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