The five candidates to be the next leader of the Labour party have raised issues such as accessible transport, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and the deaths of benefit claimants over the last 10 years, a new analysis has shown.
Disability News Service (DNS) has examined its archives to show how often the five candidates who have reached the next stage of the leadership contest – Sir Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry – have stood up for disabled people’s rights.
Although it is a crude measure of their overall commitment to disability rights – as it only includes DNS news stories – it does demonstrate many of the issues the candidates have addressed since DNS was launched in April 2009.
Slightly more than half of the mentions came through the MPs’ work as shadow ministers – or, in the case of Starmer, as head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – but probably more significant are the occasions they have spoken out in their roles as MPs.
Last month, it emerged that Starmer, an MP since 2015 and a current frontrunner in the contest, had been working behind the scenes for several years to seek justice for the family of his constituent Michael O’Sullivan, who took his own life after being unfairly found fit for work.
Welfare rights expert Nick Dilworth said last month that the MP had been working “tirelessly” with the family to piece together a case against the Department for Work and Pensions and its contractor Atos.
Nandy’s efforts on disability rights – mostly related to access to transport – have been mentioned four times by DNS since she was elected for the first time in May 2010.
The most recent was when she appeared last September on a panel alongside the mother of Jodey Whiting, who took her own life after unfairly having her benefits stopped.
Nandy told the audience that successive Tory-led governments had “picked on disabled people” and “kicked them off PIP and they denied them the right to the benefits that they needed, thinking that these were the people that were least likely to be able to fight back”.
But she has also raised issues of access to transport for disabled people on at least three occasions in parliament.
In October 2011, she secured a Commons debate on accessible transport, and later raised concerns about the access arrangements made by the Commons authorities for the debate.
She had earlier been reported describing how disabled young people had spoken to her of the “indignity and humiliation” they faced when they tried to travel by train.
The following year, Nandy supported disabled activists who were raising concerns about inaccessible bus travel, and the impact of the government’s planned cuts to disability living allowance.
In 2014, Thornberry raised concerns in a Commons debate about the impact of the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) on disabled people in her north London constituency.
She said: “Although the local authority has undertaken to continue that support next year for those currently in receipt of ILF, the authority cannot give any guarantee that that funding will go on in future, in particular given that Islington council is facing 40 per cent cuts over the year.
“Discretionary funding such as for independent living will be difficult to find.”
The latest mention of Thornberry, an MP since 2005, came following an appearance on BBC’s Question Time in October 2018, when the host David Dimbleby and two panellists were criticised for mocking the idea of using “silent applause” to make political events more accessible for autistic people.
Thornberry showed some sympathy to the actions of a students’ union that had encouraged members attending democratic events to use British Sign Language (BSL) applause instead of clapping.
She said: “I think there are people, particularly on the autistic spectrum, who find it very difficult to go to places that are noisy and where there may be something about democracy going on.”
But she added: “They may be excluded. I can see where this is coming from. The difficulty is that it is very deeply engrained in our culture that we clap, so I don’t know.”
Rebecca Long-Bailey, another frontrunner and seen as the favoured candidate for those on the left of the party, has been mentioned just once by DNS, although she has only been an MP since 2015.
She was reported by DNS as attending a protest organised by Disabled People Against Cuts that had been held outside parliament to mark the death of its co-founder Debbie Jolly and to call for an end to the government’s welfare reforms, although there was no report of any comments made by the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.
The protest was also highlighting the government’s “outrageous” refusal to accept any of the 11 recommendations made by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which in September 2016 had found the UK guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.
The fifth candidate, Jess Phillips, has not been mentioned by DNS since she became an MP in 2015.
Starmer was also mentioned frequently in his previous role as head of the CPS and director of public prosecutions (DPP) between November 2008 and 2013.
He was first mentioned by DNS in July 2009, when as DPP he responded to a demand by the Law Lords that he must clarify the law on assisted suicide.
The interim guidance he produced in September 2009 was heavily criticised by disabled activists, who said it sent out “disturbing signals” about how disabled people are treated, although the response to the final guidance the following year was less critical.
In December 2009, a CPS annual report showed the number of disability hate crime cases prosecuted in the courts had more than doubled in a year.
Starmer also had to respond to concerns in August 2009 that CPS was often failing to allow people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties to give evidence in court.
He said that they “must have the same opportunity as anyone else to give evidence and to have that evidence treated seriously”.
In September 2011, he responded to a report by the equality watchdog, which found that a “culture of disbelief” was preventing authorities from addressing disability hate crime. Starmer described the report as “an important benchmark for the challenges facing us”.
The following year, he was able to welcome figures that showed CPS had achieved a sharp rise in the number of successful convictions for disability hate crime.
He also appears to have played a part in ensuring CPS took forward prosecutions of care workers who ill-treated disabled people at an NHS day centre, following a DNS campaign, after prosecutors had originally refused to prosecute.
CPS was heavily and repeatedly criticised for its failings in dealing with the case, including a failure to attempt to persuade the judge at the eventual trial that two care workers who were found guilty of abuse should be sentenced for disability hate crimes.
In March 2011, Starmer was praised for a speech on disability hate crime, in which he said CPS was doing a lot of good work but was “still in the foothills” when it came to tackling the issue and supporting disabled victims and witnesses.
Thornberry was mentioned twice in her previous role as a shadow care services minister.
In May 2011, she accused a Liberal Democrat minister of making “false claims” about cuts to care and support services.
In a Commons debate, she said she had surveyed directors of adult social services in England and found that 88 per cent were increasing charges and 16 per cent were tightening eligibility criteria, and that the failure to address funding shortages in social care was “reckless and wrong”.
The following month, she raised concerns that a report into social care funding reform was to be “strangled at birth”.
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