 general election, but he failed to mention that only five per cent of people in the work-related activity group of ESA had found jobs through the Work Programme.
In June, user-led research concluded that the back-to-work support provided to disabled people on ESA actually pushes them further away from the job market.
The report, Fulfilling Potential? ESA and the Fate of the Work-Related Activity Group, dismantled the claims of politicians like Duncan Smith who insist that “welfare dependency” is the main barrier to work, a claim he made again in this week’s speech.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the Disabled People Against Cuts steering group, said the speech was “yet another example of the complete absence of evidence and reason from policy-making under this government”.
She said: “While the secretary of state continues to spin the lie that welfare reform is about reducing dependency on benefits, in-work poverty and the need to top up low wages with social security is soaring.
“Disabled people are not being supported into employment, but they are being denied vital income, leading to tragic cases such as that of Mark Woods [a disabled man who starved to death after being found fit for work and having his ESA and housing benefit removed].
“The fall in unemployment is not due to the success of welfare reform but to the rise of zero hour contracts and insecure employment that is unsuitable for disabled people.
“So-called reforms are actively pushing disabled people out of employment, through for example changes to Access to Work and the closure of the Independent Living Fund.
“The Tories have reduced the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to a state of utter chaos and devastated the lives of countless disabled people. That’s the truth they will never admit.”
Michelle Maher, from the WOWcampaign, said Duncan Smith’s speech was “playing to a crowd who have bought the rhetoric of welfare scroungers”.
She said: “He makes no mention of the thousands of sick, disabled people and carers surviving on no support with backlogs of ESA and PIP reaching nearly a million.”
Maher said the “absence of truth” in the speech was “something sadly we have come to expect from a minister constantly chastised by the Office for National Statistics for misuse of data”, while there had been “no mention of the suffering, stress and humiliation he has created”.
She said: “Why tell the truth when spin and lies pour from him so easily, painting a false picture which masks his failures at the DWP.”
Rick Burgess, co-founder of the new campaigning organisation New Approach, which is dedicated to scrapping the WCA and developing a replacement, added: “As IDS is the secretary of state and therefore the senior democratically-elected politician dealing with disabled people, this shows that the political class in Westminster have neither the desire or will to treat disabled people with any respect.”
He said the only opposition was among grassroots activists because “the big parties and big charities seem not to wish to understand the lethally aggressive nature of this political programme of persecution”, while advances in disabled people’s human rights “have been all but removed while a compliant media continue the libellous scrounger hate speech”.
Burgess suggested that disabled people would have to appeal to the United Nations for “intervention and humanitarian protection” from Duncan Smith’s government.
Labour’s Kate Green said Duncan Smith was failing to acknowledge the “negative impact his policies are having on thousands of disabled people and their families who are being left without sufficient support”.
She said: “PIP delays are beyond a year and the universal credit backlog is beyond a joke.
“Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t address disabled people in his speeches because he is still trapped in the shirkers versus workers mantra that has damaged our social security system.
“Ministers need to acknowledge the breadth of the problems their policies have caused before those issues will be seriously addressed.”