Amid a mass of measures – unemployment statistics, credit ratings, borrowing figures – with which a Government’s performance can be evaluated, one test in particular stands out. For any action undertaken by Government, English philosopher T.H. Green proposed, one should ask: “does it liberate individuals by increasing their self-reliance or their ability to add to human progress?”
The Coalition is fixated with self-reliance; individual personal responsibility is the lifeblood of conservatism. References to that familiar and yet vague group – people “who do the right thing” – pepper the Prime Minister’s speeches. The best example of putting this principle into practice is undoubtedly the benefits system – specifically, disability benefits. Within months of coming to power, the Coalition set out £18 billion worth of welfare cuts. At the time of writing, calls to cut another £10 billion have got louder. Witnessing the Government undertake its welfare reform agenda has felt akin to seeing youths rush, rob and strip an elderly man – once a respected by his contemporaries, now chastised and marginalised by his community – all the while watching from a distance, powerless to stop it.
Few would argue that the Coalition’s rapid unravelling of the welfare safety net will not increase self-reliance. But it is the second part of Green’s test – whether it increases a person’s ability to add to human progress – that is the most important. And it is in this respect that, for disabled people across the country, the Government is set to spectacularly fail.
It is when we begin to really unpick the Government’s welfare reform agenda that the callousness of it is fully revealed. The Coalition is set to cut benefits for disabled children. It distracted attention from other reforms by proposing to cut a benefit that helps care home residents get out in their community (certainly a tactical device, this plan was later dropped but its very suggestion is indicative). Come next year and support provided to disabled people with complex needs with no adult to care for them will no longer exist. Emergency payments for families in dire crisis – including disabled people and women fleeing domestic violence – could be replaced with supermarket store cards – vouchers for the destitute. Plans to increase a person’s self-reliance look very different when that person is a mother – perhaps with children in tow – escaping a violent partner.
A recent report by disability charity Scope and the think tank Demos reveals the profound impact that the cuts are having on disabled people. For the last two years, they have followed the plight of six disabled families as the cuts have come into effect, and have documented declining mental health, increased fear and anxiety; financial instability and a desperate struggle to make ends meet. One family, an elderly couple were left without money to fix their broken windows for almost a year – using towels to keep out the cold and rain. It is stories like his that shows – with startling clarity – the true human cost of austerity.
The argument put forth by MPs and Ministers alike that it is better to work than languish on benefits is solid. Nobody wants to squander their potential. But, here the narrative fuelled by politicians and the press is often toxic and frequently fails to show the whole picture.
First, it is often assumed that benefit recipients make the choice not to work. “For choice to be real”, authors Richard Reeves and Phil Collins state, “there has to be a range of options.” It would be naïve to deny the existence of some who do actively choose not to work, but so too are there many disabled who desperately want a job but are unable to secure and maintain employment.
The second assumption is that for those who are less able to work, this must be due to the limitations imposed upon their body and mind. To the public this may seem entirely reasonable, but it overlooks the crucial interaction between impairment and society. The ‘social model’ of disability sets out how practical and environmental barriers render people with impairments ‘disabled’. Many disabled people find ways to manage their condition, but still face real social barriers – inaccessible transport, unsuitable housing, social isolation, discrimination – that prevent them from working and leading the lives they value.
Finally, these problems are compounded by the lack of jobs in the midst of a double-dip recession. There are over 2.5 million people unemployed. It is against this hostile, competitive backdrop that the Government recently confirmed the closure of 27 Remploy factories that employ disabled workers. There are good arguments for ending sheltered working; it is not conducive to the ‘mainstreaming’ of disability our society badly needs. But the choice of timing is poor and charities have expressed real concerns about the level of support that former workers will receive. The Government’s woeful lack of tact here was illustrated by the contemptuous comments of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, who remarked that Remploy staff – who provide equipment to our police and armed forces – were “not doing any work…just making cups of coffee.”
Above all this, however, is an issue vastly more important than any benefit or work programme: our social narrative. It is becoming worrying venomous. Much of the tone is set by our media – sections of which were lambasted by a cross-party Select Committee for the “irresponsible” use of “pejorative language” like ‘work-shy’ and ‘scrounger’. Major disability charities warn that the Government’s focus on alleged fraud (and it is alleged – the benefit Disability Living Allowance has a fraud rate of 0.5%) to justify welfare cuts has caused an increase in abuse directed at disabled people. Many disabled people have said they are taunted in the street about ‘faking it’ and are concerned this Salem-like climate of suspicion might result in violence. A recent academic study of disabled children found a fifth of them had been attacked physically, sexually, abused emotionally or neglected. Experts have warned that disability hate crime remains under-reported and often ignored by police. This is not the atmosphere in which we can prevent another tragic story like Fiona Pilkington, who, after years of abuse from local youths, killed herself and her disabled daughter.
There is a desperate need for a new narrative in our society – a new, serious and in depth discussion about the role of the state in supporting disabled people to become self-reliant, exercise their capabilities to lead the lives they value and add to human progress. Politicians of all colours have failed to stem the poisonous tide that is now saturating our social fabric. Further retrenchment of the state will only raise these water levels higher. Distinguished disability campaigner Jenny Morris is right when she says that we need a value system which values diversity and in which disabled people are treated as belonging and contributing to their communities. Which politicians, and of which party, have the bravery to stand up and say this remains to be seen. But it can happen. Even with further cuts still to come, we must remain hopeful. As the deafblind radical Helen Keller once said: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.”
This article first appeared in The Occupied Times, August 2012. With thanks to Michael Richmond and his team.