The risk of UK government cuts to disability benefits widening the health gap between disabled and non-disabled people is “a clear worry”, according to one of the world’s leading experts on health inequalities.
Professor Sir Michael Marmot was speaking to Disability News Service (DNS) at the launch of a major review into the social factors that influence health inequalities across Europe.
His report warns that the effects of the economic crisis could become a “public health emergency” if they are not addressed immediately by the governments of 53 European countries.
And the report says that countries that develop more socially-cohesive societies, higher standards of living and housing, better welfare systems and improved education and health services see “remarkable health gains” in their populations.
It adds: “Social injustice kills and causes unnecessary suffering.”
Professor Marmot’s warning about cuts to disability benefits by the coalition is the latest to come from both international and UK experts suggesting that the government’s austerity package is risking “social damage”.
Last month, Dr Laszlo Andor, the European Union’s commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, told DNS that the UK government should have done more to “minimise the social damage” caused to disabled people and other disadvantaged groups by its austerity measures.
His intervention came after Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s special rapporteur on housing, called on the UK government to suspend its controversial “bedroom tax” because of its impact on disabled people and other “vulnerable” groups.
Now Professor Marmot has suggested that the UK government’s austerity measures risk widening the health gap between disabled and non-disabled people.
He told DNS: “Unless you make sure that people with disability are treated fairly, you will find they are the ones who have difficulty with housing, income, not getting employment…
“That is a clear worry and we should make sure we document that clearly and make sure that there is not an extra source of disadvantage.”
He added: “The things that I said about housing, income and employment; they are extra concerns for people with disability.”
Professor Marmot told a press conference to launch the report: “If the poor and vulnerable get poorer and more vulnerable they stop being consumers.
“If you make the poor even poorer they can’t participate in the recovery. It makes economic sense not to be pounding on those lower down.”
And he made clear the serious consequences of governments not acting during an economic crisis.
He said: “A three per cent rise in unemployment is associated with a three per cent rise in suicide if a government does nothing.
“The greater the expenditure on social protection, the smaller the rise in suicide associated with the rise in unemployment.”
He added: “I would say to any government that cares about the health of its population: look at the impact of their policies on the lives people are able to lead and, more importantly, at the impact on inequality.
“Health inequality kills. It is socially unjust, unnecessary and avoidable, and it offends against the human right to health.”
Among his review’s recommendations is for governments to introduce policies that recognise the “health and social consequences of economic austerity packages”.
It adds: “Current economic difficulties in countries are a reason for action and not inaction on social determinants of health.”
The three-year review was commissioned by the World Health Organization’s regional office for Europe, and led by Professor Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College London.
The review offers guidance on social policies that reduce inequities in health both between and within low, middle and high-income countries.
30 October 2013