A newly-elected MP has accused the government of putting its “head in the sand” over the damage caused by years of cuts that have been “targeted” on disabled people.
Marsha de Cordova, one of two newly-elected disabled Labour MPs, says she believes the government would never have targeted other groups in the way it has treated disabled people.
She says it was a “telling sign” that the government had failed to carry out an assessment of the cumulative impact of all its cuts and reforms on disabled people since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, a point made earlier this month by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD).
De Cordova (pictured) was speaking to Disability News Service (DNS) at her party’s annual conference in Brighton, less than a month after CRPD told the UK government to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.
She says: “Even with that report done, the government is still head in the sand [saying], ‘We are doing amazing stuff for disabled people.’
“What the government have done is they have targeted a group that they do not believe have a voice and that they don’t believe will fight back, and that is why disabled people have been hit the hardest.”
But she adds: “We do have a voice and we do fight back.”
She promises to return to parliament after the party conference season and hold the government to account over the UN report.
She says: “They think it’s OK… to say that actually they are helping people more than ever before, and I know and most people know that that categorically cannot be true.”
De Cordova – a law graduate who wrote her final-year dissertation on part of the Disability Discrimination Act, before specialising in welfare rights, and working for the visual impairment charities Action for Blind People and Thomas Pocklington Trust – promises to use her voice to fight for the rights of disabled people in parliament.
Her first duty, she says, is to her constituency, but she says she has always been a disability rights activist and “will continue to champion and fight for the rights of disabled people.
“I am definitely going to be a voice in parliament because I don’t believe there has been a strong enough voice [for disabled people] previously.”
Her own access experiences as a visually-impaired MP since the election have been mixed.
She was phoned by a member of parliamentary staff the day after June’s general election – having unexpectedly overturned a majority of nearly 8,000 to beat Tory former health minister Jane Ellison by more than 2,000 votes in Battersea, south London – to arrange a visit the following day to discuss her access needs.
She was able to choose an office close to the Commons chamber, and while the necessary computer software and large print parliamentary papers have been arranged by the parliamentary authorities, it has proved “a bit more challenging” to obtain large print copies of reports that are not published by parliament, such as the Taylor review of modern working practices, which was published a few weeks after her election by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
She said: “Trying to obtain a large print copy of [reports like that] in any reasonable time frame is a little bit more challenging and that is a challenge that I will need to sort out.
“We need to get some solutions for the [House of Commons] library and others to ensure that these reports are available in alternative formats on the day they are published. And that goes for the publishers as well.”
It’s a problem she also faced with her own party, which has been heavily criticised this week over its treatment of disabled members (see separate story).
Although she says her party was “fairly supportive” during the election campaign, she still did not have a large print copy of the manifesto “from day one”, although she insists that Labour is “the most progressive party when it comes to anything concerning disabled people and disabled people’s rights”.
As a welfare rights expert and a disabled person, she says she was “incredibly pleased” to have been elected onto the Commons work and pensions select committee.
She supports her party’s position on benefit assessments, calling for the tests for both personal independence payment and employment and support allowance (ESA) to be scrapped and replaced “with some sort of universal benefit assessment system” that is based on the social model and the extra costs faced by disabled people.
She is also angry about the government’s decision to cut weekly payments to new ESA claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) by nearly £30 a week, and is dismissive of the excuses given by the minister for disabled people, Penny Mordaunt.
One of those explanations is that the government would spend £330 million of the £1 billion savings over four years on additional employment support for people in the WRAG, including a “personalised support package”.
But de Cordova says: “Have you seen any new programmes, have you heard of any new policies? I haven’t.
“And yet you have pushed more disabled people into hardship by making that £30 cut.”
She says this and other welfare reforms introduced by the coalition government from 2010 were carried out to make “significant cuts to the social security income that goes to disabled people, and that’s a fact.
“PIP was introduced solely to reduce expenditure by 20 per cent; no ifs, no buts, that’s a fact, it’s all there in black and white.”
De Cordova says the proportion of PIP claimants whose decisions are overturned at appeal is “shocking”.
“Get the decision right in the first instance and imagine the impact that will have on that individual,” she says.
She says it is “incredibly important” that the work and pensions committee scrutinises the government’s response to the consultation on its work, health and disability green paper, which is expected this autumn.
A key priority for her is looking at ways to narrow the disability employment gap, which she says is “pretty scandalous”.
She believes that one of the key drivers behind the gap is employer attitudes.
She says: “I think government policy over the last seven years – seven-plus years, because I think the Labour government were guilty of this as well – has been to put all the emphasis on the individual, and not enough has been done to encourage and support employers to eliminate those barriers… to employing disabled people.
“I think more work needs to be done there.”
She says the government’s Disability Confident scheme – which aims to improve employers’ attitudes and policies on employing disabled people – is “laughable”.
“You could be Disability Confident as an employer but not employ any disabled people,” she says. “If you’re going to have a scheme that ensures employers are disability confident, you have got to have some really rigorous checks and balances.
“Employers should be obliged to say how many disabled people they employ and how many they have interviewed.”
Another crucial element of any disability employment strategy, she says, is to involve the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
De Cordova is almost as scathing about the Liberal Democrats as she is about the Conservative government, because of their role in the austerity-driven coalition between 2010 and 2015.
The idea of Liberal Democrats criticising government social security policies, such as the rollout of universal credit, she says, is “a bit of a joke because in their five years in government they introduced many of these welfare reforms”, including PIP, time-limiting the contributory form of ESA to 12 months and the bedroom tax.
“All of those things were introduced by the Liberal Democrats in coalition so they have no credibility when they talk about the impact of any of these issues,” she says.
De Cordova used part of her maiden speech in parliament in July to highlight the importance of her mother’s efforts to keep her out of the special school system.
She told fellow MPs: “When I was at primary school, the headteacher thought that it would be better if I was sent to a special school, but my mother was having none of that and fought tooth and nail to keep me in mainstream education.
“I can safely say that I would not be the woman I am today, or an elected member of parliament, had it not been for her.”
Now she wants to examine the impact of education cuts on funding for special educational needs in her constituency.
She says she will be “fighting for greater inclusive education”.
She adds: “I don’t believe that as a disabled person you automatically cannot be educated in a mainstream school.”
Disabled people’s rights have been “pretty much dismantled” by the government over the last seven years, says de Cordova.
Asker what her message is to disabled activists who have been fighting throughout those seven years against government cuts to their support, and see further cuts ahead, she promises to use her voice in parliament to hold the Conservatives to account.
“I will use all the levers that are available to me in parliament to do that,” she says. “More importantly, what we need is a Labour government.”