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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Brexit is an opportunity to rethink our economic model

Our industrial strategy must lift communities out of low-wage stagnation, writes the chair of the Prime Minister's policy board. 

With the long term fallout of the great crash of 2008 becoming clearer the issue of "inclusive growth" has never been more urgent.

Eight years after the Great Crash, it is becoming clear that the long term impacts of the crisis profoundly challenges the model of economy - and politics - we have become used to. Asset inflation and technological revolutions are entrenching untold wealth for a small global elite.

This sits alongside falling relative disposable incomes for the many, and increasing difference in the disposable income of different generations. Meanwhile, a cohort of "just-about-managing" citizens are working harder than ever simply to get by, despite falling rates of savings. All of this – along with a persistent structural deficit in pensions, welfare and health budgets - combines to create an urgent need for new economic thinking about a model of growth and 21st century economic citizenship that works better for all people and places in our country.

The main political parties have set out to tackle these challenges and develop policy programmes for them. Theresa May has set out a bold new Conservative agenda of reforms to help those of our fellow citizens who are working hard but struggling to get by: to build an economy that works for everyone, and for the people and places left behind.

But this challenge is also generational, and will need thinkers from all parties - and none - to talk and think together about fresh approaches. This is why this cross-party initiative on inclusive growth is a welcome contribution to the policy debate.

The Prime Minister leads a government committed not just to deliver Brexit, but also to the fresh thinking and fresh solutions to the scale of the domestic challenges we face, which clearly contributed to the scale of the Leave vote last June. As she has said, it's clear that as well as rejecting the EU, voters were rejecting a model of growth that wasn’t working for them.

The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was one of the most dramatic and significant political events in decades – for this country and potentially for Europe. It changes everything: our economic model, our long term economic prospects, the assumptions and mechanisms through which we run most of our government and the diplomatic and economic status of the UK internationally.

Delivering a successful Brexit – one which strengthens our global security, our united kingdom, our economy and popular trust in parliamentary democracy, and a model of political economy that works to these ends, will dominate this political generation.

This is a challenge. But it is also an unprecedented opportunity to reform our model of political economy to tackle the causes of deepening domestic political disillusionment and put our country on the path to long-term recovery. 

Brexit provides us with a unique chance to address two of the most important public policy challenges facing our country.

First, the need to enable and enhance the conditions for creating and developing greater enterprise and innovation across our economy, in order to increase competitiveness and productivity. Second, the need to tackle the growing alienation of so many people and places from the opportunities of globalisation, which has in turn entrenched attitudes towards welfarism. I believe these two challenges are fundamentally linked. 

Without social mobility, and the removal of the barriers holding back national and regional participation enterprise, we will never be able to tackle the structural challenges of productivity, public service modernisation, competitiveness and innovation. 

It's becoming clearer to more and more people that a 21st century "innovation economy" both requires and drives an "opportunity society". You can't have an enterprising economy with low rates of social mobility. And the entrepreneurial spirit of economic aspiration is the fuel that powers the engine of social mobility.

For too long, we have run an economic model based on generating growing tax revenues from an ever smaller global elite, in order to pay for the welfare costs of a workforce increasingly dependent on handouts.

Whitehall has tended to treat social policy quite separately from economic policy. This siloed thinking – the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for "growth" and the Department for Work and Pensions, Department of Health and Department for Education for "public services" - compounds a lack of the kind of integrated policymaking needed to tackle the socio-economic causes of low productivity. The challenges holding back the people and places we need to help do not fall neatly into Whitehall silos. 

Since 1997, successive governments have pursued a model of growth based on a booming service sector, high levels of low-cost migrant labour and housing and asset inflation. At the same time, policymakers tried to put in place framework to support long term industrial renaissance and rebalancing. The EU referendum demonstrated that this model of growth was not working for enough people. 

Our industrial strategy must be as much about lifting communities out of low-skill and low-wage stagnation as it is about driving pockets of new activity. We need Cambridge to continue to grow, but we also need to ensure that communities from Cromer to Carlisle and Caithness, which do not enjoy the benefits of being a global technology cluster, can participate too. That means new measures to spread opportunities more widely. 

The Great Crash and its aftermath - including Brexit - represents a chance for a new generation to think these problems through and tackle them. We all have a part to play. Six years ago, I set up the 2020 Conservatives Group in Parliament, as a forum for a new generation of progressive Conservative MPs, regardless of increasingly old-fashioned labels of "left" or "right", or where they stood on the Europe debate. This is a forum to discuss new ways to tackle the current problems facing our country, beyond the conventional silos of Whitehall. Drawing on previous career experiences outside of Parliament, the group also looks ahead strategically at the potential longer-term social and economic challenges that may confront us in the future.

I believe that technology, and a new zeitgeist for public sector (as well as private sector) enterprise hold the key to resolving the barriers that are currently holding back the development of new opportunities. With new approaches, better infrastructure and skills connecting opportunities with the people and places left behind, better incentives for our great innovators, and new models of mutualised public/private partnerships and ventures, we can build an economy that genuinely works for everyone.

The government has already set about making this happen. Through the industrial strategy, the £23bn package of investment in new infrastructure and innovation announced by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, we can now be much bolder in developing a 21st century knowledge economy infrastructure that will be the foundation for economic success. 

The success of inclusive growth rests on a number of core foundations - that our economy grows, that social inequality is redressed; that people are given the skills they need to pursue a career in the new economy and that we better spread the opportunities of the global economy hitherto enjoyed by a segment of our workforce to the many. 

This can only be achieved if we recognise the way in which enterprise and opportunity are interdependent. Together, politicians from all parties have a chance to set out a new path for a Global Britain: making our country the world capital of innovation and opportunity. Not trickle-down economics, but "innovation economics" where the private and public sector commit to a programme of supporting each other for mutual benefit.

An economy that works for everyone is an economy in which the country unites around the twin pillars of opportunity and security, which are open to all. A country in which "shared values" are as important as "shareholder value". And in which both are better shared by all. A country once again with that precious alignment of economic and social purpose which is the hallmark of all great civilisations. It's a great prize.

This is an edited version of George Freeman's article for All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth's new "State of the Debate" report, available to download here.The APPG on Inclusive Growth's "State of the Debate" event with the OECD, World Economic Forum, RSA and IPPR is on Tuesday 21st February at 6.30pm at Parliament. See www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk for full details. 

George Freeman is the MP for Mid-Norfolk and the chair of the Prime Minister's Policy Board.