Just before Christmas 2010, David Cameron gave a speech on families and relationships to the counselling service Relate. Families, the Prime Minister asserted, “are immeasurably important” – not just to our personal life, but “important to our national life too”. They are “the building blocks of a strong, cohesive society”.
At the time, few would have opposed the Government’s commitment to supporting families. But, for disabled people and their families, this principled position has not translated into practical policy. Far from it. Just a month after the speech to Relate and the Government’s commitment was vociferously challenged by Riven Vincent, the mother of a disabled child, in a moving message published on the Mumsnet website in which she wrote: “We simply cannot cope and neither can families up and down the country, just like ours. We are crumbling.”
Sadly, Riven’s family are not alone; many families who care for disabled children are often pushed towards breaking point as they struggle to juggle various demands, from caring for their child, fighting to get the support they need, and living in a society that still isn’t fully accessible for disabled people. The combination of all these factors puts enormous pressures on families.
Since the May 2010 election, the Government has initiated £18 billion worth of cuts to welfare benefits, including benefits for disabled children. At the same time, it has reduced funding settlements – budgets for social care provision and other vital services – for local authorities across the country. For the last two years, the disability charity Scope and the think tank Demos have been following the plight of six disabled families as these cuts have come into effect. The impact of the cuts on disabled people has been mapped via the report series Destination Unknown.
The fourth and final report is published today – two years on from the Emergency Budget. Among the stories set out within it is that of Aisha and her family. Aisha is four years old. She was born with Cerebral Palsy, and has quadriplegia and epilepsy. She lives with her mother, who is her full-time carer; her father, who works; and her brothers and sisters. While the Government have asserted their commitment to families, the new report reveals that since the Emergency Budget the Government’s welfare reforms have cost Aisha’s families and others like hers over £30 million.
Aisha’s mother struggles to look after her – and the other children – by herself. Aisha’s father, who works, has had to start taking unpaid leave to help out with caring responsibilities. A few months ago he collapsed from the pressure. Aisha’s sister, who is only ten years old, now helps look after the child and take her out. Problems with securing support from local services for Aisha has taken its toll on her mother’s mental health and has caused her to go back onto medication for depression and anxiety. As Aisha’s father is the sole earner in the family, and starts work at 5am, he is often unable to help out with caring for Aisha during the night – the ‘night shift’ as they call it (a term I’m sure many families up and down the country probably know all too well). Because of this, Aisha’s parents have to sleep in different rooms during the whole week so that one is on duty while the other one can sleep. This, Aisha’s mother says, “puts a strain on family and married life” – two things that the Government have always claimed to champion. “Time together is just gone.”
Aisha’s story is not unusual; neither is Riven Vincent’s. If it is to fulfil its commitment to families like Aisha’s, the Government has to understand the full range of pressures disabled families face and the impact that the cuts and changes to support have on their lives. The report concludes with urging the Government to change the way it does impact assessments when introducing new reforms all at once. The Government should not just consider the impact of how many people are affected by one new policy; it must look at the impact on families like Aisha’s of multiple changes – to DLA, ESA, child benefit, etc. – coming into effect all at once. Without this, there is a real risk that families like Riven Vincent’s and Aisha’s will continue to crumble and the true human cost of austerity is overlooked.