March 2, 2012
Ever since the Tories sneaked into power nearly two years ago, having failed to convince a majority of voters to trust them, and having had to construct an unlikely coalition with the Liberal Democrats, my country has become an unrecognisable place: mean-spirited above all, as the tiresome David Cameron — an unqualified, whey-faced buffoon, but one with an opinion about everything, who is barely ever off our TV screens — has presided over a wholesale attempt to raze the British state to the ground, conceived by an array of unpalatable and arrogant ministers with no clue as to the true costs and ramifications of their tired ideology.
This has involved encouraging British citizens to turn on one another, and, when not blaming the Labour government for the crash of the casino economy that the Tories had also encouraged, and that almost everyone bought into for over a decade, David Cameron has taken cynicism to new depths, blaming the poor, the unemployed and the disabled for the debts racked up primarily after the economic collapse for which Wall Street and the City of London were largely responsible. In response, I’m sickened to note, the British people have obligingly bought into this disgusting charade.
After early success in axing university funding, the coalition government has struggled with its attempted hatchet job on the NHS, but appears to be largely getting away with its welfare reforms, under the guiding hand of Iain Duncan Smith, an allegedly kindly man who, in fact, blames the poor for their poverty, and is, therefore, the most dangerous kind of reformer — the kind of Social Darwinist familiar from the Victorian era, who, in the early 20th century, often began to embrace the deadly pseudo-science of eugenics.
Now that the bill has been passed, despite eight rebellions in the House of Lords, David Cameron hailed “the biggest welfare revolution in over 60 years,” and made a point of emphasising what he described as the “Benefits Cap” which “ensures no one can get more that £26,000 in benefits,” because, as he also stated, “It’s a fair principle: a family out of work on benefits shouldn’t be paid more than the average family in work.”
What he has never mentioned — and what has hardly ever been mentioned in the mainstream media — is that most of this £26,000 goes not to the claimants, but to the landlords, who may be as greedy as they wish in a market that has been unregulated since Margaret Thatcher’s days, and who are only able to make money out of taxpayers because of a lack of social housing. This also started with Thatcher’s council house sell-off and prohibition on using that money for new social housing, which has never been overturned, even under 13 years of Labour.
The other manipulated myth — the one about work-shy scroungers — was covered through David Cameron’s comment that “Our new law will mark the end of the culture that said a life on benefits was an acceptable alternative to work,” which is another disgraceful manipulation of the facts, given that only a small number of families have undergone “a life in benefits,” as alleged, and the main problem facing the unemployed is not an unwillingness to work, but the absence of jobs. If there were two and half million job vacancies, the government could perhaps complain about the “work-shy,” but as it is, there is only one job for every five unemployed people, so the sums simply don’t add up.
David Cameron also claimed that the government had “taken bold action to make work pay, while protecting the vulnerable,” which is a blatant lie, as the vulnerable — the disabled especially — will suffer more as a result of the bill, and its deliberate efforts to strip them of the meagre allowances that make life slightly more bearable, and that, in many cases, mean the difference between being dependent or being independent.
I reserve similar disdain for Cameron’s claim that “These reforms will change lives for the better, giving people the help they need, while backing individual responsibility so that they can escape poverty, not be trapped in it,” as this also is demonstrably untrue, with the government’s plans designed to make sure that many unemployed and disabled people, either through sanctions or time-limited benefits, will be consigned to further poverty, rather than being enabled to escape it.
Unfortunately for the government, the passage of the bill has also coincided with a damning report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (PDF), who, as Sky News described it, have warned that “scrapping the Independent Living Fund and altering both housing benefit and the Disability Living Allowance could ‘interact’ in a ‘particularly harmful way.’”
As Sky News also noted, “The committee of MPs and peers said the Government may need to introduce a specific law setting out the right to live independently.” The chair, Hywel Francis MP, said, “We are concerned to learn that the right of disabled people to independent living may be at risk through the cumulative impact of current reforms.” He added that “United Nations obligations regarding the rights of people with disabilities are ‘hard law, not soft law’ and cannot be disregarded.” He also said that the government had been “unable to demonstrate that sufficient regard has been paid to the UN Convention in the development of policy with direct relevance to the lives of disabled people.”
Labour’s shadow welfare minister Lord McKenzie also criticised the bill. He acknowledged that the Lords had improved parts of the Bill, but noted, “In too many ways it imposes unacceptable burdens on the most vulnerable. They are entitled to better from their Government.”
Below I’m cross-posting a relevant and powerful article in today’s Guardian, written by the disabled crossbench peer Jane Campbell, a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, who sheds more light on the committee’s important findings, and demonstrating how years of progress in helping disabled people to live independent people lives is under severe threat a sprat of the government’s savage cost-cutting, and its disregard for the needs of disabled people. As with the last time I wrote about these issues, I encourage any readers who are interested to find out more by reading some of the many blogs written by disabled people — see We Are Spartacus for a start, and also see Benefit Scrounging Scum, and follow other links there. Please also sign the e-petition urging the government to “Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families,” which currently has nearly 30,000 signatures, and will be discussed in parliament if it reaches 100,000 signatures.
As a severely disabled person, I am reminded every day of the tremendous progress made over the past 30 years in the UK to enable disabled people to become active citizens. Autonomy and freedom would not have been part of my vocabulary half a century ago. I might have been reliant upon my family for support, with the prospect of being put into an institution when they could no longer cope.
Instead, at 52, I am an independent crossbench peer and member of the joint committee on human rights (JCHR), which reports this week on its 12-month inquiry into disabled people’s right to independent living.
Since leaving university I have had the privilege of being involved in helping develop the complex weave of legislation and public policy necessary for disabled people to live in, and be part of, their community.
Keeping millions of disabled people inactive and dependent is costly, from a financial and moral point of view. I have witnessed disabled people raise families, work or simply be more cost-effective by keeping healthy and taking greater control over their personal care. It’s not been perfect. But by many standards, we were ahead of the game compared with much of Europe.
And now decades of positive progress are at risk of being reversed as economic austerity is used as justification for denying independence.
That is why I am so pleased to be part of the strong and unambiguous stand taken by the JCHR in publishing its report. We listened to a whole range of expert witnesses and took into account extensive research and consultation, looked at the context of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD), which was ratified by the UK in 2009.
Although I feel I have the right to independent living, the legislative and policy framework simply isn’t in place to make it a right; and what there is, is in danger of disappearing fast.
If my local authority cuts my care package or demands I transfer to NHS care (because they regard using a ventilator as the trigger for health services), I lose control of my life. I might have to leave parliament, or give up work altogether (because I need social care direct payments to do everything, from eating a sandwich to delivering a speech). I am only a few bureaucratic decisions away from returning to the inequality I endured at 18. It wouldn’t take long to transform all my relationships with my colleagues, partner, family, friends into one which gives little or nothing to anyone. Everyone loses.
The fact that all this could happen without my consent hangs over me and thousands of others. That is why I am so glad the JCHR report recognises and recommends the need for freestanding legislation to protect the right to independent living in UK law.
The report addresses recent government and local authority measures and austerity reforms that impact upon independent living for disabled people; such as reforms to disability living allowance and housing benefit, closure of the Independent Living Fund and restricting eligibility for social care to “critical or substantial” needs only.
The JCHR found no tangible evidence of the government giving due consideration to the UK’s obligations under the UNCRPD during this critical reforming time.
This lack of regard to the convention, coupled with the potentially retrogressive impact of these reforms, risks placing the UK in breach of its international obligations. This report is so timely. It sets out the risks to progress on independent living and makes sensible, achievable recommendations.
The UK’s international reputation in public policy and legislation which places more power in the hands of disabled people to assume control over their own lives, and to be included in all areas of life, is clearly in jeopardy.
Independent living has never made more sense. The government must heed the JCHR report and act fast. Otherwise history will repeat itself — the next generation of disabled people should not have fewer rights than I’ve had.
Read all posts by Andy Worthington