Article first published in the Huffington Post on 05/09/2017.
Britain can only be at its greatest when it ensures the most vulnerable members of the country can lead happy and healthy lives. If we fail these people - the homeless, the disabled, the often voiceless - we are defining our nation as one which is committed to leaving people behind.
The damning report recently published by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRDP) is a damning illustration that Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “there is no such thing as society” lives on within the Tory Party in 2017.
he idea that the state should not bear any responsibility for those who are in difficulty - particularly those who physically cannot help themselves - is a falsehood which must be challenged. Theresa May’s past rhetoric alluding to a “shared society” may make for good sound bites but the CRDP’s report demonstrates the inherently Thatcherite core of this Government.
The report found that recent UK legislation has “failed to recognise living independently and being included in the community as a human right”. This isn’t an equality tick-box exercise: this is about an individual’s ability to live rather than just be alive.
I’ve seen the impact the Tories’ austerity agenda has had up and down the communities across my Ogmore constituency. Every week I hear from constituents who have been deeply affected by changes to disability benefits brought in since 2010. The cuts to Employment Support Allowance (ESA), the distress caused by migrating from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to the more stringent criteria of Personal Independence Payments (PIP), the indignity of Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) - the list goes on.
The truth is the UN’s report comes as no surprise to me and many of my colleagues around the UK. When I have constituents with severe mental health conditions and disabilities asking me why they have been found fit for work, we must surely realise that something has gone badly wrong. If those individuals who are clearly unable to work to provide for themselves do not have the safety net of a generous and sympathetic state, we risk becoming a cruel and highly divisive nation.
Difficult choices must constantly be made by any government but surely when you are accused of “creating a human catastrophe for disabled people” by the Chairwoman of the UN Human Rights Committee, the choice becomes crystal clear. A reversal of the decisions which have led to half a million disabled people being between £2,000 and £3,000 worse off is now a moral necessity.
The UN said it had greater concern about the UK Government’s impact upon disabled people than any other nation in the ten years the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has existed. When the number of people living with disabilities below the poverty line is increasing, society cannot truly progress as one.
Of course, the all-encompassing issue of Brexit cannot be forgotten in all of this. Fears have arisen that the EU legislation the Government is currently failing to adhere to could be at risk of being watered down after we leave the European Union. The rights disabled people have fought for over the last few decades must not be diminished via the Brexit back-door. Now must be a time to strengthen our equalities legislation, not risk moving further backwards.
As we set out during the General Election in June, Labour wants to change this.
In the immediate term, a Labour Government would scrap the punitive sanctions regimes which have worsened the situations of many, abolish the bedroom tax which takes from those who need help most, and scrap bereavement support payment cuts to ensure financial dignity for relatives when they lose loved ones.
We also pledged to increase ESA by £30 per week for those in the work-related activity group, raise Carer’s Allowance by £11 in line with Job Seeker’s Allowance, provide parity of esteem between physical and mental health conditions for those claiming PIP, replace Work Capability Assessments and PIP assessments with a holistic assessment programme which allows claimants to have more control and end the pointless and disruptive reassessments of people with long-term health conditions.
Alongside this, we pledged to commission a report into expanding the Access to Work programme. This is clearly required as whilst more and more disabled claimants are being considered fit for work, a myriad of barriers remain in place preventing those who really are able to work from entering employment.
We were told many times during the election that there was no “magic money tree”. We’re not asking for a magic money tree: we’re simply asking for the most vulnerable people in our society to be shown some humanity. If the Government can find £1 billion for ten votes from the Democratic Unionist Party, it should certainly be able to act upon what is fast becoming a humanitarian crisis on our own soil.