MPs are set to debate the combined impact of the government’s cuts to disability benefits and services early in the new year, after a petition led by disabled campaigners hit its 100,000 target with just days to spare.
Supporters now face a battle to persuade MPs to back the petition publicly, in order to persuade a committee that there is enough support for the debate to take place in the main Commons chamber, rather than the smaller, lower-profile Westminster Hall.
The WOW petition, spearheaded by the disabled comedian and activist Francesca Martinez, reached its target on 30 November, just 12 days before the cut-off point.
This meant the petition could be put before the Commons backbench committee, which hears bids every week from MPs keen for debates on certain subjects to take place in parliamentary time put aside for backbenchers.
The focus of the WOW petition is the need for a cumulative impact assessment on the cuts and other reforms affecting disabled people, an immediate end to the much-criticised work capability assessment, and an independent inquiry into welfare reform.
“Rick B”, one of the originators of the petition, said: “In July 2012, I almost died because of how the government treated me. Many have not been as fortunate.
“Another founder of the campaign, John Dyer, sadly passed away in November before we reached 100,000 signatures.
“So we are resolute to take this democratic mandate and pursue the cause of making justice for sick and disabled people and carers a reality.”
Michelle Maher, another originator of the petition, added: “I became involved because of my cousin, who had been living with Parkinson’s for five years, with osteoarthritis and diabetes.
“Her claim for DLA [disability living allowance] took 18 months to settle and she was in sheltered accommodation when she had to attend a tribunal. She was frightened, stressed and confused by the process. Inhumane.”
The Labour MP John McDonnell, backed by party colleague Grahame Morris, appeared before the backbench committee this week to put the case for a debate on the WOW petition.
Although the committee’s chair, Natascha Engel, confirmed that a debate would take place, she said they would need to provide “quite a long list” of cross-party MPs to justify holding it in the main chamber.
Earlier, McDonnell had attended a meeting in a parliamentary committee room, held by WOW petition organisers and attended by several other Labour MPs.
McDonnell had told the disabled activists attending the meeting that he wanted the debate to be held in January, and in the main Commons chamber, and that he was hoping to gain cross-party support.
He said that the government’s refusal to carry out a cumulative impact assessment “beggars belief”, and added: “We are trying to shape the debate from here on in so no political party can avoid addressing the issue.”
McDonnell told the meeting that direct action and lobbying of MPs would have to continue, despite the petition’s success.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the government did not want to carry out a cumulative impact assessment because it would expose the pressure every public service was under and “show an absolutely disastrous situation for disabled people”.
Green said that Labour might not agree with every one of the demands in the petition but she said there was “a lot of ground for a… conversation”.
She said the petition was a “really strong statement” on the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and showed there were a lot of disabled people who will “just not tolerate being the whipping boys of this government”.
Paula Peters, a disabled activist, said campaigners needed to pressure Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs to attend the debate, perhaps by attending their constituency surgeries.
5 December 2013