Campaigners against the Bedroom Tax, a measure that could add to the financial burden of disabled people. Photo: Getty
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Debt and disability: the real cost of being disabled in Britain

Disabled people have seen their dignity and their budgets shredded under this government; Labour is looking to challenge this.

During the 2010 election, David Cameron proudly claimed, "the test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society. And that test is even more important in difficult times, when difficult decisions have to be taken, than it is in better times".

Disability has always created a premium that makes making ends meet harder. Scope’s recent report Priced Out shows how disabled people pay on average £550 a month extra for everyday living costs. These come from having to buy more of everyday things, such as heating or taxis, as well as the costs of specialist items to help manage their impairment or paying more for regular goods and services, like insurance, than non-disabled people.

Yet four years on, life for disabled people in David Cameron’s Britain is harder than ever as they have been amongst the worst affected by the decisions his government have made. At the same time as he has presented millionaires with a tax cut, disabled people have seen their dignity and their budgets shredded. Whether it’s the introduction of the unfair bedroom tax, the undermining of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, or changes to legal aid funding, disabled people have borne the brunt of austerity.

Little wonder Scope’s report showed that they are also twice as likely to have unsecured debt – such as payday loans, log book loans or credit card debt – totalling more than half of their household income. Even the Government’s own research shows this group is over-represented among high cost borrowers, with 18 per cent reporting using this credit compared with 5% of non disabled people. In Cameron’s Britain, a group already vulnerable to financial pressure is being "looked after" by the legal loan sharks and doorstep lenders, not the government. Indeed, Scope found that disabled people are three times more likely to take out doorstep loans than those without.

Debts don’t just make day-to-day living harder; they also narrow your horizons, as it is impossible to plan for the future if you can’t be sure you can keep a roof above your head or feed your family. The spiral of debt many disabled people now face from loan repayments and rising household bills is compounded by the additional difficulties of finding work that can work for them. We believe every person’s contribution to society should be valued, regardless of whether or not they can work. Yet we also know that confronted with second-rate employment support, many disabled people who want to work are missing out on the chance to boost their incomes. Characterised by delays, incompetence and unacceptable levels of inaccuracy, both the work capability assessment and the work capability programme have lost the trust of disabled people.

It isn’t right that those who face the greatest barriers in society are expected to shoulder the biggest burden. That’s why, together with disability campaigners, Labour called on the government to undertake a cumulative impact assessment that will assess the full impact of austerity on disabled people. Now we must understand their debt profile too. Payday lending is recognised as so toxic to consumers that the entire industry has been referred to the Competition Commission. Yet we are only at the start of understanding just how badly particular groups within our society have been affected by the delay in tackling this industry, and the consequences for society as a result. The government must conduct urgent research to get a clear and accurate idea of the impact on disabled people, and use this to inform the developing role of the Financial Conduct Authority in protecting vulnerable customers.

A Labour government would take determined action to tackle the additional financial pressures faced by disabled people – repealing the bedroom tax, freezing energy prices and a root-and-branch reform of the Work Capability Assessment to ensure it becomes a genuine route into work for those who’re able to take up employment. We also know we will have to find creative solutions to support disabled people with the additional living costs they face, whilst maintaining our commitment to the cap on social security spending. Many of the recommendations in Scope’s report, along with the work of the independent disability and poverty taskforce that has contributed to Labour’s policy review, will be useful to us in exploring these solutions further. Cameron has failed his own test to look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society. Labour is determined to rise to the challenge.


Stella Creasy is Labour MP for Walthamstow and shadow minister for competition and consumer affairs; Kate Green is Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston and shadow disability minister

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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