The disability movement looks set for a legal showdown with the government, after the coalition prepared to force deeply unpopular measures within its welfare reform bill into law.
More than 20 disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and other charities are now discussing a possible legal case against the government.
Leading figures in the movement had already discussed halting cooperation with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) if the bill becomes law, because of their anger at the government’s failure to listen to disabled people’s views about its reforms and cuts to disability benefits.
But their frustration reached new levels this week when the government signalled that it would take advantage of the rarely-used “financial privilege” procedure to overturn seven amendments to the bill that had been passed by members of the House of Lords.
The use of financial privilege means that peers will not be able to reinstate those seven amendments into the bill.
Several of the amendments that were overturned by MPs this week would have reduced the impact of government cuts to disability benefits, particularly to employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.
But despite months of protests, meetings with ministers and civil servants, marches, petitions, and a high-profile direct action in central London last weekend, the vast majority of the government’s original package of welfare reforms are now almost certain to be introduced.
Leading figures in the disability movement appear to accept that they will probably be forced to take legal action against the government once the bill becomes law.
Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), told Disability News Service that he hoped to call a meeting with leading DPOs and disability charities “to consider what we do next”.
But he said legal action had already been discussed, because the government was continuing to “ignore the potential threats to disabled people’s independent living”.
He said: “Ultimately, that is probably what it will come down to: taking that level of legal action against the government.”
He said the government’s actions showed that while ministers had appeared to be engaging with disabled people, they were “not listening”.
But Dhani said he disagreed with activists who have suggested a possible boycott of communication with DWP, although he understood their frustration.
He said such a boycott would simply give the government a “free licence to do what they want to do” because they would “see us as giving up”.
Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, said the legal action could target proposals to scrap working-age disability living allowance and replace it with a new personal independence payment (PIP), and to cut spending on ESA.
Coyle agreed with Dhani that boycotting all engagement with DWP would be self-defeating, and pointed to limited improvements to the bill that had been secured through discussions with the government, including more extensive trialling of the new PIP assessment, and the scrapping of plans to remove mobility payments from disabled people in residential homes.
Coyle also said there was likely to be a demonstration under the banner of the Hardest Hit campaign, which is led jointly by UKDPC and members of the Disability Benefits Consortium, to “make clear our dissatisfaction with being shut out of the decision-making process”.
2 February 2012