ON 7TH NOVEMBER the UN published a long-awaited report from an inquiry last year under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It was triggered by complaints from disabled campaigners and lengthy submissions from the Disabled People Against Cuts research team, led by our late co-founder Debbie Jolly. The findings conclude that there is reliable evidence of grave or systematic violations of disabled people’s rights by the UK government due to welfare reform. It is the first time a state has ever been investigated in this way and the findings are a damning indictment, although they come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the attacks waged by the Tories since 2010 on disabled people and the poorest members of society.
The Tories are clearly nervous of their record on disability. They chose to trail their 2016 party conference with the announcement that some people with unchanging lifelong conditions will no longer need to be continually reassessed for work capability. The DWP evidently had a very careful media strategy for the launch of the Green Paper, Improving Lives, in the first week of November. They broke their own embargo on their pre-launch announcement in order to keep control of coverage and ensure the impact of the UN report was limited. The report went live on the UN website at 4pm the day before the US presidential elections, too late for that day’s news cycle but making it old news by the Tuesday. The campaigners who triggered the inquiry never saw a copy of the report or the government’s response prior to publication, yet it was leaked to the Daily Mail who ran a piece aiming to discredit the report’s authors.
There is good reason for the nervousness, with disability issues having gained an unprecedented political profile at the start of 2016.
- The House of Lords embarrassed the government by repeatedly voting against the Welfare Reform and Work bill in January and February;
- damage was sustained to Osborne’s reputation as he was forced to do a U-turn on cuts to Personal Independent Payments (PIP) announced in the March budget;
- Zac Goldmith’s defeat in the London mayoral elections followed a name and shame campaign against MPs like him who had voted in favour of the cut to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA);
- and when Iain Duncan Smith resigned in March, surreally posing as a champion of disabled people against cuts he said were going too far, it was clear that disability was an area where the Tories were feeling weak.
Theresa May’s government appears to be working hard at avoiding public criticism but in reality the reforms they are offering are extremely limited while the situation on the ground is growing unimaginably worse.
- We still have in place the Work Capability Assessment, the bedroom tax, the Access to Work cap and a punitive sanctions regime;
- growing numbers of disabled people are being found ineligible for PIP and having their motability cars taken away;
- from 1st April 2017 ESA for those in the Work Related Activity Group will be cut by nearly £30 a week;
- the lowering of the benefit cap and introduction of Universal Credit will see hundreds of thousands of households with disabled members worse off;
- and the crisis in social care is set to get even worse with the next rounds of budget cuts.
The Green Paper fails to present any proposals that will effectively support more deaf and disabled people into employment, while increasing conditionality, suggesting that all claimants of ESA with the highest support needs could be told to stay in regular touch with their local jobcentre or risk having their benefits sanctioned.
Underpinning the proposals is the idea that work is good for you and that everyone, regardless of their impairments and the barriers they face, must be pushed into employment activity as an overriding priority. There is no recognition of the negative impacts of unsuitable employment or of the potential ineffectiveness or even harmfulness of the mandatory short-term therapeutic interventions into which job centre advisors are to be encouraged to push claimants with mental health support needs.
It is a dismal and depressing picture but we must take hope and battle on. We must continue to expose what is happening and fight for an alternative to the brutal austerity measures offered by the Tories. Ellen Clifford speaking at the LRC AGM Photo: Summer Dean