Labour will always defend the rights of the disabled

Our failure to build an economy in which disabled people can play their full part leaves us all the poorer.

Ed Miliband has talked of building a One Nation Britain in which everyone’s rights are respected, everyone’s contribution recognised, and in which everyone has a responsibility to play their part. Nowhere could the notion of One Nation be more tested than in the way we treat disabled people – whether at work, at home, in the community and in our democracy.

Last year, the eyes of the world were on the UK as we hosted the successful and joyous Paralympic Games – and celebrated dozens of medal wins. There’s no question the Paralympics brought disabled people into the spotlight. According to a recent survey from the charity Scope, most think the impact on public attitudes was very positive.

But today, as we mark the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we must acknowledge that there’s still a long way to go. Scope’s survey also found that more than half of disabled people report continuing discrimination in their daily lives as the Paralympics effect begins to fade. As set out in Labour’s own report, Making Rights a Reality, disabled people experience unacceptable levels of disadvantage, exclusion, stigma, abuse, violence and hate crime.

Our failure to build an economy in which disabled people can play their full part leaves us all the poorer. Many disabled people work, and more want to. But they’re less likely to be working than non-disabled people, and when they are in work, they earn less, and they progress less.

Labour believes all disabled people who are able to work should work, and should have the chance of decent employment. That’s why we want to make work work better for disabled people, developing better support to help them gain the skills they need.

Luckily, good employers, like Sainsbury’s, which we’re visiting today, or Central Manchester Hospitals, already recognise the potential of disabled people, and the value they bring to their business. Imaginative employers work with their disabled staff to adapt their workplaces, and to give real chances to disabled people.

Beyond the workplace, disabled people fulfil many other roles in society – as family members, friends and neighbours, and as volunteers, citizens and campaigners. We should recognise and celebrate all these roles - yet too often we exclude people, judge and condemn them.

Volunteering is important to many disabled people. But too often cuts to services, like local community transport or day centres and lunch clubs, or rigid and unfair benefits rules, shut them out. And the vicious and unfair bedroom tax risks tearing many away from the roles and relationships they have developed.

The government’s lobbying bill – now "paused" for six weeks in response to widespread opposition to proposals to limit the activities of campaigning groups – could have dire effects for disabled campaigners. It is simply is unacceptable that additional obstacles should be placed in the way of disabled people.

It is the very worst and most shocking cases, like last week’s horrifying story of the murder of Bijan Ebrahimi, or the scandal at Winterbourne View, that ram home the message that every barrier we put in the way of disabled people’s participation, every derogatory comment that’s made, whenever undignified or demeaning treatment is tolerated, ultimately lead to, and help to legitimise, the most unspeakable and evil cruelties.

No civilised society should tolerate that, and Labour never will. We pledge that we will always speak out against dishonest, stigmatising, hurtful and offensive portrayals of disabled people, and that we will celebrate their lives and their contribution to our communities. And today, as we mark UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we are proud to do just that.

Rachel Reeves is shadow work and pensions secretary and MP for Leeds West
 
Kate Green is shadow minister for disabled people and MP for Stretford and Urmston
Demonstrators protest against the bedroom tax outside the High Court on May 15, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rachel Reeves is shadow work and pensions secretary and MP for Leeds West

Kate Green is shadow minister for disabled people and MP for Stretford and Urmston

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation