If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that this year I was invited to speak on a panel at the Labour Party Conference (I know- me! Actually being heard by people with political power!) by the Fabian Society, the UK’s oldest political think tank. Our topic of discussion was how political policy can be changed to make suer the welfare system actually works for disabled people. Many people have been asking for a way to watch or listen to the debate and although it was recorded I can’t seem to find it… whoops! I’ll add that link as soon as I can! For now however, here’s a brief write-up of my thoughts on the topics discussed.
Debbie Abrahams MP: shadow secretary of state for work and pensions
Kate Green MP: chair, Fabian Society
Anna Bird: executive director of policy and research, Scope
Jessica Kellgren-Fozard: YouTube Content Creator, Model and Ambassador for Scope.
Moderated by Andrew Harrop: General Secretary of the Fabian Society.
Our Topic: Achieving Everyday Equality for Disabled People
Life today is still much harder for the 13 million disabled people in this country than it needs to be. We called for action across the Government to deliver meaningful change allowing disabled people to achieve everyday equality and gain the same opportunities as everyone else. The welfare system was often mentioned, in particular how it doesn’t give the support disabled people need to participate fully in society. It’s my belief that the system needs an overhaul; that it should work for its users rather than constantly attempting to reduce their number.
Both government services and media perception need to come from a place of assuming the best in people- assume we want to work, assume we want our independence. Because to be honest I don’t know a single disabled person who doesn’t want to have a job. Whether or not our disabilities and chronic illnesses make the standard working week impossible, we still want independence.
Carrot and stick analogies don’t work for disability benefits
You can’t punish someone for something they can’t control. No matter how many times you hit them with that stick… they’re still going to be disabled. Probably more so. You cannot sanction someone and hope their disability goes away.
I’m not able to hold down a full 9-5 job and I struggled terribly with a part-time job because my disabilities and chronic illness don’t work to a schedule. I was in the ‘can’t work’ category of the disabled people’s Employment Support Allowance but I lost the benefit when I married my wife. Factoring in a cut to your family income shouldn’t be part of planning your big day but sadly it was.
In my view means testing shouldn’t be part of any disability related benefit. Whether you’re a millionaire or impoverished you’re still facing extra costs – on average life costs £550 more a month if you happen to be disabled. From high energy bills and higher insurance costs to specialist equipment and food. Those are costs you have no control over and they’re often for things you have no choice but to buy.
Secondly, this implies that the disabled person is now ‘someone else’s problem’, namely their lovely new partner. It made me feel like a burden; a weight on my family and now on my wife. How can I feel independent when I have to ask for pocket money? And finally, means testing is dangerous and unsafe. I obviously have a lovely wife who cares for me very much but two in five disabled women will experience domestic abuse and you’re potentially tying their only income to their abuser. Disabled people cannot just go out, get a sneaky job on the side, save some money and then make a break for it.
I’m an adult, not a burden or a child, and I want to be treated as one!
I agreed with the MP Kate Green’s speech about creating a holistic strategy for disabled people that viewed their life in the round. Achieving ‘everyday equality’ means achieving equality in every aspect of disabled peoples lives and ensuring the ability to participate, from housing to good quality health care to participating in public life and being part on the community to having a family life.
She also spoke about the glaring employment gap between disabled people and the rest of the working age population. For instance, only seven percent of people with a learning disability are in employment, despite many wishing to participate. It’s my belief that this exclusion starts from school age and I’ve spoken about my own difficulties being a disabled student before. The British education system is currently failing disabled students but it’s not through a lack of commitment or ambition, it’s purely that our system doesn’t cater for disabled students’ needs.
Once we leave school and go on to join the workforce we’re supposed to receive help from Access to Work, a government scheme to provide support for disabled workers. In practice the scheme is almost a secret- I’ve stopped counting the number of disabled people I’ve introduced it to! Not only that but it’s openly known no matter how many hours of help you ask for you’ll always get half of what you require. Access to Work is an amazing thing and I’m so grateful for it since I could barely do my job if it didn’t exist but it needs to be better managed.
I was gladdened that both of the MPs on the panel talked about Labour’s commitment to revolutionise the process of applying for welfare. Making it a positive experience where the gathering of relevant information is a system based on trust and confidence can only be a good thing.
The current document to apply for Personal Independence Payment is 40 pages long and deeply complex! Sadly, unless you get expert help your chances of getting PIP or similar are very slim. It’s important that disabled people are financially secure because only then can we achieve our full potential when it comes to benefiting the society around us. We have so much to give but it’s often not considered.
Anna Bird said that from Scope’s perspective, after 7 years of austerity it feels like the welfare system is an emergency service, constantly fighting fires rather than providing a stable base. She agreed that the system should be rethought and looked at as a helpful tool built on trust not a frame of sanctions and red tape. Finally she concurred with the UN that, with such high levels of disability discrimination, the British government has failed to protect the rights of disabled people.
The Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Debbie Abrahams MP told the room that Labour will be publishing a paper to pressure the government on the disabled budget before the next big financial statement in autumn. If elected, they want to make sure they engage and communicate with disabled people, to make sure what they are proposing to the disabled community will actually be effective, and to keep them involved in forming policy. She spoke strongly against 0 hour contracts, which many feel inflate the official number of disabled people who are ‘in work’ without bringing any monetary benefit.
The role of government in disabled people’s lives should be to help them help themselves. Through consultation with disabled people and their carers and fully including our voices in the creation of policy and welfare systems we can forge ahead to become fully part of society. I also feel that this is the government’s job and they need to stop relying on charities to fill the gaps.
Going forward I feel we need a greater understanding of how changeable conditions can be. No two people, even those with the same condition, will have the same experience of disability. The entire PIP system needs to be overhauled creating a person-driven benefits system. Let’s change the conversation to how disabled people can enhance the rest of society when given just a little help.
We have the right to be here and we have the right to be treated well.
If you enjoyed this article you might also like this video about the main political parties policies for disabled people: