Disability benefits only ‘for the really disabled’? A collaborative response
I am sure I am not the only one who read the recent comments of Theresa May’s advisor about disability benefits with concern, sadness and frustration. Most notable was the suggestion that anxiety and related mental health illnesses were perhaps not as serious as certain physical disabilities and perhaps did not merit financial support. The question is how best to respond.
Of course, many of these sentiments are nothing new, we have all heard many politicians and media talk about an unfair or ineffective benefit system. These comments come from closer to the heart of Government than usual though and, whilst not official policy, reflect a worrying tone. Let’s also not forget though that in practice there have already been significant and ongoing modifications to both main disability benefits, ESA and PIP. We at GATE, are interested in ensuring that we can add the Gypsy and Traveller voice to this debate, one which would benefit from a collaborative response.
It is welcome for example that Scope immediately pointed out the unacceptability of creating crude distinctions between physical and mental health. Similarly, opposition politicians have already cited issue with the budget cuts being made to disability benefit, driving many of the wider reforms. The point is that there are many organisations, politicians, charities, individuals who are either directly affected by benefit changes or at least dispute them to be fair, practical or effective. However, although this recent outburst might merit a response, we need to look longer term at the whole system.
From an advocacy point of view, in practice few weeks go by when a member does not visit GATE for support with health benefits. For our members, many of whom face literacy barriers, this whole process, of applying or appealing, is particularly challenging. Much of the assessment, perhaps quite rightly, looks at day to day needs. The problem is that the everyday life of some of our members are often poorly understood, particularly if they do not fit with common expectations, whether this be about going up stairs at home, going to places or interacting with other people you don’t know.
Other issues faced by our members include getting access to a GP or related health services or being able to regularly obtain and attend appointments. Not only is such medical information useful to a claim but not seeing a mental health specialist is often cited as evidence someone’s illness is not too serious; taking us back to the Government adviser’s comments about “taking pills at home”. So we see people let down twice; by one system which is unable to offer appropriate mental health support in a timely fashion and another which counts this against their benefit entitlement.
Gypsies and Travellers may face specific obstacles in seeing their medical circumstances fairly understood but others will too, whether due to language, learning difficulties, trauma etc. The common goal is a clearer assessment, which more flexibly takes account for personal circumstances and properly assigns parity between physical and mental health issues. The overall aim is to ensure that the specific concerns of Gypsies and Travellers are heard in a way which supports, and is hopefully in turn supported by, the voices of many others who face the same broader challenge.