Betraying disabled people and welfare


This short research paper maps out the contours of a revolution in Britain’s benefits and welfare system. But the evidence Karen McAndrew examines and evaluates indicates that, far from enabling and supporting sick and disabled people, the changes and cuts the UK government is making – disguised by a superficial rhetoric of compassion and empowerment, and eased by ungrounded prejudices stoked in sections of the media – are causing real harm and destroying the fabric of national care and genuine opportunity. Putting human impact centre stage, this paper sets out disturbing evidence that disabled people are being betrayed, the public misled, and the welfare system endangered. Here is yet more indication that the ‘Big Society’ is punishing the most vulnerable and eschewing social justice, by making cuts and implementing an inadequate patchwork of policies whereby under-resourced voluntarism cannot substitute for official, statutory neglect.

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Benjamin Franklin [1]

Introduction: a harmful revolution

There is a ‘revolution’ going on in Britain, but not in the way Employment Minister Chris Grayling has recently claimed, not always in a visible way – and most definitely not of the kind where those at the bottom of the heap come out on top. Quite the reverse. Consider these developments:

* The removal of people from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). [2]

* The time Limiting of ESA which is to be applied retrospectively.

* The replacement of the Personal Capability Assessment (PCA) with the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) – which has been described by many at the sharp end as ‘unfit for purpose’.

* The cutting the mobility component of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for those in care homes. [3]

* The abolition of DLA, which is to be replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) in 2013/14. [4]

* The abolition of the Independent Living Fund. [5]

* The scrapping of Legal Aid [6] for all welfare benefits matters, and the massive cuts for funding / closures hitting Community Law Centres. [7]

On top of this, we are seeing changes to work programmes, eligibility, housing entitlement, care packages, work guidelines, education provision and hospital care, and cuts to local council budgets for social care and so on – meaning that they will be unable to step in to cover the shortfall left by all these other changes. [8]

The reality is that the current welfare state system is crumbling, and it is only going to get worse as the cuts begin to hit real people and real communities, and as more and more services are privatised. This amounts to a crisis.

1. Media misrepresentations, fraud allegations

How can this be allowed to happen? An extremely important factor in this scenario is the powerful negative influence of defamatory press articles claiming or implying that sick and disabled are mostly “benefit scroungers”, “workshy” and otherwise unworthy recipients of assistance. There has been a continuous drip-feed of such articles over many months and it has biased many people against those on welfare benefits. A good number of these media allegations have been based on inaccurate or skewed statistics, often based on material from the Department of Work and Pensions.

Worryingly, disability hate crime has simultaneously increased. Anne Novis MBE, a leading activist, has submitted evidence on 68 violent deaths of disabled people – and more than 500 other potential disability hate crimes – to a major national inquiry into disability-related harassment. In addition, accusations of huge numbers of fraudulent claims abound. [9]

In fact, the latest available figures from the DWP state that the fraud rate for Incapacity benefit is just 0.5 per cent. The fraud rate for Disability Living Allowance is also just 0.5 per cent, meaning that 99.5 per cent of claimants are not fraudulent. They have the lowest level of fraud of all in relation to welfare benefits. It should be noted that the figures for official error for both benefits are actually higher than the level of fraud, at 1.7 per cent for Incapacity Benefit and 0.8 per cent for DLA. [10]

Despite these manifest facts, the misleading and malicious press articles continue. In December 2010 The Secretary of State himself, in an interview with the Sun, actually seemed to blame the deficit on ‘scroungers’, claiming that “…we have managed to create a block of people in Britain who do not add anything to the greatness of this country. They have become conditioned to be users of services, not providers of money. This is a huge part of the reason we have this massive deficit.” [11]

There appears to be a dubious agenda at play here. Planting seeds in people’s minds that those on welfare benefits are faking or defrauding the system certainly makes it easier to justify the disproportionate cuts when they take effect. [12]

Overall, the tabloid-generated negativity towards disabled people has seriously set back attitudes and eroded work towards equality.

2. A series of attacks on disabled people

The massive so-called “migration” (an entirely forced one) of vast numbers of people who are currently entitled to Incapacity Benefit onto Employment Support Allowance or Job Seekers Allowance has already started this month. [13]

There are huge numbers of genuinely ill people being found ‘fit for work’ because of the flawed computerised Work Capability Assessment that is being used. The vast majority are being pushed involuntarily into the ESA ‘Work Related Activity Group’ where they are subjected to conditions and sanctions that are harming their health even more. Or they are put directly onto Jobseekers’ Allowance.

Not only that, but the ESA is time-limited to one year, retrospectively. What happens then? They too are forced onto Job Seekers Allowance. [14] Then more sanctions begin; and if they do not get a job, they lose that benefit as well. We are talking here about sick and disabled people with no money to live on.

Professor Malcolm Harrington conducted an independent review in November 2010, which condemned numerous aspects of the Work Capability Assessment. [15] In March 2011, Professor Paul Gregg, one of those who actually designed the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), warned that the WCA is ‘a complete mess’ and ‘badly malfunctioning’. [16]

He said: “In the first trial, the system did not work. We need to trial the new, proposed, reformed system to check and prove that it works and avoids the serious stress and misclassification of people that we have already seen, before we start implementing it on a large and vulnerable population. The test so far has caused a huge amount of anguish to the people who have gone through it. We need to have something that is working accurately before we apply it nationally. We shouldn’t roll this out until we have something that is working.”

But Professor Gregg’s clear calls for the new, harsher test not to be inflicted on claimants, including incapacity benefit claimants, have clearly not been listened to by government and policy-makers. [17]

3. The government is not listening

A report from the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI) says that “[t]he changes recommended by Professor Harrington in his review of the work capability assessment (WCA) should take effect immediately or, if this is not possible, the reassessment of incapacity benefits claimants should be postponed.” [18]

However, Chris Grayling, Minister of State in the Department for Work and Pensions, has announced that 10,000 sick and disabled people a week will undergo a WCA starting in April 2011. They will be subjected to the same test, despite evidence that it does not appropriately assess needs. But critics now argue that it will be even harsher, as DWP have introduced amendments to many of the ‘descriptors’ in the test that make it virtually impossible for anyone to be classed as unfit for work.

A motion to annul these amendments was tabled by Lord Kirkwood on 16 March 2011 (see: He spoke to the 23rd Report of the House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, which complained that the Government had rushed the new regulations through without thinking through the implications.

The WCA and the company who are running it, Atos, are the subject of fear and anger in many quarters. [19] The medical profession are now also making a stand, as GP Margaret McCartney’s own policy forum on health care illustrates. [20] She writes about attending an Atos Recruitment evening, arising from her concerns about them, referencing an article she published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) [21] and the General Medical Council’s (GMC) response. It appears that the Care Quality Commission cannot supervise the doctors employed by Atos Healthcare because it is a private company and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have had problems over accrediting the nurse training. Commentators are understandably alarmed. [22]

It must be remembered that these are not just numbers on a page or computer screen, but real people who will be put through untold suffering because of this seriously flawed system. There have already been suicides and deaths. [23] Close observers fear that there will be many more.

4. A threat to life and welfare

The Disability Alliance has this year been surveying disabled people’s views on Government reforms to Disability Living Allowance in particular [24]. With 900 responses analysed, the most shocking finding, DA says, is that nine per cent of disabled people and their families fear the Government cuts will cause death, suicide and make lives ‘not worth living’.

Neil Coyle, Disability Alliance Director of Policy, commented in February 2011: “Disabled people are telling us in great numbers that they fear the overall cuts – but that losing Disability Living Allowance in particular has resulted in people questioning the value of their lives”.

The DA survey also reveals that:
* over 800,000 disabled people could lose support if the £1 billion target for DLA cuts is realised;
* 13 per cent said cuts would increase their NHS use with further demand also on cash-strapped councils;
* 25 per cent of the respondents are in work, but half fear having to quit if they lose access to support;
* half the respondents believe DLA does not meet extra disability-related costs of living – and a third report it is ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to get by before cuts are implemented; and
* two-thirds of the respondents use DLA to link to other support (e.g. bus passes, council tax benefit and Carer’s Allowance) and fear that the Government plans will have a ‘domino effect’ that will significantly increase poverty and social exclusion for disabled people and their families.

The Department for Work and Pensions Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller MP, confirmed in December 2010 that the government plans include a 20 per cent cut in DLA expenditure [25]. But the DWP has responded inadequately on estimates regarding the number of disabled people and their families who could lose access to support as a result of DLA reform, and on real costs to the NHS, Treasury and councils, say critics.

5. Business as usual?

Despite all of this, only around a quarter of the recommendations in Professor Harrington’s review have been implemented. The WCA will continue to inaccurately assess disabled people at a rate of 10,000 per week. The WCA has been made tougher and results in further disabled people routinely having their needs unmet. New guidance on the Access to Work scheme will mean employers and disabled people receive less help to provide an accessible workplace. And more disabled people will be cut from the benefits system through time-limiting contribution based ESA.

Inevitably this will lead to ever more complaints and appeals and cost even more money. Currently around 40 per cent of appeals are upheld. This figure rises to 70 per cent when the appellant has legal advice. However, this will now be denied as Legal Aid is stripped away. Each time an appeal takes place it costs the taxpayer money. [26]

In October 2010, the DWP had a backlog of 29,700 complaints about ESA decisions that had not yet been referred to a tribunal. The next highest backlog was for Disability Living Allowance, which the Coalition Government is also abolishing, there were 9,600 cases outstanding. Outstanding complaints about all other benefits administered by the Department number just 19,750.

These figures were revealed by Ms Miller in October 2010. [27] As many more people have been put through assessments since then, it is likely that the number has risen greatly in the intervening months, though accurate figures are not yet available. This was before the proposed changes had even begun, and the new harsher WCA test brought in. Critics predict chaos and breakdown.

6. Disability and employment

When sick and disabled people are forced onto Job Seekers Allowance, the question remains as to who will employ them? UK unemployment rose by 49,000 to almost 2.5 million in the three months to the end of November 2010. April 2011 figures showed a slight improvement overall, but with seasonal averages likely to rise in the coming months, and with worse impacts in particular sectors: among women, young people in Scotland, and long-term cases in Wales, for example. [28]

With massive cuts to public sector jobs across the board already, and many more to come, we must ask whether the government honestly thinks that in this climate employers will be willing to take on sick and disabled people who have been out of the workforce for a long time and who will, in all likelihood, only have a very limited capacity for work. Few at the sharp end believe that they will. Only half of disabled people of working age are in work (50 per cent), compared with 80 per cent of non-disabled people. [29]

A study has found that disabled people could be stranded in unemployment because job support services are being devastated by local authority spending cuts.
More than half of supported employment providers are facing local authority funding cuts of at least 15 per cent, according to the poll by industry body the British Association for Supported Employment (BASE). [30]

A quarter of providers said they were facing council cuts of between 50 per cent and 100 per cent, prompting some to predict that their service would close. Others were making redundancies and stripping back provision even though caseloads were rising.

7. The human impact

The government talks of reforms, but these cuts and changes (along with many others in social provision and public services) amount to an assault on the core principles and practices of the welfare state as a whole. The danger is that Britain will be left in a situation where the rich can afford the healthcare and support they need and the rest suffer or risk marginalisation and poverty. The government is already considering proposals which would see traditional sick pay for employees replaced by income protection insurance. [31]

The human impact is terrible, [32] and often overlooked or rendered a statistical inconvenience in the way public policy is formulated and implemented, without real involvement and determination by those in the greatest need. [33] People do not ask to become ill or disabled. At any time this can happen to you or to someone you love. A diagnosis of serious illness can change someone’s life overnight. A car crash can, in a moment, leave a person unable to walk, or with brain injury. A series of awful life events can leave someone with depression or anxiety.

Apart from those who are rich enough not to have to even consider the impact of the extra costs they would incur if this should happen to them or someone in their family, the government’s cuts, changes and abolitions affect everyone. The future of our welfare state is at stake. It is time to resist. [34]



[1] From the ‘Broken of Britain’ website:
[2] See Helene Mulholland, ‘Chris Grayling pledges incapacity benefit ‘revolution’,’ 21 April 2001, Guardian:…. Details of the shift from IB to ESA from the Disability Alliance UK:
[3] DirectGov: Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is a tax-free benefit for disabled children and adults to help with extra costs people may have because they are disabled. It is not based on disability but upon the needs arising from it and can be claimed by people in work as well as those who are unable to work.
[4] ‘DLA reform consultation: Great Expectations, Worst Apprehensions’, Arbitrary Constant, 6 December 2010:
[5] The Independent Living Fund (ILF) makes payments to disabled people to help them lead a more independent life. The ILF is permanently closed to new applications. See DirectGov:… BBC News: ‘Independent Living Fund to be shut down by 2015’:
[6] ‘Government’s proposed reform of legal aid – Justice Committee’, Parliamentary Business:… ‘Legal aid cuts: Scales of justice’, Guardian, 4 February 2011:… Legal aid briefings:
[7] Justice For All:; ‘Legal aid cuts will exclude most vulnerable from access to justice, Citizens Advice Chief Executive warns’, 12 November 2010:; ‘Future uncertain for Community Legal Advice Centres’, Law Gazette, 14 April 2011:… LAG Social Welfare Law Conference: Facing the future (a major conference will bring together practitioners from both the private and not for profit sectors to discuss the future of legal aid and social welfare law services), Legal Action Group:…
[8] eGov Monitor: ‘Spending Cuts Force Councils To Cut Social Care Services Targeted Towards Vulnerable People’, 14 April 2011:; YouTube video: ‘Bringing the Cuts Home’:; Trades Union Congress: ‘All Together for Public Services’:
[9] On disability hate crime, see:… and:
[10] DWP fraud figures: Page 9, Table 2.1: Estimated overpayments in 2009/10
[11] Tony Newton Dunn, ‘Ian Duncan Smith on benefits Britain’, The Sun, 1 December 2010:…
[12] See James Chapman, ‘The great disability benefit free-for-all: Half of claimants are not asked to prove eligibility’, Daily Mail, 15 April 2011:… A complaint has been made about this article to the Press Complaints Commission. Other ‘fact checks’ on tabloid claims:…… and….
[13] See ‘Incapacity Benefits Migration’, a regularly update monitor / analysis from the Disability Alliance:
[14] DirectGov: Jobseeker’s Allowance is the main benefit for people of working age who are out of work or work less than 16 hours a week on average.… On time-limiting the ESA, see DWP spending review:
[15] ‘An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment’, Department of Work and Pensions (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat format):
[16] ‘New disability test “is a complete mess”, says expert’ – Welfare reform expert Professor Paul Gregg says a rushed roll out of the work capability assessment will cause more anguish, Guardian, 22 February 2011:… See also Amelia Gentleman, ‘The medical was an absolute joke’, Guardian, 23 February 2011:…
[17] RethinkTalk: ‘DLA Minister undeterred by campaigners’ anger’ and related:…
[18] Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI) key policy reports:; ‘WCA changes should take effect immediately or reassessment of incapacity benefits claimants should be postponed’ and ‘New report from Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion also calls for “employability assessment”,”, 14 January 2011; ‘Making the Work Programme work for people with health conditions’, CESI report (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat format):…
[19] Atos Work Capability Assessment: Help and Resource Centre for the Sick and Disabled of the UK:; Collating experiences of Atos/WCA, Benefits and Work Forum:
[20] Margaret McCartney, GP:
[21] Medical Work Assessments – Well enough to work?, Margaret McCartney, British Medical Journal (BMJ), BMJ 2 February 2011; 342:d599:
[22] Response to McCartney, ibid:
[23] ‘Demand for fairer benefits tests as two die: case study’, Herald, 20 April 2011:… Marc Horne and Mark Smith, ‘Author’s suicide “due to slash in benefits”,’ Scotsman,; Nick Somerlad, ‘Sick? Who gives Atos?’, 16 February 2011:
[24] Disability Alliance, ‘Disabled people fear cuts will make life “not worth living”, 3 February 2011.
[25] Maria Miller MP on the DLA Consultation, N/D, Able Magazine:…
[26] Regarding appeal rates, see Haringay Alliance for Public Services (HAPS):…
[27] For the number of outstanding appeals for ESA – 29,700 – see Question to Maria Miller, Hansard, 13 October 2010, Column 343W:…
[28] The total number of unemployed people fell by 17,000 over the quarter to reach 2.48 million, the first drop since last autumn, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). See the revised unemployment graph on the BBC economy tracker website, last updated 13 April 2011:
[29] Disability and employment statistics. The Shaw Trust:
[30] On job support services cuts, see Community Care, 14 April 2011:…
[31] On the Income Protection Insurance issue, see:…
[32] Ekklesia’s ongoing reporting and analysis of government cuts and their impact can be found here:
[33] Making those directly facing poverty, marginalisation and disability axial to government policy making on issues that effect the most vulnerable is a primary concern raised by Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission (, which reported on 16 April 2011. See ‘Huge culture shift needed, says Poverty Truth Commission’, 18 April 2011: Also, Ekklesia’s statement, ‘Only the poor know the real truth about poverty, says think-tank’: More on the PTC from Ekklesia:
[34] The Broken of Britain is a grassroots online group formed in response to all the cuts to disabled people, and a good resource for up-to-date information of what is happening.…. The Disability Alliance is a campaigning network of organisations with around 200 plus members ranging from small, self-help groups to major national disability charities: See also the Coalition of Resistance, of which Ekklesia is an affiliate:



© Karen McAndrew. The writer lives personally with issues of illness and disability, and is researching and campaigning against policies and cuts that inflict damage on human communities.

Additional research by Simon Barrow.

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