Today the Chancellor announced a further £10 billion of further cuts to the welfare budget, the budget which has already seen the most drastic cuts in the Coalition Government’s deficit reduction plan. While targeting disability benefits was not discussed, many disabled people will still understandably be concerned about reported plans to limit the increase of benefits in line with inflation.
For the many who are already worried about cuts to public services and the major changes to benefits like Disability Living Allowance, more change means more uncertainty and fear. The Government must announce the detail of where these cuts will fall soon if it is to allay these fears.
Activists and disability organisations will need to stay informed and speak out on those changes which seem likely to impact on disabled people unfairly. But in doing so they must also be aware of the general public’s attitudes. Many voters are supportive of cuts to welfare, believe that the system is unfair and that many recipients are “undeserving”. This is perhaps unsurprising when some newspapers report so extensively on “benefit cheats”, despite the Department for Work and Pensions’ own figures showing only 0.8 per cent of benefit spending is overpaid due to fraud. Nonetheless, public attitudes are important.
Last week we blogged on the “British Social Attitudes Survey”, a report published every year by NatCen Social Research which provides an invaluable and authoritative barometer of how the British public feels about a wide range of issues. It revealed that the British currently have a very complicated attitude to public services and welfare spending at the moment, one which those who want to see welfare spending protected or increased must understand.
One positive finding for supporters of public services was that the number of people who believed taxes should be increased to pay for health, education and social benefits was on the increase for the first time in 9 years. This is clearly a reaction to the recent cuts in spending, but was still a belief held by just a third of the population. More encouragingly, 55% would like to see spending levels stay where they are, rather than see further cuts.
Attitudes to individual benefits varied enormously. A full three quarters of survey respondents believed that more should be spent on people who care for the sick and disabled, for example. However, far fewer (just 53%) believed that benefits for disabled people should receive greater investment, despite major reports by charities such as Scope showing that a vastly disproportionate number of disabled people live in poverty.
What should we make of these statistics? Well, the fact that three quarters would like to see more money spent on carers proves that the British public are both compassionate and recognise the value that carers provide to us as a society. This can be built upon. If the British public recognises the huge contribution disabled people themselves make, and sees that they are not “benefit scroungers”, then they will surely support fairer funding.
The Paralympics this summer may have provided the foundation for making our case. One of Britain’s greatest Paralympians , Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson, used the Paralympics to warn that benefit cuts will undermine the Games’ key legacy aim of widening access to sport for disabled people. The rower Alan Crowther, who won four world championship gold medals, said benefits had been crucial to his development as a top disabled athlete: “If you took disability benefit away from me I’d be sat in the house unable to go anywhere.”
Of course, not everyone can be a Paralympian, but there are millions of disabled people who achieve remarkable things every day. They are lawyers, carpenters, artists , husbands, wives, good neighbours – ordinary people in other words, contributing to our communities and country. It is up to all of us, disabled people and the organisations that work with them and support them, to make sure their stories are heard by the Government and the British public. We need to make the targeting of the disabled unpopular and a guaranteed vote loser for all political parties.
Jaime Gill, head of press and public affairs