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I take my hat off to Iain Duncan Smith. Only he could turn a disability crisis into a fiasco

March 20, 2014 11:32 PM
By Sue Marsh

We no longer discuss whether Iain Duncan Smith's reforms will succeed or fail. We no longer need thinktanks and charities to produce reports on what might happen if you attempt to reform every strand of the social security system at once, without taking any advice at all from people who actually live with illnesses or disabilities, and at a time when money is short and compassion shorter.

The chaos at the Department for Work and Pensions is now so widespread, so universal, that we can only report daily on each new disaster.

Last week alone, the doomed universal credit project bade farewell to yet another IT manager. Over budget, with more than £60m already written off in failed rollout, it seems increasingly unlikely that the scheme can be saved at all.

Reassessments of employment support allowance (ESA) have been suspended as Atos grinds to a halt under the sheer volume of new applications, reassessments, and transfers from old benefits - and the new personal independence payment (PIP) assessments. There are no doctors assessing disability living allowance any longer, and PIP decisions are taking up to eight months. The bulk of PIP reassessments have also been deferred until after the 2015 election, just too toxic to expose to the electorate.

The Work Programme has failed almost completely to help sick and disabled people into work, with fewer than 1% sustaining work over the longer term. Nick Clegg's Youth Contract has failed spectacularly to help younger people into work.

The new PIP benefit is resulting in a shocking two-thirds of disability claims being rejected, successful ESA appeals have soared to an unprecedented 43%, and tribunals say they cannot keep up with demand, leading to yet more frightening delays.

Food banks report that welfare changes now make up 50% of their referrals, but the welfare minister David Freud believes that it is "very hard to know" why people use them. Church groups are united, blaming Duncan Smith for creating "hardship and hunger".

Social care budgets, respite care, day centres and carers' support have been slashed by up to 40% up and down the country, leaving people with conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer and kidney failure increasingly isolated. Perhaps most shockingly, sick and disabled people are being forced into unlimited, unpaid workfare that takes no account of their conditions.

So, at a time when sick and disabled people face uncertainty in every aspect of the support and services they rely on to lead active, inclusive lives, we might think it vital for the DWP to be at the very top of its game. Firing on all cylinders. Cooking on gas.

But perhaps this government really is so incompetent as to believe that, at the same time as it attempts to dismantle the welfare state and rebuild in its own image, it can attempt to make unprecedented cuts to departmental running costs. Perhaps this has contributed to the repeated failures and forced U-turns.

This week the Guardian reported that a leaked internal review revealed"that the Department for Work and Pensions is struggling to meet 'extremely challenging' demands for over £1bn of efficiency savings over the next two years, and these pressures could disrupt plans to roll out benefits reforms".

With £1bn still left to find, it warns "further savings can be achieved only by radical measures, such as outsourcing core services to the private sector, investing heavily in new IT systems, and moving to digital-only customer services".

And at a time when the need for experienced DWP employees and jobcentre staff could not be greater, "almost 30,000 posts (24% of the workforce) have been cut, with thousands more expected through voluntary redundancy schemes in the next few months".

Every time I despair that the fiasco could not be made any worse, it seems that the DWP always has yet more incomprehensible decisions to astound me with. Like a very slow car crash, choking off whole motorways with wave upon wave of twisted, jagged metal, this DWP chaos just keeps piling up.