Guest Post: Disability Benefits Under Threat

Amy Clare writes on the news that the Tories have announced plans to get half a million people “off incapacity benefit” if they get into power and explains why this is a feminist issue. EDIT: She also gives details of a petition for the Prime Minister to ensure that Attendance Allowance (AA) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) benefits are secured and not removed as part of any future reform of the social care system in England.

The Tories, at their party conference yesterday, announced proposals to slash the number of sick and disabled people claiming Incapacity Benefit by 20%. They plan to introduce a more stringent test which they claim will find 500,000 people to be ‘fit for work’; those people will then have to find a job or claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. This cost-cutting, goalpost-moving exercise is remarkably similar to plans outlined by Labour in their Welfare Reform Green Paper, released last year. In fact, Incapacity Benefit now no longer exists for new claimants; it has been replaced by Employment and Support Allowance, and funnily enough, this new benefit contains a more stringent test to qualify for the ‘support’ element (the equivalent to Incapacity Benefit). This is unsurprising given that both parties were advised by the same ‘expert’, David Freud.

Not only is Incapacity Benefit in the sights of both parties, but other disability benefits are under threat too. In another recently released Green Paper about the future of social care, the government have suggested that disability benefits, for example Attendance Allowance, be ‘integrated’ into social services budgets (i.e. cut). This is a move that would take independence away from millions of disabled people. Attendance Allowance (AA) is a disability benefit for over-65s, whereas younger disabled people claim its equivalent, Disability Living Allowance (DLA). Both benefits are implicitly threatened by the proposals.

So what does all this mean, and why is it a feminist issue? Well, let me start by saying that the plans will affect every sick and disabled person, and cause an increase in poverty among both gender groups. That’s a given. However, a few things are worth considering:

Many chronic, long term illnesses affect proportionately more females than males: for example, MS affects four times as many women as men, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) three times as many , and fibromyalgia nine times as many. Women are also more likely to suffer from a mental illness than men. Illnesses such as CFS and fibromyalgia, like many mental health problems, are difficult to assess – they are ‘invisible disabilities’, and benefits forms are simply not set up to deal with them, as they mainly rely on simple questions about manual tasks. A more stringent test can only make this situation worse, not better.

As women live longer than men, the majority of the elderly population is female; also, the longer a person lives, the more their health is likely to deteriorate and the higher the cost of living becomes to accommodate that. This means that the suggested cuts in AA will disproportionately affect elderly women, who are likely to have fewer savings than men due to having worked less, or for less pay. Figures quoted in a recent Guardian article showed that 40% of current recipients of DLA (care component) and AA would be below the poverty line if these proposals became law and they lost these benefits, with 90% living on less than £250 per week. It would be interesting to see this statistic split up along gender lines.

Finally, a word about carers: the majority of carers in this country are women, and carers will be badly affected by any cuts in any disability benefits, as it will be on their shoulders to pick up the financial slack whilst continuing to perform (unpaid) caring duties. This is especially worrying given that female carers suffer more mental health problems as a result of caring than do male carers. Many carers give up work, or go part time, in order to care for a sick or disabled family member; disability benefits help to make this possible.

As a person with a disabling long term medical condition, I am alarmed by the proposals and suggestions being put forward by both main parties. They treat ill people like scroungers, disabled people like children, and take carers for granted. I am genuinely worried for the future. If you would like to help, please sign the petition to safeguard DLA/AA, which can be found here.