For the past five years disabled people across the UK have been living in fear of the gentle ‘phut’ of a brown DWP envelope on their doormat. Benefit cuts, evictions, and ATOS assessments declaring people ‘fit for work’ have led to misery and poverty for the disabled population. As up to 16 per cent of working age adults, we represent a significant proportion of the electorate, so when the Labour party finally published ‘A better future for disabled people: mini-manifesto’ I thought we were in for a treat.
With five years in opposition to develop their position, however, the best it can be described as is cautious. Rather than policies paving the way for ‘a better future for disabled people’ this document is, as one DPAC member put it, “limp” – a paper promising to undo some of the reign of terror experienced by disabled people at the hands of the coalition but having few aspiration for the futures of disabled people beyond this.
One very welcome policy that stands out as a firm promise in a sea of wishy-washy proposals with no real action plan is the abolition of the under-occupancy penalty. Two thirds of the people penalised under the so called ‘Bedroom Tax’ are disabled people who needed their extra bedroom for their overnight carers or bulky medical equipment. Many people have faced the painful choice of losing their homes or going into debt. The discriminatory policy will not be missed, however the manifesto does not address how it will make amends to those who have gone into debt due to the policy and for people who have already been forced out into bedsits and smaller properties there is the question of what they can do now? In short, this policy is ‘too little, too late’.
A not so welcome policy claims to ‘overhaul’ the Work Capability Assessment. The WCA has made regular headlines over the course of the coalition, with the deaths of disabled people found ‘fit for work’. It has caused endless stress and worry to all ESA claimants and for some, has meant hunger and severe poverty. The voice of disabled people on this issue is united: reforming WCA is not enough. We want it scrapped.
Work is a central theme of the Labour party’s main manifesto so unsurprisingly there is much talk of getting ‘into work’ and support – but what will this support look like and what does ‘support’ even mean? Again we are left to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations. All parties want to get disabled people into work but little mention is made of finding us meaningful employment and fulfilling careers. ‘Work’ gets people off the more expensive benefits, whereas meaningful employment going beyond low and unskilled opportunities is where equality truly lies. As experts in illness why aren’t we supported to train as clinicians? Or as victims of injustice helped to train as lawyers?
A key message of the mini-manifesto is that Labour want to work with us in finding the solutions, yet I can see no evidence of them having consulted any disabled people’s organisations in the making of this document. Granted the authors have impairments but as MPs have not been subject to austerity measures and have escaped the poverty and disrespect that prevents us from achieving equality.
It’s not hard to ask people what they want. The people I’ve spoken to want protection for the Independent Living Fund, an admission of our suffering and scapegoating throughout the cuts process, and the end of Work Capability Assessment in any form. These will be a start in getting us back to what we had achieved towards equality in pre-austerity times.
In terms of the big three parties (is that the big four now? Or five, six, or seven?) Labour will get the disabled vote if only to keep the murderous Tories out. However, the crux of disabled living issues is that currently, disability inherently means poverty. I want to see plans for a country where I can earn like my my non-disabled peers, own my own home like my non-disabled peers – have a life, a family, a future like my non-disabled peers. This election, this vision of equality seems too much to ask. With a new wave of hate and ‘scrounger’ rhetoric to combat, aiding disabled people is a potentially risky political move. Indeed, the most notable thing about the mini-manifesto is that is exists at all – why don’t disabled peoples’ issues make the grade for the “real” manifesto?