Labour pledges ‘transformation’ of social security as it fleshes out disability policies

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Labour has pledged to “transform” the social security system and to set out a bill to repeal cuts to disabled people’s benefits within a year, in one of the headline measures of a mini-manifesto devoted solely to disability issues.

The document, Nothing About You, Without You, was launched last weekend in Manchester, and expands on policies laid out in the party’s main election manifesto, as well as including some new pledges*.

One of these is a promise to develop a network of “independent living hubs”, which would “be run by disabled people, foster independence, facilitate peer or advocacy support” and provide practical support.

This mirrors the pledge made by the Labour government in its Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People report in 2005, which called for every area to have “a user-led organisation modelled on existing CILs [centres for independent living]”.

The party has told Disability News Service (DNS) that it will ensure local authorities have the resources to create these hubs, although decisions on whether to set them up will be made locally.  

There is also a promise to halve the disability employment gap, a pledge originally made by the Conservative party in 2015 but now dropped from its latest manifesto after the government made little or no progress towards achieving the target over the last two years.

Labour has so far declined to say how long it would take to halve the gap, other than “as soon as possible”.

The disability manifesto also says that local public sector or voluntary organisations would carry out the new “personalised, holistic” assessments that it previously announced would replace the heavily-criticised work capability assessment and personal independence payment (PIP) assessment.

Labour’s disability manifesto is the product of a series of disability equality roadshows held across the country over the last six months, a process headed by the shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams, with the party stressing that it has been produced “with and for disabled people”.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (pictured) said disabled people had been “demonised and dehumanised by the Conservative’s devastating cuts and a social security system which punishes, rather than supports, disabled people”.

He said: “Labour will ensure that disabled people and people with mental health conditions have access to the support they need and will work with disabled people to build an inclusive society, where no one is held back from fulfilling their potential and realising their aspirations.”

Much of the document is devoted to attacking the record of the Conservatives in government over the last seven years, while there are few details about the policies Labour is proposing.

One such example is its pledge to “build more accessible and disabled-friendly new homes” as part of a commitment to build 100,000 new affordable homes every year.

When DNS asked what proportion of these homes would be built to Lifetime Homes standard and how many would be wheelchair-accessible, the party said this would be “needs-led”, although a Labour government would make funding available for councils to “assess and fully meet local needs”.

Despite the lack of detail in the disability manifesto, there are many statements of principle – and some firm policies – that are likely to attract disabled voters.

The document pledges to deliver an education strategy that is “inclusive”, and says a Labour government would replace the current assessment for the new education, health and care plans – introduced under the coalition government’s Children and Families Act 2014 – an eligibility test that Labour says is being used to restrict support to “all but those with the most severe needs”.

The disability manifesto also promises to “change the culture of the social security system, from one that demonises sick and disabled people to one that is supportive and enabling” and is “efficient, responsive, and provides basic support”.

It also promises “stronger laws and proper enforcement of the Equality Act” to protect disabled people from discrimination at work and when applying for jobs, and says there will be a new right to flexible working for “employees with an impairment or chronic condition”.

There is a pledge to ensure university courses are accessible to disabled students, “including through scrapping tuition fees, [and providing]course support and support for living costs” – although there is no mention of whether a Labour government would reverse Tory cuts to disabled students’ allowance – and another to increase the number of disabled apprentices.

And there is a pledge to provide “seed corn funding” to develop local organisations offering “supportive” employment for disabled people who cannot participate in mainstream work.

It says that an example of the kind of enterprises that might benefit is Enabled Works, in Leeds, a workers’ co-operative that was set up following the closure of the Leeds and Pontefract Remploy factories.

On public transport, the disability manifesto promises to stop the expansion of driver-only operated trains, because “guards are essential for allowing disabled passengers access to trains”, while Labour will reverse the cut to the funding of the Access to All rail station access improvement programme, first revealed by Disability News Service last year.

There is also a promise to “open up democracy” to disabled people, by ensuring that the party’s own disabled members can “participate fully in all local party activities, and that there is a fair and accessible selection process for all candidates for local, regional and national levels of political office”.

The disability manifesto pledges to make “reasonable adjustments for disabled candidates in recognition of the additional costs that they face”.

But there is no mention of reopening the Access to Elected Office Fund, which provided funding for the extra costs faced by disabled candidates seeking election to parliament and local councils, and was closed by the Conservative government after the 2015 election.

*One of the only analyses of Labour’s disability manifesto to be published so far, by disabled activist David Gillon, can be found here