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A year after the Paralympics, are things now getting worse for disabled people?

While we talk of "legacy", it’s starting to feel like what happened exactly a year ago this month not only hasn’t elevated disabled people, but is being used to trap.

Are you still patronised? I ask Sophie Christiansen, triple Gold medallist at London’s 2012 Paralympics, as we discuss how things are for disabled people in the country a year on. “All the time,” she says. “It’s a minority but yeah, that either talking really condescendingly or patronisingly.”

The last time was a couple of weeks ago, she says, when she gave a talk and in getting out of her wheelchair to move closer to the microphone, an audience member cried out “well done!” “You’ll laugh,” she smiles, “But it was at a [disability] conference.”

The pitying enthusiasm of the ignorant hasn’t noticeably lessened in the past year. The stares don’t go. The desire to avoid, as eyes switch to a nearby body – any nearby body – deemed normal, hasn’t gone either.

I don’t suppose anyone thought it would. Humans are difficult things and difference is terrifying. It takes more than two weeks of patriotism to chip at that.

It takes more than a few sound bites of ‘inspiration’ and desire for ‘change’ too. It requires not taking multiple deep, sweeping policy measures that actively makes things worse. And in doing so securing a sense that certain people – alien, needing, taking – deserve to have things no better. Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps, if there are crumbs out there of something close to progress, amidst the rising poverty and separation, it all just looks like regression.

I talk to Dame Anne Begg MP, the first full-time wheelchair user in the House of Commons, about the burst of positivity that came with the Games, and she immediately points to the way disabled people were spoken about. It’s funny how things change.

“The positive thing that came out the Paralympics was the use of language and just being around disabled people,” Anne says. “But the bad thing is that afterwards came a huge amount of negative language used, particularly when it came to benefits. There was a huge contrast.”  

In the end, the Paralympics actually helped build “a false impression of disability”, Anne fears – one where if certain disabled people can do great things, any disabled person can, and judgment of why they’re not soon follows. It’s fed by a Government that has taken to blurring the lines, be it between disability and sickness, or need and laziness.

“The Government equates disability and ill health. The two words are used as if they’re interchangeable, when of course they’re not,” Anne, also Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, says. “A lot of disabled people are able to work. [But then you’ve got] the ‘scrounger’ agenda. It’s created a backlash against disabled people.”

London’s Paralympics was that rare event that’s both symbolic and real, something tangible and brief that contains within it almost an emotion that lasts. It seems predictable that the political class would pull on that, when it suits. The word that triggers a memory of equality and honesty, if we were being cynical, seems the perfect vehicle to mask the spread of inequality and myths.  

Dressed up in the bow of legacy, it’s starting to feel like what happened exactly a year ago this month not only hasn’t elevated disabled people, but is being used to trap.

“Esther McVey, the Minister for Disabled People, gushes at every opportunity that we must all build on the Paralympian legacy. But what does this mean?” Linda Burnip of the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts, says. If it was about celebrating the rights and opportunities that enabled those Paralympians to shine, that would be one thing, she tells me. “But if it’s about the new corporatism of the welfare state and disability – the removal of equality, rights and opportunities from disabled people – we need to fight it with all our strength. Based on the evidence so far, fighting is our only option.”

‘The “evidence” is everywhere, if you want to see it. Most people, with at least a passing interest, will be aware of the list by now: abolishing Disability Living Allowance, time-limiting Employment and Support Allowance, closing the Independent Living Fund at the national level and slashing social care at the local level… And the ‘bedroom tax’, of course, much like the council tax changes; one of those cuts that doesn’t have disability in the title but happens to disproportionately hit the disabled. As if being disabled and being in poverty were somehow linked.

Disabled people have always been more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. More likely to be unemployed, not have an education, or to be isolated. No Government makes that happen, but in all the things they fail to do, they can allow it. Some Government’s, in the things they do, exacerbate it. Over the past year of benefit cuts, this Government’s ensured it.

Money is now being taken from the group that need it most. £28bn, in fact. This is what disadvantaging the disadvantaged looks like.

Anne McGuire, Shadow Minister for Disabled People, talks to me about the cycle this climate is creating: disabled people’s fear of “the cliff edge” of losing benefits, the negative media coverage that defines them as purely benefit recipients, the linking of disability as scroungers, and in turn the fear and reality “of harassment as a result” of such a focus.

“Over the past year, I’ve lost count of the number of disabled people who have told me that they feel as though they’ve gone back twenty years in terms of their quality of life,” she says.

You don’t need to have expected two weeks of sport to make things better for disabled people to feel the ache that in many ways, one year on, things are worse.

2013 has taught us that, contrary to popular belief, you can in fact put a price on dignity. It’s around how much it costs for a local authority to hire a PA to help someone to the toilet if they can’t get there themselves. Funding cuts mean these are calculations that are actually currently being made in this country.

I spoke to one disabled woman, who needs help with all aspects of daily living, who has just had her care package ‘re-assessed’ by Northampton council. She’s been told cuts mean she’ll have her support reduced by over 50 hours a week.

“I’ll be left isolated, housebound, at risk of malnutrition, and unsafe in my own home,” she tells me, under anonymity. “I’ll also be forced to wear incontinence pads at night instead of getting an on-call PA to help to go to the toilet.”

Under the proposed plans, she’s expected to manage on a care plan of three hours a day. That’s one hour to get up, half hour for lunch, half hour for dinner, and one hour for bed. She’ll get 9 hours ‘social hours’ a week, or more accurately, 9 hours to leave the house.  

Perhaps it seems quite normal for a disabled person to be shut in their home. Perhaps the action the Government has taken this year simply plays into the way enough people, and the structures they live within, think things should be. 

The big things join with the small things, after all, and the small things have always said ‘don’t ask for too much’. The step up to the restaurant, the dirty look, the public transport that it’s decided can run whilst excluding one part of the public… Or – as Tanni Grey-Thompson found on a train yet again last month – decides it can tell a certain sort of person it doesn’t need to provide a toilet. Taken apart, there is something telling about being used to watching your fluid intake when out because you know you live in a country where public places don’t have to meet your basic human needs.

“We don’t expect better service [than other people] and we all understand that it isn’t perfect,” Tanni tells me. “But we shouldn’t be treated like second class citizens.”  

“It can be the little things that wear you down,” she says. “How you get treated is so variable. It’s down to the person, not always the system (in the case of trains) and that’s what makes it so hard to sort out… you don’t always know what you’re fighting.”

If she was given the choice to change one thing between welfare cuts and the smaller things, Tanni isn’t sure what it would be. “Probably the low level discrimination,” she says. “I think this has a wider and continuing impact on the rest.”

It isn’t one thing that makes a person feel as if they’re a second class citizen in their own country. It isn’t one thing that makes them feel like they’ve gone back twenty years. The small things join with the big things, and for certain people, they’ve always made life a certain way. At this point, as that way of life for many is worsening still, two weeks last summer are starting to feel like a cruel tease. 

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?