Evening News column: Start debate on disability benefits

Earlier this week I wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News on the need to start discussing how we use the new powers Scotland will receive following the referendum. You can access the article here but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

Following last year’s referendum the Smith Commission proposed giving the Scottish Parliament new powers over issues like tax and welfare.

Two weeks ago a draft law was published that all three main UK parties have committed to passing after the election to make this a reality. Now we need to start talking about how we’ll use these powers to build the fairer and more equal society that we all want to see.

One of the areas of welfare set to be devolved is supporting folk with the additional costs of living and working with a disability or chronic illness.

Since the 1990s people have been able to claim Disability Living Allowance, which is paid regardless of income, and for many is the difference between holding down a job and not. But back in 2010 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat coalition announced it would replace DLA with a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – to cut spending by 20 per cent.

While existing DLA claimants are set to start being reassessed for PIP later this year, I believe this should be delayed until control of these benefits passes to Holyrood. At that point we Scots will have a choice: do we want to press ahead with the switch to PIP or go back to DLA? Both options have their challenges.

If we go with PIP, many new claimants have complained of long waits to both get an appointment and receive their first payment. How would we address these delays? Should there be fewer face-to-face assessments? Should we continue to contract out this work to private companies?

Alternatively if we stick with DLA, where will we find the extra £200 million per year to pay for it? Do we ask people to pay more tax or cut spending elsewhere? And what of those who say that, once the delays are overcome, PIP is a big improvement for people with mental health conditions? Should we re-work DLA to take lessons from PIP into account? Can we develop a system that works better with care packages provided by councils?

Naturally, the focus of charities and campaigners over the last four years has been on helping individuals navigate the changing social security system, and campaigning against “reforms” based on savings rather than the needs of those affected. But we now need to think positively about what is needed.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these questions at present, but what I do know is that we need to start having this debate now so that we are ready to craft a benefit right for the needs of Scotland.

Scottish Labour has already proposed using new powers to freeze fracking in Scotland, bring Scotrail back into public ownership, and reintroduce a 50p tax on earnings over £150,000 – now we need to start talking about DLA and PIP.

After people were so engaged in discussing where power should lie during the referendum, it would be a tragedy if they weren’t involved in deciding how we use the new powers we will now have. For the sake of the people we all want to help, let’s have this debate now.


Lord Freud ignores impact of policies on people with disabilities

If you’re off work for more than four days, you can get £87.55 per week in Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks. This is paid by your employer, but previously they sometimes could claim a proportion of this back from the Government. This policy – known as the Percentage Threshold Scheme – was abolished on 5 April 2014.

Earlier this year I received a letter from a constituent who is disabled and employs a Personal Assistant. He noted that while other employers might be able to absorb this extra cost by increasing earnings or making savings elsewhere, people in this position are often dependent on money from their local council to fund their care, and given recent cuts to council budgets, people in his position could be forced to either reduce the amount of care they purchase or cut back on other essentials to absorb the costs of any SSP.

I raised this on 13 October in a letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith – you can see a copy here – and I received a response from his deputy, the Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud, on 27 October – you can see a copy here.

At no point in his response does the Minister address the specific issue I raised with him, regarding the impact of this policy for people with disabilities employing Personal Assistants. I’m surprised that Lord Freud has been so careless with respect to an issue that affects people with disabilities, given that he recently had to apologise for suggesting that companies should be able to pay disabled people below the minimum wage. I’ve already written back asking him to address this specific point, and I’ll post any reply I receive here.


Supported employment works

Today I’ve written about the closure of the Engine Shed and supported employment more generally for the Edinburgh Evening News. You can find my article here but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

Last month I was saddened to learn that the Engine Shed, a well-respected social enterprise based in the Southside, is set to close. It specialised in providing training and employment to young people with learning disabilities, who would work in its cafe and bakery.

This follows on from the closure of both Blindcraft (pictured below) in 2011 – which provided jobs for people with visual impairments, and produced good quality beds and mattresses – and of 33 Remploy factories across the UK in 2012 – which employed disabled people to make various products ranging from air filters to school furniture.

As a result of government cutting funding for organisations such as this – commonly referred to as supported employment – people with disabilities are increasingly expected to take up mainstream jobs. I have two concerns about how this shift in policy is working in practice.

The support disabled people need to stay in work often isn’t there – the UK government’s Work Programme has badly let down disabled people over the last four years. I think for some more severely disabled people, it will be very hard for them to get a regular job in the first place. This problem is often exacerbated by the fashion for ‘payment by results’ contracts, where those who are easiest to help are cherry-picked by contractors, and those who need more support left behind.

I accept that places such as Blindcraft and Remploy needed public money. But I fear that much of the savings realised by closing these factories is used on benefits to former employees, many of whom have struggled to find work.

It’s important to emphasise that this isn’t just a UK government issue – Scottish Government guidance requires councils to withdraw funding from those that provide a slower, supportive ‘training first’ approach, preferring a ‘jobs first’ view instead. This is what led to Edinburgh Council withdrawing funding from the Engine Shed.