Disabled activists have explained why they needed to hold the government to account over its “sickening” and “degrading” cuts by protesting outside this week’s Conservative party conference in Manchester.
The protest, organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), saw disabled people take a central role in the middle of wider anti-austerity protests that took place throughout the event.
As Conservative delegates entered the conference – often to angry verbal abuse from mainly non-disabled protesters – many disabled activists held up placards showing a picture of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith dressed as a prison convict, and the accusation: “GUILTY… OF DISABILITY HATE CRIMES.”
As well as DPAC supporters, there were representatives at the protest from the WOWcampaign, New Approach, Black Triangle, and local disabled people’s organisations, including Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP).
Brian Hilton, of GMCDP, said he was there to show Conservatives that “we are not going to take any more”.
He pointed to the “punitive and demeaning” work capability assessment, the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF), the impact on disabled people of the bedroom tax, and the “stress and distress” caused to disabled people – often with long-term, degenerative impairments – by continually being reviewed and re-assessed for their eligibility for support.
He said: “It’s another cut and another cut. We are still reeling from the closure of the ILF. Some people have had their packages decimated.”
He warned that the cuts that had already been carried out under the coalition were “nothing to what is still to come”, and that “it is disabled people bearing that burden”.
Another local disabled protester was Chris Hammond, who was at the protest just days after she and colleagues had been made redundant by the disabled-led arts company Full Circle Arts, following the loss of its Arts Council and local authority funding.
Hammond, who was the company’s artistic director, said she did not expect the protest to succeed in changing government policy, but she added: “At least we are here and we are seen and heard rather than them having a nice, quiet conference.”
Full Circle is now running on a shoestring budget, without an office, staff or phone lines.
Hammond said that her message to delegates was that the cuts were “hurting real people”.
She said: “They shouldn’t believe their own propaganda. Anyone who is not working is seen as feckless and useless.
“They make you feel like the ‘useless eaters’, that we are just a burden. It would quite suit them if we just went away.
“That is why it is important that we are here today, that we are not going to just go away. That they [know they] are hurting people.”
Another resident of the city, Rick Burgess, co-founder of New Approach, said: “As a Mancunian, I do feel outraged that they keep coming here, closing down the city, when they are not remotely welcome.
“It does feel like the Raj, where colonial dignitaries would come and hold court in one of the provinces.”
He said it was vital – with Duncan Smith now considering the next stages of his reform programme – that he was made aware of the impact of his policies, which he said were killing people.
He said: “If he does choose to continue to make things terrible… [then we will know that] this is malicious, it is not policy, it is not a mistake, it is deliberate.”
Dennis Queen (pictured), another disabled activist from Manchester, said she wanted to show Tory delegates that “they are not welcome here”, and to tell them that the United Nations were now investigating the UK government for “heinous crimes against the disabled people of this country”.
She said: “Our blood is on their hands. We insist that they look us in the eye as they walk in and understand that we know what they are doing to our people, that we know it is not an accident, and that disabled people fight back.”
Activists and campaigners also joined the protest from many other parts of the country.
One of them was Nichole Drury, who spoke of how her mother’s out-of-work benefits were removed because she had on two occasions been too unwell to attend a work capability assessment.
Her mother, Moira, had a number of health conditions, but spent the last six months of her life fighting the Department for Work and Pensions over its decision.
She told her daughter, before she died, that the stress of dealing with DWP – which she said failed to tell her that she had a right of appeal – had contributed to her health deteriorating.
She said she had travelled to Manchester for the protest because “the system is cruel and it is unfair and it seems like the weakest and most vulnerable are being targeted by the cuts”.
She added: “People like my mum don’t fight back because they can’t.”
She said there was an ongoing investigation into how her mother’s case was dealt with by a senior DWP civil servant*.
Miriam Binder, from Brighton DPAC, said: “I am here because I am absolutely disgusted by the impact of the austerity cuts on all vulnerable people, but disabled people in particular.”
Despite her support needs increasing over the last five years, she still receives the same nine hours of personal care a week that she did in 2010.
It means she has to sleep in a nappy, even though she is not incontinent.
She said: “I find it very degrading. If you left a baby in a soiled nappy for that length of time, you would have to answer to social services. I am not incontinent, I just cannot get to the toilet.”
Although she has no hope that the government will listen to the protesters, she said she still needed to travel to Manchester for the protest.
She said: “If I don’t tell them what I think of them, I have no excuse. How could I look my grandchildren in the face if I did nothing?”
Chris Hughes, a member of Disability Derbyshire, said he had travelled to Manchester because he was “sick to death of the government and its cuts”.
He said that disabled people’s organisations across the country were being shut because of council cuts to funding, as were legal advice centres.
He said: “Disabled people are having their hours cut, they are being forced to wear nappies [because of a lack of support].”
People who were previously receiving visits from care workers that lasted an hour were now forced to put up with only 15 or 20 minutes, he said, while many people had lost all night-time support or now only received support three nights a week.
He said: “They are forcing disabled people back onto charity rather than independent living.”
Bob Williams-Findlay, a former chair of the British Council of Disabled People, said he hoped the protest would “raise awareness” and “provide a platform that we can all build on”, and he encouraged fellow activists to “keep the pressure on day after day after day, not just for one-off events”.
He said disabled people were among those at the “sharp end of austerity” who were “getting hammered left, right and centre”.
He said that people who were not capable of work were being told they were, and were being forced off benefits and “left with no money”.
He said: “We know that over the last five years there have been people with various impairments killing themselves because they cannot cope with what is going on in their lives. Iain Duncan Smith [the work and pensions secretary] is totally responsible for that.”
Eleanor Lisney said she was in Manchester partly to mark the five years since she helped launch DPAC as part of a mass protest march outside the first Tory party conference of the coalition government, in Birmingham, in October 2010.
She said: “Five years later I am just so frustrated and angry. Five years ago, people said we were scaremongering.
“We resolve to fight on and that is why I am here. We are fighting in the trenches.”
Sean McGovern, an activist and a direct payments adviser with Disability Advice Service Lambeth, said he works with people whose social care packages “are being cut to the bone”, often by a third or a half, while disabled people were being asked to increase their financial contributions towards their social care.
He said: “People are just about getting their statutory rights; even then it is touch and go.
“But they are becoming more isolated, particularly elderly people, those who do not have a voice.”
Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOWcampaign, said the protest was about “ratcheting up the pressure” on the government.
He said: “The Tories need to realise the very strong under-current of feeling against their policies in the country, and sooner or later it is going to bubble to the surface.
“The biggest thing I am hearing at the moment is people on indefinite disability living allowance awards being reassessed [for the new personal independence payment]. They are absolutely terrified that they are going to lose their help and support.”
Paula Peters, from DPAC, said she was there to protest about the “horrendous attacks” on disabled people over the last five years, including homelessness and benefit sanctions rising “through the roof”, the closure of ILF, the cap on Access to Work payments and the scandal of benefit-related deaths.
She said: “We are angry and we are going to show them we are fighting back. This government has blood on its hands.
“We will fight for justice, for our rights, with everything we have.”
And Rob Punton, from Birmingham DPAC, said: “We hope to make ordinary Conservative people realise the effect the policies of their ministers are having on ordinary people’s lives.”
He pointed out that former ILF-users were being told by councils that their support packages would have to be cut.
He said: “This government put out the Care Act and talks about well-being and empowerment and fulfilled lives but their cuts to people’s support mechanisms – be it housing support or Access to Work – goes against everything that that says.”
*A DWP spokeswoman said: “Our sympathies are with [the family], but it is wrong to suggest a link between a benefit decision and someone’s death.
“The work capability assessment is designed to look at what someone can do with the right support – rather than just writing people off on sickness benefits as happened in the past.
“It is important that people supply sufficient evidence – including medical evidence – when making a claim, as it could affect their benefit entitlement.”