Why more action is needed on cuts to disability benefits

A letter from leading charities criticising cuts to mobility allowance is a good starting point – bu

The cuts to Disability Living Allowance (DLA) are among the cruellest announced in last year's Spending Review, given the devastating impact they will have on the quality of life of an already marginalised group.

Let's just recap. DLA – a hard-won benefit – currently costs £12bn a year and faces cuts of 20 per cent. For the first time ever, medical examinations will be introduced in 2013-2014 to assess eligibility for the benefit. Charities including the Disability Alliance are sceptical about this, suggesting that its aim is to remove 380,000 claimants from the benefit, rather than "simplify" the system.

In addition to this, George Osborne announced plans to save £135m by abolishing the mobility component of DLA for the 80,000 severely disabled people resident in care homes. This is a weekly payment of up to £50 a week, used to pay for taxis, petrol for staff cars and powered wheelchairs, and to lease specially adapted cars. With severe mental or physical disabilities, most are unable to use public transport. The money allows them to have a social life and prevents them from becoming prisoners in their residential homes.

The Times (£) reports today that a group of 27 leading charities, including Mencap, Mind and RNIB, has written a letter to the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, urging them to reverse the decision.

"Removing this benefit will take us back to the Dark Ages, essentially stripping people of control over their lives and leaving them stuck in residential care homes," says Mark Goldring, chief executive of Mencap.

It is an important move, and one hopes it will highlight the issue. But more needs to be done to mobilise public opinion against this particular inhumane cut and to put pressure on the government. A leading disability lawyer, Mike Charles, told the BBC at the weekend that there could even be a legal basis to challenge it:

The Human Rights Act says individuals have a right to family life, have a right to a quality of life. The whole purpose of the DLA is to put them on an equal playing field with everyone else.

Any proposal that fails to appreciate those fundamental rights could find it is an infringement of the law. My view is even if it's not against the letter of the law, it is against the spirit of the law.

At the Netroots conference last Saturday, the difficulty with highlighting the budgetary assault on the disabled was raised repeatedly: it is not a "sexy" issue, and there are the obvious difficulties of mobilising large numbers of people for protest action. The key must lie in humanising the matter – people will be unable to get out of the house once a week to socialise, and there are others who, as we heard in a fringe session, are contemplating suicide because of their fear of losing their DLA.

This message must be publicised in an accessible way, with innovative protest action that brings it to people's attention.

As the (partial) reversal on school sports budgets shows, changes can be won. The consultation on DLA ends on 14 February. We have a duty to do as much as possible before then.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser