Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has confirmed that a Labour government would set up an independent inquiry into the deaths of disabled benefit claimants linked to the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its private sector contractors.
The inquiry pledge had previously been made only to Disability News Service (DNS) in a background briefing last week by a Labour party source.
There were concerns that this pledge – which has been widely welcomed by disabled people over the last week – had not appeared in the party’s disability manifesto, Breaking Down Barriers, which was published on Tuesday.
But McDonnell (pictured) told DNS this morning (Thursday): “I am contacting you on behalf of Marsha de Cordova [Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people] and myself to confirm that this is Labour policy and an inquiry will go ahead when Labour goes into government.
“Labour will fulfil the promise Jeremy Corbyn and I gave during our campaigns to highlight the tragic deaths of disabled people resulting from austerity under the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
“We will hold an inquiry into these deaths.
“It’s critically important that people are made aware of the brutal treatment meted out to disabled people and lessons are learnt so that this never happens again.”
Breaking Down Barriers expands on many of the disability policies included in Labour’s main general election manifesto, and highlights how – despite nagging concerns over a small number of policies – it has the most extensive and detailed set of policies for disabled people of all the parties fighting next week’s general election.
Among those policies, the disability manifesto says that a Labour government would end the privatisation of disability benefit assessments and bring them in-house.
It would then “work with disabled people’s organisations to develop a replacement to the current assessments based on a personalised, holistic assessment framework that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers”.
It also clarifies its position on benefit sanctions, promising in a section on universal credit that it would “immediately suspend” all benefit sanctions and “ensure that employment support is positive not punitive”.
It also expands on the party’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) policies, promising a strategy that is “based on inclusivity” and which embeds SEND “more substantially into training for teachers and non-teaching staff at all levels of education”.
And it promises a review – in partnership with disabled people’s organisations – of sports, arts and leisure venues to determine how to improve accessibility.
On neurodiversity, the disability manifesto says only that it would “work with trade unions and employers to raise awareness of neurodiversity… in the workplace, in public services and across wider society”.
That is despite McDonnell – who has played a significant part in raising the profile of neurodiversity in the party – telling newly-formed Neurodivergent Labour (NL) that Labour would take its “ground-breaking” Autism and Neurodiversity manifesto into government “to ensure its implementation”.
He said in a statement sent to NL’s first agm on Saturday: “This policy programme will transform people’s lives. Labour in government will work alongside you to bring this to fruition.”
The NL manifesto includes calls for the government to ban quack cures for autism, to make neurodivergence a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and ensure that non-harmful unusual behaviours are not criminalised, but none of these policies appear in Labour’s disability manifesto.
Janine Booth, chair of Neurodivergent Labour, said that many of the pledges in the disability manifesto, on issues such as social care, benefits and justice, are “in line” with the NL manifesto and “don’t specify neurodivergence because they apply to all disabled people not just neurodivergent people”.
She said: “We are delighted that John McDonnell made clear on Saturday that Labour in government will implement our Autism and Neurodiversity Manifesto.
“Of course, we would have liked to see absolutely everything in the manifesto for disabled people. But I wouldn’t expect everything to appear.
“We have our commitment from John McDonnell and we will be holding the Labour party to it in government.”
She added: “Labour’s manifesto in 2019 is even better than in 2017, so we feel that our ideas and demands are making headway. And, of course, we keep on campaigning.”
There are some concerns over the party’s pledge to build 150,000 council and social homes every year and whether all of them would meet strict accessibility standards, despite the government facing legal action over its own failure to act on the accessible housing crisis.
There is also no mention of whether a certain proportion of these homes would have to be built to wheelchair-accessible standards.
A background briefing provided by the party this week merely repeats a confusing reference to accessible housing in the disability manifesto, which says the homes would be built “using the ‘lifetime homes’ standard a condition for homes, enshrining criteria for accessible and inclusive housing design, including wheelchair accessibility” [sic].
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, said in a statement alongside the publication of the disability manifesto: “The treatment of disabled people by Conservative and Lib Dem governments, from devastating cuts to social security support, to cruel and unnecessary assessments, and a complete failure to address the disability employment gap, should be a source of shame.
“Labour will put right this injustice. We’ll ensure that disabled people get the support they need to lead independent lives and participate fully in society. We are on your side.”
De Cordova, one of the few disabled MPs in the last parliament, added: “I am proud that Labour is the only party with a manifesto developed by and for disabled people, according to our principle of ‘nothing about you without you’.
“Labour in government will embody that principle, empowering disabled people and enhancing our voices.
“Breaking Down Barriers takes us beyond what we’ve previously committed, and sets out how we’ll radically shift our approach to ensure the economic, social and structural barriers faced by disabled people are addressed.”
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