The housing crisis facing the UK’s sick and disabled

Far too many disabled people are now being housed in entirely inadequate conditions, a situation exacerbated by government policies which in practice have had some incredibly cruel results.

Rachel Graham
27 August 2014

Heygate estate, Elephant and Castle. Flickr/James DelaneyBeing sick is no fun. We all know what it is like to be poorly, to have flu for a few weeks and feel horrendous. Luckily, most of us recover and get back to our lives. Similarly, some of us will have experienced a period where we struggled with our mobility. A broken leg or arm is not pleasant, but again, we know we will get better with time.

For many sick and disabled people, there is often no light at the end of the tunnel when they will suddenly recover. A large proportion of disabled people struggle with ongoing mobility problems, chronic health issues, pain, and discrimination. Their home should be the one place they can feel safe and live with dignity. Instead, many disabled people have to face the misery of substandard housing and increased poverty due to an onslaught of government ‘reforms’.

Recent research, highlighted by the Observer newspaper, showed that three quarters of people with mobility problems did not have access to suitable housing. This is a disgrace in such an advanced economy. Even worse, a significant number of disabled people are social housing tenants. It beggars belief that the social housing sector is treating them this way. Yet according to Disability Rights UK, over three quarters of Disability Living Allowance recipients live in the social sector - and the sector can fail them. A report by Leonard Cheshire Disability gives a vivid example of this failure in the case of Sue Friar, a wheelchair user who cannot get upstairs and so has to wash in her kitchen sink. She cannot use her garden because her housing association won’t even provide a ramp.

This lack of adequate housing has been an issue for years but has now reached crisis point. The ageing population means there is an ever-increasing need for suitable, accessible homes. As the population ages, the numbers of people with mobility problems and disabilities also rise. It is not rocket science, and it could have been planned for. Only one in twenty children are disabled but one in two people over the state pension age are. An increasing ‘grey’ population means a growing need for accessible homes. The lack of any investment in housing may be an indictment of all governments over the last thirty years, but the Coalition are making things much, much worse. They are heaping misery on top of neglect with the introduction of the bedroom tax and harsh welfare changes.

Habinteg housing association specializes in accessible housing and they found that two thirds of their tenants were affected by the bedroom tax. Research by the association found that despite Ministers promises that the disabled would be exempt, local authorities had done so for only one third. There is a chronic shortage of one-bedroom homes in many areas and this makes it hard for people in properties hit by the bedroom tax to downsize. Add into this mobility issues, and the need for accessibility, and you can see how disabled people often face an almost impossible situation.

There is a postcode lottery at play, with some local authorities being more helpful than others when it comes to their treatment of the disabled. The report by Habinteg found that: “The localised criteria for bedroom tax exemption has created a new lottery for disabled people with an inconsistent and unpredictable approach which varies between local authorities.” They concluded that: “Such variation reinforces the barriers disabled people face if they want to move, whether for job opportunities or other reasons, and deepens inequality between disabled and non-disabled people.”

They also paint a worrying picture of the way that Discretionary Housing Payment schemes (DHPs)—supposedly put in place to help people locally—are actually working when it comes to helping the sick and disabled.

The government claims that discretionary housing payments are available for people who have significant disability yet Habinteg found that, where information was available to them, it showed disabled people being refused DHPs. Three out of the four case studies featured had been turned down for DHPs.

One recent heart wrenching case, highlighted by the Mirror, featured a family who were battling to keep their home so they could continue to care for their disabled grandson, Warren, who suffers from a rare condition that means he needs ongoing care. Their case shows the callousness of the Bedroom Tax policy. They do not have a spare room. The room the council calls ‘spare’ is actually a room for Warren’s medical equipment and for his carers to sleep in. The judge at the judicial review backed the government stance by saying: “at the forefront of my mind Warren is grievously ­disabled and that his grandparents have undertaken a heavy responsibility and burden”, but that he had to set that against, “extreme national financial austerity”.

This extreme national austerity was hardly in evidence when David Cameron offered as much money as needed to flood victims and reassured them 'money was no object' because we are a very wealthy nation. One rule for flood victims, quite another for a seriously ill child!

The family is now stuck with having to apply regularly for a DHP. They have no security, and a very ill fourteen-year-old boy may still be forced to move to inadequate accommodation. This case really does highlight the callous and cruel way disabled people have come to be treated in modern Britain.

The current situation is not only cruel but also chaotic. The lack of any real agreement between local authorities creates the circumstance where a disabled tenant in one local authority gets support, and yet someone in the authority next door doesn’t. This seems a deliberate and cynical undermining of the principals of the welfare state. It pushes responsibility onto cash strapped local authorities whilst exempting national government from blame. Challenging unjust decisions has also become much harder. Advice agencies are struggling to cope and there have been massive cuts to legal aid, meaning it has become extremely difficult for those affected to appeal.

As it becomes harder for individuals to fight the devastating effects of sweeping changes to the social security and housing system, other parties have taken up the struggle. There have been appeals made to the government, asking them to address the way their reforms have particularly targeted the sick and disabled. The Disability Benefits Consortium called on the government to take immediate action and exempt the disabled from the bedroom tax. But so far the government has seen fit to ignore the group of more than fifty charities.  They have also ignored church leaders, floods of appeals from the sick and disabled themselves, and those on the ground telling them the system isn’t working. All of this leaves some of societies most vulnerable members being treated with utter disregard by benefits agencies, local councils, and housing authorities in a callous display of passing the buck. No one, it seems, wants to take responsibility for making sure sick and disabled people have adequate housing and enough income to live securely.

This callous disregard causes even more harm than denying individuals the right to a suitable home. In order to provide cover for their unprecedented attacks on the sick and disabled, this government has used lies and spin – and the right wing media – to conduct a campaign of shocking proportions. Ian Duncan Smith has been officially rebuked for manipulating social security statistics. The mendacious stories in the right wing media continue apace. Programmes about those on benefits litter our TV channels. And we as a nation now show a disturbing lack of empathy towards the sick and disabled. They are characterized as either lying scroungers who aren’t really ill (almost daily by the Mail and Express) or as an unwelcome burden for a nation on its financial knees.

This atmosphere in the UK has led to a climate where one hundred and eighty disability hate crimes are committed every day. And in a recent survey 38% of people stated they thought the disabled were a burden to society. These are the sorts of views in line with the eugenics arguments of old, and they thrive in the nasty atmosphere created by the coalition. The housing issue is but one piece of a very unpleasant jigsaw that is the emerging picture of how this country treats the sick and disabled.

Safe and secure housing for the disabled is a right. It is a right supposedly recognized by the government, and yet every single piece of policy direction is opposing this right. The government really has to look at the way their policies are affecting some very vulnerable people. After all, it has been said many times that you judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable – and ours is treating them in a disgusting manner.


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