A senior Labour shadow minister has launched a stinging attack on the government’s record on disability rights, and announced plans to work with disabled people to develop new policies that will “turn rights into reality”.
The speech by Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary has been seen by many disabled activists as a long-overdue response by Labour to the coalition’s prolonged attack on disability benefits and services.
Byrne said the coalition had “quite simply crossed the threshold of decency” by saying to disabled people that “we won’t help you work, we won’t help you get out of the house”.
He said that he, Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, and Liz Kendall, its shadow care services minister, would be “travelling the country” to ask disabled people, carers and public service and business leaders how to “repair the damage” done by the coalition.
He said there was a need to “end the business of wrapping disabled people and their families in red tape” through multiple and repeated assessments, so they would be asking how local councils, the Department for Work and Pensions and the NHS could offer a single, joint assessment for health, social care, benefits and back to work support.
Byrne – who had previously been heavily criticised for not doing more to attack the coalition’s cuts to disability benefits and services – said Labour believed benefits were a “key weapon in the war against poverty”, with disabled people far more likely to be living in poverty than non-disabled people.
And he accused the coalition of “trying to destroy” the last Labour government’s efforts to improve disabled people’s life chances, and said it had “abandoned” any pretence at co-producing policies with disabled people.
Byrne also accused Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, of “demonising” disabled people, and criticised his claim to a reporter that many workers in Remploy factories just sat around “making cups of coffee”, while he pointed to concerns that “selective briefings” by work and pensions ministers were “inflaming hate crime”.
Duncan Smith’s comments about Remploy workers – and his claim in a subsequent newspaper interview that disabled people given lifetime DLA awards had been allowed to “fester” – caused huge anger among disabled activists this week, and re-ignited claims that he and his fellow ministers had helped stir up hostility towards disabled people.
Byrne highlighted in his speech how disabled people had been hit by social care cuts, threats to equality laws, legal aid reforms, and cuts to employment and support allowance and disability living allowance (DLA).
He said DLA provided “help with costs and barriers to the quiet miracle of ordinary life which two thirds of disabled people say they know are there”, and was used by many to stay in work.
He added: “If this vital support is knocked away, then disabled people will be simply forced to quit. And that’s what many of you are saying will happen if the criteria proposed [for the government’s planned personal independence payment] are implemented.”
But a source close to Iain Duncan Smith hit back after the speech and accused Byrne of “scaremongering” and “heckling”.
She told Disability News Service: “It is clear that this government is absolutely committed to supporting disabled people and we continue to spend more than £40 billion a year on disabled people and their services.
“By contrast, Liam Byrne has not even bothered to turn up to key debates on disability in the House of Commons, such as the debate on the government’s response to Liz Sayce’s report on Remploy factory closures.”
She added: “The current benefit system that we inherited from the Labour government is not always reaching those who need it most, which is why we will be introducing the new personal independence payment to ensure people get the right levels of support.
“And our reforms are more than just changes to benefits. We are implementing the recommendations from the Sayce Review to use the £320 million protected budget for disability employment services more effectively, to get thousands more disabled people into mainstream employment.”
17 May 2012