This afternoon (19 December 2018) MPs will debate the impact of austerity on disabled people’s rights in the UK.
One of the last things I did at the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2011 was help prepare its submission to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights inquiry into disabled people’s right to independent living. A few months later, one of my first jobs as a freelance was to work with Jenny Morris as a specialist adviser to the Committee, reading the evidence submitted by disabled people and their organisations, getting to grips with the government’s obligations arising out of domestic law and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, preparing the Committee for evidence sessions with witnesses and drafting the final report. Central to its findings and recommendations was this:
“Given the breadth of the current reforms, the Government should publish a unified assessment of the likely cumulative impact of the proposals on independent living, and set out any relevant mitigations through the Disability Strategy. The relevant strategies in the devolved administrations should also include such mitigation plans.”
In its response the government said:
“The ability to undertake cumulative analysis is limited because of the complexity of the modelling required and the amount of detailed information on individuals and families that is required to estimate the interactions of a large number of different policy changes.
The Disability Strategy will be accompanied by a process to allow monitoring of progress at national and local level and which will draw on the lived experiences of disabled people. It will be a living document that will continue to develop as progress is made, and to reflect changing circumstances and priorities. It will be for the devolved administrations to consider their approaches in the light of their devolved responsibilities.”
There have been numerous calls for such an assessment since, including by Pats Petition, the WOW campaign, the Centre for Welfare Reform and crucially by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The government has held the line that it is too complex to do. In the meantime The Equality and Human Rights Commission has commissioned the analysis, which shows that disabled people have and will continue to be disproportionately affected by reforms and spending cuts to 2022.
Of course the call for a ‘cumulative impact assessment’ is really a call for transparency and accountability. That’s also why it hasn’t and won’t ever be delivered by this (or I’d wager any future) government. Calls for it, and the government’s ongoing refusal to carry one out, may serve some limited political objectives of the Labour Party. But I fear that it is ultimately a cul-de-sac in terms of advancing disability rights.
The negative impact of austerity has not been confined to its material effects on disabled people’s freedom and wellbeing. It has also increasingly consumed the way disabled people’s lives are discussed in political debate – as a matter solely of public spending. Hence, whether politicians are defending cuts, or arguing against them, disabled people’s lives are framed as a cost. This is especially so where the accompanying rhetoric speaks not of the consequential limitations on equality and participation, but of ‘cruelty’ to the ‘most vulnerable members of our society’ – language reminscent of a pre-disability rights era where disabled people were regarded only as objects of charity or care. The idea that the disability rights agenda is solely a question of public spending, and the framing of new movements as anti-austerity has also deeply polarised the debate – suggesting that the left should enjoy a monopoly on disability rights. I’m sure there are many that will share that perspective, but UK political history tells a rather different story, with key developments – the shift towards inclusive education, away from instititonal care towards community care, the introduction of Disability Living Allowance, the Direct Payments Act, the first Disability Discrimination Act – being introduced by Conservative governments.
By objecting the Conservatives only to protest, not to any proposition, opportunities continue to be missed. While the impact of austerity-led reforms and spending cuts continue to be felt – and felt acutely – the Prime Minister’s announcement at the Tory Conference that the philosophy of austerity was over presents at very least an opportunity to reset and reframe the terms of government policy on disability. For example, disability organisations might campaign for policy leadership on disability to shift from DWP to the Women’s and Equalities Office, now housed in the Cabinet Office. While it would not have any immediate material effects, it would send an important signal of intent, to see disability as more than a question of welfare reform, and instead a matter of equality and rights. This could help create political space for the Conservatives to define an agenda centred on freedom and opportunity, embracing education and support for children and young people, employment, public service reforms, accessible transport, goods and services and so on (well, we can only dream).
Moreover, in limiting action to protest, Labour is being let off the hook. I do not hide my dislike for Corbyn’s Labour Party, but whomever was in charge, it is right to expect a Party now closer to forming the next government than ever before to be more than a protest movement. The Party has listed a number of social security policies that it will ‘scrap’ – Universal Credit roll out, the bedroom tax, assessments for PIP and ESA – and many will welcome these promises. Yet it if does ‘scrap’ them, it will need to replace them with something else. We know little if anything of its plans. Ditto the long term funding of social care. It seems intuitive to expect a Labour government to be more generous and compassionate, but policies in these areas are not forthcoming. Moreover, there are real and serious concerns about the approach Labour will take in areas such as personalisation, which are not confined simply to levels of expenditure, that must be asked. Beyond these plans to scrap things the Party has said that it will bring the UNCRPD into domestic law, yet its clear that it hasn’t given much thought to the real implications of this commitment. If it has, then can disabled people can expect justiciable economic and social rights and an enforceable right to independent living?
Austerity continues to wreak huge damage on the lives of disabled people of all ages. Its impact will be felt for generations to come. It has set back an agenda that had been making huge strides forward until the financial crash of 2008. But an anti-austerity agenda, focused on accountability for past actions, speaking only from and to the left and limited largely to protest rather than proposition about the future is unlikely to spark a way forward.
For that, the time has come to ditch austerity and anti-austerity alike and forge a cross Party agenda to be pro-investment in the life chances of disabled people.