Campaigners told a packed fringe meeting at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton, hosted by the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) and the Disability Benefits Consortium, that society was “going backwards”, while disabled people’s human rights were being eroded.
Jaspal Dhani, UKDPC’s former chief executive, said that disabled people’s “national identity” was being “redefined” as “vulnerable and without dignity”.
He said: “The relentless onslaught of attacks… are eroding our fundamental human rights almost to the point of no return.”
He pointed to the “appalling behaviour of Atos”, the “shameful impact of the bedroom tax”, the “heart-breaking ridiculousness of the work capability assessment (WCA) and employment and support allowance decisions”, the “drastic cuts to disability living allowance (DLA)”, and the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund in 2015.
Dhani called on Labour to “express solidarity with disabled people firmly in its manifesto”, and to ensure that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was “fully implemented”.
The disabled Labour activist and blogger Sue Marsh said that Labour could have more than £10 billion more funding to support disabled people if it stopped giving “billions and billions and billions of pounds” to outsourcing giants like A4E, Atos and Serco, money that was currently “just being flushed down the toilet”.
She called on Labour to value the contributions of all disabled people, not just those in paid work, and to make it easier for people with fluctuating conditions to move on and off social security according to when they were able to work.
Eleanor Southwood, RNIB’s vice-chair for external affairs, who is seeking to become Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the seat of Harrow East, said that concerns about the number of disabled people who would lose support under the move from DLA to personal independence payment (PIP) were “pretty scary”.
She pleaded with her party to “have courage” and to not only bring in practical measures around welfare reform, but also to “change the debate and keep changing it”.
She said she felt like society was “going backwards” and that she was stuck “in a Dickens novel… [with politicians]talking about the deserving and the undeserving poor”.
She said: “The responsibility of the Labour party… is to create a society in which we can value everybody’s contribution.”
Kirsten Hearn, another disabled party activist and chair of Inclusion London, said Labour should recognise that investing in the health and social care of disabled people “will stimulate the economy, not deplete it”.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said she “bitterly” regretted that – under the coalition – disability had been defined only in relation to the benefits system and only in “negative” terms.
She said: “It is a change in attitudes that will really see through equality for disabled people, because then there will be no distinction between disability and non-disability.”
She criticised the flimsiness of the government’s disability strategy, and said the challenge for Labour was to bring back a “rights-based approach” to disability policy.
McGuire also said that old-style incapacity benefit had often “abandoned” disabled people, and that this should not happen to those who become disabled during their working lives.
Marsh later told another fringe event – organised by the centre-left blog LabourList – that the government had failed with every element of its “so-called welfare reforms”, with hundreds of thousands of disabled people losing support, the “bedroom tax pushing people out of their homes”, and half a million people stuck in the appeals system because of the failure of the WCA and the company Atos, which carries out the tests.
She added: “For all the pain and misery, for all the cuts, how much have this government managed to cut the benefit bill by? It has gone up by £20 billion.”
Marsh said Labour must be prepared to talk about social security and to remember that “welfare is not a dirty word”, and “social security means the security to live in society, not in the fringes”.
She said public opinion was already turning away from cuts to social security, and “towards a party that offers compassion”.
25 September 2013