Disabled 'suicidal' over Welfare Reform Bill

From Democracy Live: Keith Robertson from the Scottish Disability Equality Forum said some people were becoming suicidal at the thought of welfare reforms

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Planned changes to the UK benefits system have left disabled people "suicidal", campaigners in Scotland have said.

They told MSPs people were "terrified" over how Westminster plans to get more people back to work may affect them.

And the campaign groups urged MSPs to block a move allowing UK ministers to legislate on the issue in Scotland.

But the Department for Work and Pensions warned the SNP government against blocking the move.

One of its senior officials, Neil Couling, said the move may hit key policies like free school meals and the blue badge scheme for disabled drivers, which had been linked to existing benefits.

The UK government says changes under the Welfare Reform Bill, due to come into effect in 2013, will save £7bn in welfare spending and encourage people currently on benefits to go out and find a job.

But wheelchair-user Keith Robertson, who is access development officer and manager at the Disability Equality Forum, said the UK government was like "a blind rhinoceros running wild that has got to make a 20% cut, immaterial of the consequences".

He told the Scottish Parliament's health committee: "Some of the calls we are getting are devastating to hear - some people have become suicidal simply because of the thought of it."

Start Quote

We're not trying to remove benefits from all disabled people or anything like”

End Quote Neil Couling Department for Work and Pensions

Fellow wheelchair-user Pam Duncan, director of Inclusion Scotland, said disabled people "remain an oppressed group", adding: "People are genuinely terrified. Everything we see, everything we hear, everything we read in the paper all suggests that the mood is such that the Welfare Reform Bill will indeed go through."

Ms Duncan said MSPs could express concern over cuts proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill by opposing a legislative consent motion, which allows the Westminster government to enact laws in devolved areas, on behalf of the whole of the UK.

Carolyn Roberts, head of policy and campaigns at mental health charity SAMH, told MSPs the impression was the bill would still pass without a consent motion.

Mr Couling, director for working age benefits at the Department for Work and Pensions, said he was confident the reforms would not bring the "drastic outcomes" feared by some, adding: "There was almost a sense that somehow we were removing all support from everybody, and that's not the case with this reform.

"We're not trying to remove benefits from all disabled people or anything like - we're trying to just put in place a reasonable assessment to try to determine entitlement."

But he warned the committee of a possible knock-on effect, if Holyrood did not pass the consent motion.

Such a move, Mr Couling said, would not stop the UK government reforms, adding: "The Scottish government either needs to adopt the legislative consent motion or legislate for itself, otherwise it won't be able to run some of its devolved responsibilities after the Welfare Reform Bill."

He told MSPs: "How you run the system of free school meals without being able to adapt your legislation will then be a matter for you."

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told the health committee the Scottish government was in "the worst of all worlds" in relation to welfare reform, with limited powers to influence the bill or amend the Scottish budget to mitigate against the changes.

She also said she was unaware of any obstacle preventing the Scottish Parliament from agreeing to some aspects of the Welfare Reform Bill, but not others.

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