Activists hope an historic House of Commons debate will prove a significant step towards forcing the government to assess the overall impact of its welfare reforms on disabled people, and to scrap the hated “fitness for work” test.
Backbench MPs agreed to hold this week’s debate after more than 100,000 people added their names to a petition created by the War On Welfare (WOW) campaign, fronted by the disabled comedian and actor Francesca Martinez.
It is the first time that disabled people have secured a debate in the main Commons chamber on an agenda they have chosen themselves.
Although the WOW motion was passed successfully at the end of the debate – with many MPs abstaining but few if any voting against – it does not commit the government to take any action.
Members of the WOW petition group now plan to meet with other disabled activists to discuss the next step in their campaign.
Rick Burgess, a co-founder of the WOW campaign, said the debate had added to the pressure on the government over its welfare reforms. He said activists might now even “have them on the run”.
He said some of the campaigning groups that had worked so hard on the WOW petition would now take some time to analyse the debate and what it had achieved, and then “plot the appropriate next step”.
Burgess himself was ejected from the public gallery after heckling Conservative MP George Hollingbery early in the debate.
He was furious that Hollingbery appeared to be reading out a briefing provided by work and pensions ministers, rather than trying to engage in a serious debate.
Burgess said: “We didn’t come all this way to have someone who doesn’t know what he was talking about reading out a report that we have already read.
“It was just disrespectful and patronising; he didn’t even know what the words meant. I think he was sent there [by ministers] to read that crap out.”
He added: “We know more [about the welfare reforms] than most of the people in that chamber.”
Ian Jones, another WOW co-founder, said: “It is too early to say we have achieved anything. We worked so hard to get there and it is possibly only the start of the campaign.
“We have got it on the agenda, but we want to get some tangible benefits.”
He said he and fellow campaigners hoped that the petition could return to parliament in some form.
He said: “As far as we are concerned, this was another step in the campaign. We want to make sure this doesn’t just disappear.
“This has to progress because 104,000 people and MPs in the house have agreed that there is a need for something to be done, for the government to do something and to consider the petition in its entirety.”
Jones said he was encouraged by the suggestion by the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, that his civil servants could work with the Centre for Welfare Reform, which last week published its own impact assessment of the reforms on disabled people.
And he said the various campaign groups might try again to devise an alternative to the work capability assessment, the government’s much-criticised “fitness for work” test.
John McArdle, a founding member of Black Triangle, another of the disabled-led groups which played a key part in securing the 100,000 names on the petition, said the debate would provide a “historical record of the sheer terror of disabled people”, many of whom were being “driven to destitution” by the welfare reforms.
He said: “It was excellent that we had the historic debate, the first time in British history that disabled people themselves have secured a debate in the House of Commons.
“It was good to see MPs speak about what had happened to their constituents, but we need action.”
He added: “It is fantastic that disabled people have mobilised to get their voices heard in such strength.”
And he agreed with Jones and Burgess that the debate was just the latest step in the campaign.
He said: “We are going nowhere. We are going to carry on fighting.”
27 February 2014