Disabled activists have welcomed Labour’s promise to scrap universal credit (UC) if it wins power at the next general election as a victory for years of campaigning.
But they have warned the party that they still want to know how UC will be replaced before they give the plans their whole-hearted approval.
Labour’s announcement comes after years of campaigning by disabled activists, particularly Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC, pictured)), and organisations such as Black Triangle, Sisters of Frida and Inclusion London.
Countless individual disabled activists have also called repeatedly for Labour to change its previous policy that demanded the government “pause and fix” the system and commit instead to “stop and scrap” UC.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said this week, in an announcement originally planned for last week’s party conference, that a Labour government would “scrap” the “inhumane and cruel” UC and replace it with a social security system that focused on “alleviating and ending poverty, not driving people into it”.
Labour would also replace the Department for Work and Pensions with a Department for Social Security on “day one” of a new government, said Corbyn.
And it would introduce an “emergency” package of reforms – including scrapping the benefit cap and ending the five-week wait for a first UC payment by introducing an interim payment after two weeks – while it developed a replacement system.
Labour said it hoped to reduce the assessment period for UC to one week so claimants receive their first payment about 10 days after making their claim, but they say this may take time to introduce because of the complexity of the UC system.
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “Universal credit is a cruel and inhumane system that has left many disabled people destitute, unable to heat and light their homes and going without food.”
After the Labour announcement, the new work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey told the Conservative party conference in Manchester that UC “provides a safeguard for the most vulnerable in our society” and that it “supports strivers who are not content living a life on welfare”.
She said that one of her priorities was “to continue to improve universal credit to ensure that people get the money they need in a timely manner, are helped into work, and onto an escalator up to better work”.
But those comments came as a fringe meeting heard from the head of a homeless charity – which provides services just a short walk from the party conference – that UC was causing early deaths, addiction, mental distress and suicides, with claimants “at the end of their tether” (see separate story).
De Cordova said Coffey’s defence of UC was “obscene” and added: “Her party has caused untold suffering for disabled people and so many others, but they continue to bury their heads in the sand.”
Disabled activists who were protesting outside the Tory party conference this week welcomed Labour’s decision to scrap UC, with some reservations.
Rick Burgess, from Manchester DPAC and Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said: “It’s good that they are saying they are going to stop and scrap it, but they need to engage with us about the replacement.
“That is what we need now, to be confident that we are going in the right direction. We wait to hear from them.”
He warned that Labour had apparently still not committed to scrap all benefit sanctions, but only the Tories’ “punitive sanctions regime”.
He said: “They can’t just talk to the usual suspects about what they are going to replace it with. They need to talk to disabled people and the grassroots organisations.
“It was a system not designed by or for disabled people.”
He added: “I think a lot of people should be quite happy that their efforts have pushed the Labour party to that position.
“Sometimes it feels like we are fighting against a brick wall but clearly that moved the Labour party.”
Burgess said DPAC had – from the beginning – examined universal credit and realised that it needed to be scrapped, persuading unions that were originally against scrapping UC but just calling for it to be fixed.
He said: “Everyone has come to our way of thinking. We were right, and the experience people had with UC – poverty, homelessness, starvation – has been exactly as we predicted.”
He also said he was concerned that a Labour government would just “rebadge” DWP as the Department for Social Security.
He said: “They also need to change the culture. Key personnel certainly need firing, and probably need prosecuting.”
Dennis Queen, another of the DPAC activists protesting against the Tory government outside the conference on Monday afternoon, welcomed Corbyn’s announcement, which she said was “really good news”.
But she warned: “I don’t think anyone is going to hand our rights to us on a plate. I will be interested to see the details of what they propose to implement instead.
“We are going to have to fight for our rights whoever is in power.”
Piers Wilkinson, the disabled students officer for the National Union of Students, said Labour’s announcement was a “move in the right direction” and “feels long overdue”.
But he said he wished there had been more emphasis from Labour on the fact that UC had “effectively targeted” disabled people and women.
He also said he wanted to see what a replacement system would look like and added: “Any future social security system has to be designed by people who are using it: Nothing About Us Without Us.
“If Labour are really serious about changing the current system to make it not punitive and exploitative and life-destroying then we need to design it and not people who have never used it.”
Paula Peters, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said there had been “tireless work” by many activists that persuaded Labour to change its position, with disabled campaigners often “being a lone voice in the room when everyone else’s view differed from yours”.
But she warned that Labour would still have to be elected, and then activists would “have to hold them to their word and make their policy pledges become reality”.
She added: “We have so much more to do. But never say campaigning never makes a difference. It does.
“We can effect change. We can make a difference.”
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