Welfare Reform has been a disaster. And disabled people have been consistently under attack as a result. Ivanka Antova, a disability rights advocate, takes a look at the impact of this devastating policy.
You will be forgiven if you are completely uninspired by the ongoing Conservative Party leadership debacle. Coverage is dominated by which high-flying Tory will lead Britain off a hard border cliff, and it seems we can talk of nothing but Brexit. But a few weeks before the new ‘leader’ is announced, we need to remind ourselves that the Prime Minister will have many more responsibilities than Brexit. The new Prime Minister, for example, will be responsible for welfare, health and social care. And it is for this reason, and many more besides, that many people find this debate to be not only uninspiring but also deeply depressing. This is particularly the case for disabled people, who have disproportionately borne the brunt of nearly a decade of Tory cuts. Worse still, both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson—the two front runners in the leadership race—have a particularly erroneous record when it comes to the rights of disabled people, which should concern anyone who wants to see a halt to the seemingly endless cascade of benefit cuts and sanctions enacted by the Tories.
Disability & Austerity
Hunt and Johnson are politicians that have supported the austerity regime from its inception. Hunt was Shadow Minister for disabled people between 2005 and 2007. He learned nothing from this period. He was not willing to listen to the voices of disabled people, who were shouting about the deep structural barriers that hamper them in their pursuit of equal participation in society, faced with a system that was literally killing them. In 2015, as Health Secretary, Hunt blamed the NHS for the high number of untimely deaths of people with learning disabilities, despite presiding over the dismantlement of key parts of the health system, resulting in a nasty row with workers in the NHS. Johnson’s record, or course, is not much better given his continuous support for motions in Westminster to reduce the amount of money spent on benefits.
Disabled people here have not escaped the devastating impact of these measures either, especially since approval of legislative consent for Welfare Reform in 2015. When politicians remain wedded to austerity, we pay the price for their ideological onslaught. Consider the devastating story of Ross Ruberry from North Belfast, who was told he ‘was not disabled enough’ to receive a disability accessible car, despite having had an amputation. Or the humiliation of Reggie Duff from East Belfast, who had to appeal a cut to his benefits, despite having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Or the heartbreak that Roisin McWilliams from West Belfast had to endure when she was denied Personal Independence Payment (PIP), despite having stage four cancer.
These stories should not make you feel sorry for people with disabilities. These stories should make you feel angry that the austerity agenda the Tories have been perusing—aided by the wilful inaction of local politicians—is being swept under the carpet. Get angry that you and your loved ones will suffer as a result of the neoliberal war against disabled people and against working class communities. We need to know how Welfare Reform is devastating lives and violating human rights so we can resist it, fight it and demand an end to all austerity measures.
The Cruelty of Welfare Reform.
The Tories unleashed their austerity regime in 2010, when they decided to address gaps in the budget by cutting the benefits for those most in need of them. At the time the Tory mantra was that a ‘fundamental welfare reform’ was needed to save the nation from the ‘hopelessness and integrational poverty’ that being on benefits was causing.1Among the number of policies adopted was the introduction of Universal Credit; the abolishment of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and its replacement with PIP; and the ushering in of harsh benefit caps and sanctions. Despite numerous assurances that we are all in this together, and that the intention was simply to ‘make work pay’2, the disturbing reality of Welfare Reform is simple; it is an exercise in the gutting of public expenditure, by making disabled people pay the price. What O’Hara describes as ‘the sheer ferocity of policies affecting disabled and sick persons’ is a stark example of policies being pushed without an assessment of the impact this is having on disabled people.3
Welfare Reform has not made life better or fairer for disabled people. Quite the opposite, it has made everything worse. It is not only that it is disproportionate, with disabled people being 8% of the population, yet bearing 29% of all benefit cuts.4 It is also pushing disabled people into poverty; with recent research showing that half of people in poverty are disabled or live with a disabled person, and that disabled people experience a number of disadvantages that contribute to soaring poverty rates.5 Under the current neoliberal austerity regime ‘life as a disabled person continues to mean poverty, isolation, neglect and discrimination, as well as increasingly being reminded of one’s status as a burden on state services’.6 By constructing the pervasive myth of the disabled benefit scroungers and supposed generation of people who prey on the tax payer for benefits they do not need nor deserve—the Tories successfully threw dust in our eyes and obscured what they were doing; punishing disabled people for being disabled, for failing to be better at surviving the poverty that a capitalist society enforces upon them. In the context of austerity, to be disabled is to be treated as ‘an underclass, lazy and deceitful’.7
Crimes Against People
It is not, therefore, the least bit surprising that hate crimes against disabled people have increased with the intensification of the disabled benefit scroungers narrative. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) published a report in 2016 in which they criticised the scapegoating of disabled people which has fuelled the number of hate crimes. The report concluded that ‘persons with disabilities continue to experience increasing hostility, aggressive behaviour and sometimes attacks to their personal integrity’, whilst also finding that there is no substance to the claims that disabled people are frauds, scroungers or skivers.8 Welfare Reform, as these studies have underscored, evidently undermines not only disabled people’s dignity and human worth, but also their safety, independence and acceptance in society. Austerity is dragging us back to the darkness of hating and despising disability, of being afraid of it, and it is not an exaggeration to argue that disability hate crime ‘spreads like a creeping disease’ in our society.9
Welfare Reform is also a ‘grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities’, as argued by the CRPD in their scathing report of 2016.10 These austerity measures are a crime against human rights because they ignore previously made commitments to equality and are being pushed without an assessment of how the cuts to benefits impact quality of life. The UN Committee concluded that the UK is in serious and continuous breach of the right to an adequate standard of living and social protection; to independent living; and to work and employment. In addition, Welfare Reform has put serious barriers to the enjoyment of the right to education; to access to justice; to participation in public life; to healthcare. In a similar manner Professor Philip Alston (the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty), also found in 2018 that the UK is compromising human rights and human lives by refusing to take responsibility for the disaster of Welfare Reform and its unmitigated negative impact. In a stark way Alston reveals the simple truth:
The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.11
Up to this day the UK government has not responded adequately to the findings of the report. Instead, the current Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has threatened to complain to the United Nations for the report for being biased. An absolute disgrace.
The Struggle Continues
The Conservative Party is destroying the idea of a welfare state that works for everyone and protects human rights and independence. Celebrated disabled academics and activists like Mike Oliver have argued via the social model of disability that what defines disability is not having an impairment, but ‘the way society responded to people with impairments’.12 In other words, disability is created when there are external structural barriers put in place that exclude disabled people from participating in society as equals. When looked at through the social model, disability benefits can be seen as a way to address these structural barriers, to alleviate their devastating impact, to ensure people with disability have a dignified and valued life experience. Benefits are not charity, nor are they a gift. Rather, they should be a recognition that there are a thousand cracks in the way society is organised through which disabled people keep disappearing.
The Tories chose to attack disability benefits by making disability a personal problem, an individual flaw, thus reversing disability policy back to the dark days when it meant having a broken body or a broken mind. They reversed many of the hard won battles of the disability movement to recognise that disability has a structural dimension, and instead argued that it is not the system that fails disabled people, but that disabled people are not able or not willing to adapt to it.
So the leading lights of the Tory party will continue to bask in the glare of the media, afforded the opportunity to have their voices heard, in the way those suffering because of their decisions will not. Welfare Reform is a political choice that Tories like Johnson and Hunt made. It was a choice to blame disabled people for the failures of society. It was a choice to impoverish them and marginalise them. It was a choice to violate their inherent human rights. Consequently, it is also a choice for us to reject this false narrative and demand a profound change in how our society runs. This change must come through a robust and uncompromising critique of the cruelty of neoliberalism and a revolutionary commitment to ensuring equality for all.
DWP, ‘Universal credit: welfare that works’ (2010) DWP
- O’Hara, M, Austerity Bites: A journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK (2014 Policy Press), 175.
- Duffy, S, ‘A Fair Society? How the cuts target disabled people (2013) The Centre For Welfare Reform https://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/uploads/attachment/354/a-fair-society.pdf
- Tinson A, Aldridge H, Barry Born, T and Hughes C, ‘Disability and poverty: Why disability must be at the centre of poverty reduction’ (2016) New Policy Institute https://www.npi.org.uk/files/3414/7087/2429/Disability_and_poverty_MAIN_REPORT_FINAL.pdf
- Slorach, R, A Very Capitalist Condition: A history and politics of disability (2016 Bookmarks Publications), 259.
- Ryan F, Crippled: Austerity and the demonization of disabled people (2019 Verso), 29.
- Inquiry concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland carried out by the Committee under article 6 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention, CRPD/C/15/R.2/Rev.1 , 15.
- Healy, J.C., ‘’It spreads like a creeping disease’: experiences of victims of disability crimes in austerity Britain’ (2019) Disability & Society.
- Above n8, 20.
- Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (2018) https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E
- Oliver, M, Understanding Disability: from theory to practice (2009 Palgrave Macmillan), 43.