Work and pensions ministers have been told that their rhetoric on disability benefits is fuelling an atmosphere of hatred and hostility towards disabled people.
On the same day that six national disability charities warned that the government’s focus on “fakers and scroungers” was causing disability hate crime, a coalition minister was told his colleagues’ approach risked creating an atmosphere similar to 1930s Nazi Germany.
The Liberal Democrat care services minister Paul Burstow had been addressing a joint meeting of 10 all-party parliamentary groups on the government’s plans for reforming the social care system.
The disabled crossbench peer the Countess of Mar told him that disabled people were facing public hostility, with strangers accosting them in the street and accusing them of faking their impairments.
She said: “I don’t need to remind you what happened in 1930s Germany when disabled people and older people were regarded as a burden on the state. We do not want to sleepwalk into that situation.”
Burstow said he found it “completely abhorrent” that anyone would take the government’s “legitimate discussion about how our welfare systems work” and “translate that to an entitlement to abuse and degrade a person who lives with a disability”.
He added: “I do not accept that we are in conditions that [could repeat] the history of the German state in the 30s and 40s.”
But the disabled Labour peer Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins said the “vilification that people are getting on the streets” was “causing such damage to people’s lives”, and said Burstow should ask fellow ministers to “make positive statements that disabled people are not scroungers”.
Burstow agreed to put the request to Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, and her fellow Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers.
Only hours before the meeting, six national charities had criticised the government in an article in the Guardian. It is understood that the article followed comments made by disabled activists to reporters at last month’s direct action protest at Oxford Circus.
Over the last 12 months, Disability News Service (DNS) has reported frequently on disabled people’s concerns that ministers’ language and DWP’s misuse of benefits statistics were stirring up hostile, disablist media coverage around welfare reform.
Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, told DNS that DWP had “deliberately fuelled hostility towards disabled people”, for example by describing “disabled people” and “taxpayers” as different groups in press releases.
He said: “It is unclear yet if DWP has taken any action against employees who use such negative stereotyping to try and justify government cuts to the essential support disabled people currently receive.”
Fazilet Hadi, RNIB’s group director, inclusive society, who is blind herself, said it felt as though disabled people were “a group under siege”, with the government drawing false distinctions between “disabled people” and “tax-payers” and between “deserving” and “undeserving” benefits claimants.
She said the government had “added to a cocktail of things that are happening” and needed to be “a lot more careful about the language they use”.
She added: “They don’t have to make us feel that we are the fraudsters, that we are the ones who are swinging the lead.”
Scope pointed to a survey it carried out last September, which found increasing numbers of disabled people were experiencing aggression, hostility and name-calling, while growing numbers thought that other people believed they were faking their impairments.
Scope’s chief executive, Richard Hawkes, said the “often misleading facts and figures” released by DWP on welfare reform were “playing directly into a media narrative about the need to weed out scroungers and bring down a bloated benefits bill”.
The National Autistic Society, Mencap and Leonard Cheshire Disability also criticised DWP.
DWP declined to comment.
9 February 2012