In Visibility Today: Gail Ward from Disabled People Against Cuts

Laura Elliott

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is a direct-action campaigning group which was set up in 2010 in response to the ongoing austerity cuts across the UK. Gail Ward, the head of their North-East branch, joined them when she found she needed support herself, and since then she’s been an active campaigner against austerity, and a vocal supporter of disabled people’s rights.

One of the main actions DPAC are currently involved in, is the campaign to stop the nationwide rollout of Universal Credit, a scheme that Gail describes as “hideous and barbaric”, and one which has been causing controversy across the political spectrum for years.

What is Universal Credit?

Universal Credit is a new social security system that was introduced in the UK in 2013, with the aim of replacing six means-tested benefits and tax credits, and combining them into one simple payment scheme, which would supposedly be easier and cheaper for the government to administer.

The benefits being subsumed under the Universal Credit banner are: income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, income-based Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and Income Support. However, the policy has raised concerns from politicians, campaigners, and ThinkTanks, with studies showing that not only is Universal Credit only marginally cheaper than the existing system, but will cause real harm to vast swathes of the country.

DPAC are campaigning against the change, Gail says, for a number of reasons:

“[Firstly], the conditionality is extremely harsh. Secondly, it is designed deliberately to target those on the bottom end of the ladder in society — including people who are in work and on low pay, as well as those on 0-hour contracts.”

Who does it effect?

Gail at a protest to protect the NHS

Although it hasn’t always been publicised as such, Universal Credit will virtually effect everyone, except the state pensioner who doesn’t claim housing benefit, or receive any form of state support.

“This policy is a complete game-changer, because most other state benefits accommodate people who are looking for work, or have disabilities, or caring responsibilities — whether it be as a single mum, or a carer looking after an elderly relative.

“Pensioners, generally speaking, have always been left out of that equation — they’ve never really suffered [in this way] — but under this new policy, some of them will. Including people in work [has changed everything], and if [workers] don’t comply with the conditionality they’re being given, they are then going to get sanctioned.”

According to ThinkTank the Resolution Foundation, 3.2 million working families are set to be worse off under Universal Credit, with single parents losing up to £3,000 a year. But it isn’t just those in work who should be worried, and DPAC are particularly concerned about the government’s lack of understanding when it comes to the issues faced by disabled people today.

The Health and Work programme

Data from NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) released at the end of last year, revealed that the rate of attempted suicides among out-of-work disability benefit claimants had more than doubled, from 21 per cent in 2007, to 47 per cent in 2014, since the controversial fit-to-work assessments were introduced in 2008.

“The issue is that this government, and previous governments, have never ever halved the Disability [Employment] Gap, because they haven’t come to grasp the fact that people can be disabled and can’t work, but most people are chronically ill, as well as disabled.

“Most chronically ill people don’t know what [their health is] going to be like from one day to the next, [and for people with] mental health problems, they’re already dying in their thousands”.

The simple fact that most chronically ill people will not be fairly assessed by such programmes, simply isn’t addressed under Universal Credit, with money-saving measures appearing to come higher up the list of priorities than social support.

As part of the mandatory Health and Work programme, the government has already introduced the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) team, which issues compulsory treatment for claimants via Job Centre therapists. If claimants cannot attend this treatment, they can be sanctioned.

Similarly, disabled claimants will be made to complete a “health and work conversation”, in which they will have to provide personal information detailing their health status to a work coach, or face being sanctioned.

“IAPT, as it’s called, is particularly harsh, [and] the stress of these assessments is causing people’s health to deteriorate,” says Gail.

“This CBT programme is going to stop people going to their Job Centres, it’s going to stop people from going to their GP surgeries — because they’re also putting them there. They will not go to the doctors, might not get their medication, and that is going to make them seriously unwell.”

The impact on disabled people

Gail speaking at a protest

Aside from the controversial Health and Work Programme failing to take into account the reality of disabilities and chronic illnesses, it’s estimated that up to half a million disabled people will actually be financially worse off under Universal Credit, even if they aren’t sanctioned.

The removal of disability premiums, cuts to child disability payments, and the fact that local authorities will have no obligation to provide transitional protection as ESA claimants are moved onto Universal Credit, create a frightening picture of a scheme which, either through ignorance or a lack of care, has failed to consider disabled people’s rights.

Gail says that the only way to make the policy viable is to scrap it.

“Universal Credit is a dangerous policy. And I mean dangerous, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s predominantly against women and children, and it is causing great concern and disparity because of the Test and Learn process.

“If you’re not productive [under this government], you’re worthless. That is exactly the bottom line. Cash is King.”

Looking to the future

It might sound particularly bleak, but it’s not just DPAC who are concerned about the impact Universal Credit will have on disabled people across the country. Last August, a UN report accused the UK government of failing to uphold disabled people’s human rights, by failing to audit the impact of its austerity cuts on this vulnerable group of the population.

Last October, Labour also won a vote calling for the government to “pause and fix” the problems with Universal Credit, but the vote wasn’t binding, and the government has so far refused to put the rollout on hold. But the campaign to oppose the policy is still ongoing, and Gail says that people need to fully appreciate the harm these changes are causing.

“I think people need to wake up. [Disabled] people are not lazy. You’re always going to get the odd chancer, [but] fraud is only 0.9%, and that includes department error.

“I’d just implore the government, talk to us, include us. And [to the people], whatever you do, don’t let this government, or any other government, take away your Welfare State.”

*To find more details on the campaign you can visit DPAC’s website here.

  • *Interview taken from the March episode of the In Visibility Today podcast @VisibilityToday
  • If you enjoy my writing, you can read more and support my work on Patreon here.

Laura Elliott

Written by

Disabled freelance journalist and copywriter. Words on feminism, disability, books, and healthcare — probably. Twitter @TinyWriterLaura

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