The minister for disabled people and London’s mayor faced repeated, angry heckling from activists when they addressed a conference held to discuss disability issues in the capital.
Maria Miller and Boris Johnson were constantly interrupted in their speeches at the mayor’s annual Disability Capital event by disabled people and other campaigners angry about brutal government cuts to disability benefits and services.
They were asked to explain why the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics were being sponsored by Atos, the much-criticised company that carries out “fitness for work” tests for the government.
Before Miller’s arrival, banners highlighting the deaths of several disabled people – deaths linked by families, friends and campaigners to welfare reform and the work capability assessment – were ordered to be taken down by conference staff.
When a heckler warned Johnson that disabled people would be protesting at the Paralympics if Atos was involved in the games, he said: “They are perfectly entitled to protest against it as I am entitled I think to support the Paralympic games, and that is what I propose to do.”
Johnson promised to “do my best to answer your questions about why Atos is sponsoring the Olympics”, while Miller told the audience: “A lot of people seem to have an interest in Atos. Why don’t we take that as a question afterwards?”
But most of the questions in their joint question and answer session had been submitted in advance, and neither Johnson nor Miller responded to the questions about Atos, with Johnson asking for any such questions to be put to him in writing.
There was also considerable anger when – in response to a question submitted by Inclusion London, on whether planned cuts of 20 per cent to spending on disability living allowance (DLA) meant the government was breaching its duties under the Equality Act – Miller appeared to suggest there was widespread abuse of DLA.
When she said that £600 million a year was “going to people whose conditions have changed, who may have been receiving DLA for up to 20 years without being assessed” and that the “vast majority of people who receive DLA do not have lifelong conditions”, one disabled heckler shouted out “we are not frauds”, while another added “shame on you” and a third said “that’s a lie”.
There was also an angry reaction when – in response to complaints that disabled people on benefits could not afford to attend the Olympics – Johnson replied that “90 per cent of tickets are under £100”.
Later in the morning, the former Paralympian Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, who had been asked to speak about London 2012, ended her speech with a call for disabled people to contact her with their “views and opinions and cases” about the government’s welfare reform bill.
The crossbench peer gave out her Lords email address – firstname.lastname@example.org – and asked disabled people to contact her with material she could use during debates on the bill.
She said the bill had made her “probably the most depressed I have ever been in my life as a disabled person”, and added: “We need to fight and keep making a difference and make the government listen.
“We need people’s views and opinions and cases so we can go back through the committee and the report stage and argue really strongly to try and get it into a better place than it is.”
But when the peer was asked – as a member of the 2012 organising committee – whether she was concerned about the involvement of Atos, she said she was not involved with sponsorship issues and that she would be “taken less seriously” when debating the bill in the Lords if she was to speak out publicly now.
One of the disabled activists who heckled Johnson and Miller, Claire Glasman, from the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, said afterwards that it was “a disservice to the Paralympic athletes who worked really hard and fought discrimination” to be associated with companies such as Atos.
She said of Miller and Johnson’s failure to answer the Atos question: “I think they are skirting around it because they want the sponsorship, but people’s lives are more important than the sponsorship.”
20 October 2011