Richard Hawkes is no longer able to conceal his anger with the government as it goes ahead with a package of public service reforms and cuts that he feels will have “devastating consequences” on the lives of disabled people.
When he became chief executive of Scope 18 months ago, he was determined to ensure that one of the country’s largest disability charities did not merely criticise policies; instead, he wanted to engage constructively with the government in order to promote positive solutions.
After a period of trying hard to ensure that the views of his charity and the people it represents were heard, Hawkes feels that he has not been successful. He is particularly disappointed with the response he has had from the disability minister, Maria Miller.
“I would say that the government has not been listening,” he says. “Maria Miller does meet with disability charities, but I don’t think she really understands a lot of the issues, I don’t think she listens.
“What disabled people need at the moment is a minister for disabled people who is really fighting their corner, really understanding the issues that disabled people face, and acting as their champion in government. I don’t think that’s happening at the moment.”
At the top of a list of looming problems, he cites the huge effect that local authority cuts will have on services for disabled people, particularly with the tightening of eligibility criteria, so that in some areas, only the more severely disabled will have access to state-funded support.
“Local authorities are being put in an unfortunate position of having to compromise on the quality of care that people receive, because the funding isn’t there,” says Hawkes.
He also points to the replacement of incapacity benefit with the new employment and support allowance, and the intense unease that has been caused by the ongoing reassessment of claimants using a much tougher test.
He lists the reform of disability living allowance (DLA), undertaken by the government so as to cut the total cost of the benefit by 20% and, as part of that reform, the decision to remove the “mobility component” for people living in residential care, which could lead to up to 80,000 disabled people who live in care homes no longer being able to fund trips outside the boundaries of their residential unit.
“The whole range of different proposals that are being put forward could have a really negative impact on the lives of people. We don’t think [the government is] thinking things through properly,” Hawkes warns. “The collective, cumulative impact of all the changes that are being introduced are hitting disabled people the hardest.”
He questions whether the government is primarily motivated by the desire to reform outmoded benefits or whether the principal driver of change is an aspiration to cut costs.
On the DLA reform, he says: “Going back to the comprehensive spending review and the budget, [the government] announced they were going to make savings of 20% on DLA. How can you decide that [a reform] is going to save 20% in advance? I would think that this is driven by cost reductions, and that they have come up with a way of assessing people that will result in the cost savings they want to make.”
This week, Hawkes is trying again to influence the government’s decision-making with a detailed analysis of its proposals for a new test to determine who is eligible to receive the new personal independence payment, which will replace DLA in 2013. DLA was introduced in 1992 in recognition of the fact that daily life costs more if you are disabled; the new benefit will support those “who face the greatest challenges to taking part in everyday life”.
Scope, working with the thinktank Demos, has come up with suggestions for a different way of identifying extra costs faced by disabled people, suggesting that rather than simply looking at people’s medical impairments, the assessment should examine their housing arrangements, their ability to use public transport and the availability (or otherwise) of friends and neighbours to offer support.
He argues that “the highly medical assessment” proposed by the government, and under consideration in the welfare reform bill going through the Lords, will produce a “guesstimate” that will reveal little about how much more it costs a disabled person to live their life.
“We understand that there are a lot of things that need to be changed; DLA does need reform and we want to see more disabled people get into work,” Hawkes says.
“We don’t want to be the kind of organisation that says: ‘Oh we don’t like this; we don’t like that,’ but want to have something positive to say ourselves. We’ve been investing in research, looking hard at how we measure impact in a whole range of areas, so that as an organisation we’ve got more positive things to say.
“We have been raising concerns about the way that they will assess people for work and for DLA for over a year. We have been seeking to engage with the minister for disabled people. But we are not being engaged with or listened to.”
Scope has campaigned particularly hard on the relatively small issue of the removal of the mobility component for people in residential homes, and has been concerned at the government’s inconsistent response on this issue. Hawkes says the charity has counted nine different explanations provided by the government as to why the benefit is to be removed.
More broadly, he is concerned that the tone of the discussion about disability benefits has radically changed, with a creeping trend towards demonising claimants as “scroungers”.
“There’s too much of a focus on that, rather than on the huge numbers of disabled people who want to work, are able to work, but just need the support to be able to do it,” Hawkes says.
He believes that the prime minister has not focused on the probable fallout from the changes that are being introduced.
“What you hear from David Cameron is that he empathises with disabled people, that he understands what it is like to have a disabled person in his family, that he really cares about society, and that he wouldn’t want disabled people to be hit harder than anyone else.
“However, the reality is that the reforms that his government is overseeing are having that impact,” Hawkes says.
“He is not as aware as he might be of the real impact on individual lives on a daily basis … I would really like to believe that David Cameron would not want to be leading a government that was stopping people in residential care going out shopping and meeting their friends.”
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