In just a few weeks, the coalition’s welfare reform bill will face its final reading in the Lords. The bill is the single biggest change to welfare provision in the UK since Beveridge first reported on a welfare state that aimed to eradicate “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness”. In a campaign that has often been obscured by divide-and-conquer rhetoric to set apart those with disabilities from the wider community, it is vital that we all consider exactly what social security really means for us, and what form we need that security to take.
None of us are immune from ill health, disability or poverty. Cancer alone will affect one in three people, mental health problems will affect one in four. We will all rely on a pension when we retire. At some point, all of us will need to use the NHS. Social security is not the preserve of the poor or feckless, it is the great democratic principle that has allowed the UK to claim fairness, equality and compassion among our greatest achievements.
It is right that in a compassionate society all disabled children and all disabled adults are recognised in their own right. Whether you are fantastically wealthy or terribly poor, you have a right to access services and support just as any person would. David Cameron, our very own prime minister, knows more about this than most. His son Ivan had cerebral palsy and was entitled to claim disability living allowance (DLA) in his own right.
As Cameron said before the election, “I help care for a severely disabled child – my son. It’s what I do at the start of each day. It’s sharpened my focus on the world of care assessments, eligibility criteria, disability living allowance, respite breaks, OTs, Sencos, and other sets of initials.”
Later, in another interview, he went on to explain how his own personal experiences had shaped his views:
The very painful thing about disability – whether your own or your loved one’s – is the feeling that the situation is out of your control. When the system that surrounds you is very top-down, bureaucratic, inhuman, that can only increase your feelings of helplessness … but I do believe there are moments of despair, helplessness and frustration that could be directly alleviated by the work of government.
Clause 52 of the welfare reform bill aims to remove contributory entitlement from profoundly disabled children. It is a technical clause, hard to explain to a wider audience, but these entitlements meant that when a severely disabled child reached adulthood, they would be treated as though they had contributed national insurance and would therefore be entitled to support to live independently in their own right. The government now call provisions like these “perverse incentives” and argue that they should be removed from our social security provision. I would call them a clear signal of equality, and a presumption of inherent worth. If clause 52 goes ahead, it means that these children will now be entirely dependent on their families into adulthood.
Iain Duncan Smith, who is sponsoring the bill through parliament, has also known the tragedy of sudden ill health. In 2009, his wife Betsy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Duncan Smith recalls, “I went straight back to my office, picked up my bag and caught the train. I didn’t come back to parliament for some time after that.” In fact, it took him six months to return to work. It was nearly three years before Betsy was able to attend the Conservative party conference again, at his side this year.
We all empathise with his fear. Every one of us would hope we could be with a loved one at such a difficult time. I think we would hope that our loved ones would be allowed the time and space they need for their recovery and every support in fighting such a terrifying battle.
Sadly, the bill also proposes to time limit contributory sickness benefits (ESA) to just one year. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that this will affect 7,000 people with cancer, while overall the measure is estimated to affect 700,000 people with serious illnesses or disabilities. Surely, we all deserve the chance to recover from difficult times, to focus on recovery free from the fear of financial hardship?
The vital support Cameron refers to – DLA, respite, social care – are all under threat today. I support Ivan’s right to that support wholeheartedly. I just ask that his father maintains that support for every child. I ask that Duncan Smith thinks of every cancer patient or person suffering from a long-term condition before his bill goes through.
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