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

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.