Election 2017: Labour’s rights pledges suggest vindication for Abrahams

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Labour’s general election manifesto includes a string of policies aimed at improving the rights of disabled people, including a commitment to incorporate the UN disability convention into UK law for the first time.

The manifesto appears to be a vindication of the efforts of shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams (pictured), who headed a national disability equality roadshow that aimed to co-produce the party’s disability policies alongside disabled people, although the process was cut short by the prime minister’s decision to call a snap general election.

It offers a stark contrast to the disability manifesto Labour published before the 2015 general election, which offered few concrete pledges around disabled people’s rights.

The party stresses twice in its new manifesto that it follows the social model of disability, a rights-based approach that sees the party pledging to “remove the barriers in society that restrict opportunities and choices” for disabled people.

It says: “The next Labour government will sign the UNCRPD [the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities]into UK law.

“Labour will act to tackle discrimination, remove barriers and ensure social security delivers dignity and empowerment, not isolation and stigma.”

Among the barriers it pledges to tackle is the “social isolation” faced by autistic people, with the party pledging to make the country “autism-friendly” by working with employers, trade unions and public services to “improve awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace and in society”.

It also promises to legislate to make terminal illness a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, and says it will give full legal status to British Sign Language.

Alongside a pledge to start renationalising the railways, Labour promises to introduce legal duties to improve access for disabled rail passengers, while it will reform laws on taxis and private hire services with “national standards to guarantee safety and accessibility”.

It also promises to push sports bodies to make “rapid improvements” on improving access for disabled fans.

Although it does not promise to reverse the “devastating cuts” to the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which it says reveal the Conservative party’s “real attitude” to equality and discrimination, it says it would enhance the commission’s “powers and functions” and make it “truly independent” to “ensure it can support ordinary working people to effectively challenge any discrimination they may face”.

There is also a pledge to “reinstate the public sector equality duties” – the “specific” duties introduced through Labour’s Equality Act 2010 but subsequently removed by the coalition – and even seek to extend them to the private sector.

The manifesto makes a series of pledges on social security, promising to “change the culture of the social security system, from one that demonises people not in work to one that is supportive and enabling”.

Its welfare policies were overshadowed by its apparent admission that it could not afford to abandon the Tory benefits freeze that is set to last until 2020 and affects disabled people in the employment and support allowance (ESA) work-related activity group (WRAG) and on other mainstream working-age benefits, which is having an increasingly severe impact because of rising levels of inflation.

Although the party says it would scrap the hated “bedroom tax”, it only promises – as it has before – to end the government’s “punitive sanctions regime”, rather than scrapping all benefit sanctions.

It promises to reverse both the highly-controversial cut of £30-a-week for new claimants in the ESA WRAG – introduced this April by the government – and new government regulations that will make it far harder for people with experience of severe mental distress to secure mobility support through personal independence payment (PIP).

A Labour government would also scrap the work capability assessment, and the assessment process for PIP, and replace them with “a personalised, holistic assessment process that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers”.

It would end the use of private companies to carry out assessments – meaning an end to the lucrative government contracts enjoyed by the outsourcing giants Maximus, Atos and Capita – and put an end to the “pointless stress of reassessments for people with severe long-term conditions”.

The party also says that it would commission a report into expanding the Access to Work programme that provides funding for workplace support for disabled people.

On social care, Labour says the system will need an extra £3 billion in public funds every year, which it says would allow it to “place a maximum limit on lifetime personal contributions to care costs, raise the asset threshold below which people are entitled to state support, and provide free end of life care”.

It has not yet decided how to fund this, but says it would “seek consensus on a cross-party basis about how it should be funded, with options including wealth taxes, an employer care contribution or a new social care levy”.

It promises to “lay the foundations” for a National Care Service, which would be built “alongside the NHS”, with a shared requirement for “single commissioning, partnership arrangements, pooled budgets and joint working arrangements”. 

Despite a series of pledges on housing, there is no mention of addressing the shortage of accessible housing, a failing matched by the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru in their pitches to voters.

There is also a promise to deliver a strategy for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) that is “based on inclusivity”, although no pledge to work towards a fully inclusive education system.

And Labour promises to increase the number of disabled people securing apprenticeships.

The manifesto also says that a Labour government would report annually on violence and disability hate crime against disabled women, and produce national action plans, in accordance with the Istanbul Convention.

The manifesto has far more of a focus on disabled people than the other manifestos published so far, with 31 mentions of the words “disabled people”, “disability” or “disabilities” compared with just one in the Plaid Cymru manifesto and only six in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Labour is also the only one of the three parties to say that it supports the social model of disability, which explains that it is the barriers in society – and not people’s impairments – which disable people.

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