Following the election of the first fully Conservative Government in 18 years, Paul F Cockburn asks how disabled people are likely to fare during the new Parliament…
[Editor’s note: the following article was written prior to Chancellor George Osborne’s Emergency Budget of July 8th 2015]
Says Vijay Patel, who works for the learning disability charity Mencap, “I have a learning disability. Before the election I helped Mencap get MPs to sign up to their Hear My Voice campaign, where MPs pledged their support to learning disability issues. People with a disability are often the first to feel the effects of decisions in government, so MPs must keep their promises and listen to us over the next five years.”
Long described as the most unpredictable in recent history, May’s General Election certainly did surprise – but it was only the exit poll commissioned by the BBC, ITN and Sky News that came anywhere close to the final result. Overnight, months of speculation about variously-hued coalitions had to switch to what a majority Conservative government would mean in practice.
12 billion uncertainties
For many disabled people, perhaps the single most worrying policy outlined in the party’s 2015 manifesto [PDF] was the commitment to “Find £12 billion from welfare savings, on top of the £21 billion of savings delivered in [the last] parliament.”
“For me my main concern is over welfare cuts and what will be included in these,” says Vijay. “We still have no idea what will be cut. Not knowing makes me nervous. I rely on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) as it helps me save money, so I can be independent, make my own choices and access my community. Losing this would have a huge impact on my life.”
At the time of writing, precisely where these savings will come from won’t be clear until Chancellor George Osborne delivers his summer budget in July. Linda Burnip of the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) says that, “Until we know the outcome of the budget, it is difficult to know whether disabled people will be even more adversely affected by cuts then they have been for the last five years.”
Linda isn’t too optimistic, however. “During that time, disabled people have been subjected to grave and systematic violations of their human rights,” she adds. “They have been pushed to the margins of society and forced to live in fear on a daily basis, not knowing whether or when they would lose care, support funding and benefits, or be subjected to sanctions and having all of their incomes removed – in extreme cases, for three years.”
Making Work Pay
Of course, the aforementioned manifesto didn’t directly link any of these ‘welfare savings’ with disabled people – a group referenced only in relation to employment and the promotion of, “Equal treatment and equal opportunity for all in a society proud of its tolerance and diversity.”
It’s been suggested by some that one of the key successes of the 2015 Conservative manifesto was restating the Conservatives’ credentials as ‘the workers’ party’, despite widespread perceptions of them otherwise being a party of (and for) the rich.
“The Conservative manifesto included a very welcome commitment to ‘Halve the disability employment gap’,” points out Leonard Cheshire Disability’s Campaigns Director, Andy Cole. “Yet to achieve this ambition requires a huge commitment – not only from government, but from the voluntary sector and businesses alike.
“We need to improve the support available for disabled people, better educate businesses about disability, promote accessible apprenticeships, champion entrepreneurship and extend programmes like Access to Work. We also mustn’t ignore the wider factors that continue to be barriers to disabled people working, such as inaccessible transport and the chronic shortage of accessible housing.
“Of course, the threats to welfare and social care funding are major concerns, but the message needs to be clear – that only by making society more inclusive can the government’s ambitions around employment be reached.”
Scope for more
Before the General Election, UK disability charity Scope called on the main political parties to focus on three specific areas of disabled people’s lives – employment, the extra costs of disability and the ability to live independently.
“The gap between the employment rate for disabled people and the rest of the population has remained static for over a decade at around 30%,” says the charity’s senior press officer, Warren Kirwan. “We were delighted that the Conservative Party committed to halving the disability employment gap in their manifesto. Halving this would mean one million more disabled people in work.”
Promises, however, are easy to make on paper. “Disabled people will be looking to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech for more information about how the Government plan to make this a reality,” Kirwan adds. “They will also be looking for what the expected £12 billion of welfare cuts will mean for them. Life costs more if you are disabled. From travel costs to higher fuel bills or specialist equipment, our research shows that this adds up to, on average, £550 per month.
“During the election campaign the Prime Minister stated he wanted to ‘protect and enhance PIP’, the Personal Independence Payment designed to help cover these extra costs. This Parliament will [also] see the new Care Act become a reality. However, chronic underfunding means that disabled people are struggling to get the support they need to live independently. As more and more people need support, fewer and fewer people are getting it. The government must address this issue.”
North of the Border
Following last year’s Scottish Independence Referendum, and the subsequent ‘political tsunami’ that turned the Scottish National Party into the third largest group in Westminster, it’s fair to say that the UK is an increasingly divergent place. Proposals to devolve some aspects of welfare spending – including disability benefits and employment programmes – to the Scottish government could lead to disabled people being treated quite differently north of the border.
Disability Agenda Scotland (DAS) is an alliance of Scotland’s major disability organisations, covering the areas of physical, learning and multiple disability as well as sensory impairments and mental health. This year DAS published its own manifesto, A Million Votes Count: Our Vision for an Equal Future [PDF], which outlined 10 key steps that any new Westminster government would have to take in order to ensure equality for disabled voters and their families in Scotland.
According to DAS co-ordinator Ross Gilligan, “The post-election environment is undoubtedly challenging in terms of seeing DAS’ manifesto calls implemented – not least the first of our 10 steps towards equality, [that of] retaining the Human Rights Act. However, it is nevertheless important to continue to engage on these issues.”
Gilligan accepts that devolution is not, in itself, a magic wand. “Scope for change will ultimately depend on the fiscal environment and decisions of governments of the day,” he concedes. “While the rhetoric of the Scottish Government in areas such as welfare reform has been generally welcome, the record on currently devolved areas is more mixed.
“Disabled participation in the Scottish Government’s modern apprenticeship scheme has been below 1%. Cuts to college places have inevitably affected special needs courses, whilst there is evidence that the flagship council tax freeze, now in its seventh year, has seen cuts and charges for social care being passed onto disabled people.”
In one respect at least, disabled people in Scotland have an advantage over their English peers – there’s an election coming up. “DAS is determined to use the run-up to the 2016 Holyrood elections to press all parties in the Scottish Parliament on these issues whilst continuing to lobby at a UK level for a better deal for disabled people.”