Battling the government’s benefits lies – with Boris!

I never thought I would agree with anything Boris Johnson said. We truly live in interesting times.

Boris has put his weight – and let’s be honest, he’s not exactly slimline – behind a report published today (January 9), finding that the government misled MPs and Peers over the hostility to disability benefit reform. It finds that Parliament has been given only a partial view of the overwhelming opposition to the Coalition’s planned reforms of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and – crucially – that this opposition was previously not released to public scrutiny by the government.

The report, Responsible Reform, is based on the responses to the government’s own consultation on its planned DLA reforms, which were only made public once disabled people requested them under the Freedom of Information Act. It was compiled, as I understand it, by disability blogger Sue Marsh and Dr Sarah J Campbell. According to the report:

98 per cent of respondents objected to the qualifying period for benefits being raised from 3 months to 6 months;

99 per cent of respondents objected to Disability Living Allowance no longer being used as a qualification for other benefits;

92 per cent opposed removing the lowest rate of support for disabled people.

In all three cases, as well as many others, London’s Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson also objected to the proposed changes.

Other findings were as follows:

There was overwhelming opposition in the consultation responses to nearly all of the government’s proposals for DLA reform;

The government has consistently used inaccurate figures to exaggerate the rise in DLA claimants;

The report shows that nearly all of the recent increase in working-age claimants of DLA has been associated with mental health conditions and

learning difficulties. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties remained remarkably stable;

98 per cent of those who responded opposed plans to change the qualifying period for PIP from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months;

90 per cent opposed plans for a new assessment, which disabled people fear will be far too similar to the much-criticised work capability assessment used by ATOS to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA); and

Respondents to the consultation repeatedly warned that the government’s plans could breach the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Boris called for the Government to retain the three-month qualifying period, saying the increase to six months will mean that people with fluctuating conditions would have increased difficulty in qualifying.

“People with fluctuating conditions face the same barriers that all disabled face in relation to higher costs of living and DLA is essential to maintain a decent quality of life,” he said.

I agree. I have a person very close to me who is now on DLA, but had to fight for years to get it. She became disabled due, she thinks, to poor working conditions in the factory where she was employed. This created a physical condition which put her in pain all the time. She tried to soldier on but in the end had to take so much time on sickness that the company sacked her. It has never accepted any responsibility, on health and safety grounds for her disability and it is impossible to prove.

There then followed years of trying to prove that she was entitled to DLA. The DWP adamantly refused to accept the claim she made herself, and it was only with the help of the Citizens Advice Bureau – after several years of trying – that my friend’s claim was accepted on an indefinite basis. In the meantime, she had been sliding into debt because Boris was right, she could not meet the cost of living.

Now she is able to make ends meet – just about – but her condition fluctuates. Some days she is able to go about her business (by which I mean normal housekeeping work, cooking, washing… you get the idea) without any help; other days she can’t move for the pain.

I can picture DWP employees salivating at the thought of getting their hands on her again, and revoking her ‘indefinite’ claim. That would be the end of her.

The thought of telling this woman that the government has lied to the public in order to push through this reform, quite frankly, terrifies me. The situation has been aggravating her increasingly since it first came to light that the government wanted to cut back on DLA and I don’t know what it would do to her mental health, which is also fragile.

How long do we tolerate a government that lies to the electorate in order to push through injustices?

I’ll leave you with a comment I wrote to the Guardian, at the beginning of 2011, which I think still describes the situation very well:

“When I came downstairs today to make some lunch for my friend (who is disabled) I found her in tears. It seems today’s frosty weather has aggravated the chronic pain she suffers every day in her back and shoulders, that was brought on many years ago by poor health and safety conditions in the factory where she worked. The situation had been overlooked many times by inspectors – who made appointments to visit the factory, in order to ensure that the managers had plenty of time to make sure all was in order when they turned up. After they left, the usual poor conditions were reimposed (as I understand it).

“While she was sitting there sobbing, my friend was asking why she had to suffer this. She was pleading with me, begging for me to tell her why she has to suffer so badly. She didn’t ask for it, and if this is what she has to look forward to – for the rest of her life – it won’t be worth living, she said. She’s probably still in tears as I type this.

“I didn’t have an answer for her. How could I? I’m just as powerless as she is. The truth is, her condition was caused by ‘light touch’ health and safety enforcement on the part of the last government, and it seems her meagre benefits are now in danger due to the callous inhumanity of the current administration.

“She’d work if she possibly could but she can’t. Her condition is not her fault – ultimately the fault rests with decision-makers in Westminster. Will anyone in Parliament accept responsibility for her situation?

“Somehow I doubt it.”

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