Just when it seemed that the UK Government’s cruel disregard for disabled people could not have been clearer, the Department for Work and Pensions ‘quietly’ announced another devastating barrage of cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) at the end of February, ultimately excluding an estimated 160,000 people from vital financial assistance. To do so on the same day as two important by-elections, with the eyes of the news media elsewhere, is utterly shameful. Sadly, after seven relentless years of Tory austerity, which has ruined public services and inflicted poverty on millions, this latest move should have come as no surprise.
The Personal Independence Payment, which is gradually replacing Disability Living Allowance, helps with the extra costs of living with a long-term health condition or disability. With the leading disability charity Scope estimating that having a disability makes life £550 more expensive every month, this assistance is absolutely essential for people with disabilities to live independent and fulfilling lives. It may be the difference between a home-cooked meal and joining the increasingly long queues at a food bank; it may be the difference between paying for transportation to an important medical appointment and being forced to miss it; it may be the difference between making home modifications to accommodate complex needs and being a prisoner in your own home.
While the overwhelming characteristics of Theresa May’s blundering Brexit government are uncertainty and confusion, one thing is crystal clear – these new restrictions are targeted squarely at those suffering from mental health conditions, including autism, dementia and schizophrenia. Invisible disabilities such as these are too often overlooked and misunderstood, and yet can be just as debilitating as many physical conditions. This was starkly exemplified last week during an LBC Radio phone-in when a clearly distressed caller spoke of his despair over the new raft of cuts. In a scenario that has become all-too-familiar in the Tory era, he recalled friends suffering from mental health conditions who had attempted suicide following removal of their financial support. That the Government’s approach forces him to think “People hate us. People hate our guts”, is a damning indictment of seven years of division and failed policies.
Indeed the Government has not been shy about targeting sufferers of mental health conditions with these changes, sending a dangerous message to the public that some disabilities are more worthy of support than others, and adding to the increasingly negative perceptions of disabled people that this Government has actively perpetuated. This blatant disregard for the suffering of millions of people is not only deeply divisive, but calls into question whether the Government’s disability policies are founded on outright cruelty, or just sheer ignorance. As the SNP’s Disability Spokesperson, I meet with disability charities and activists, and disabled people, on a regular basis and what almost always comes up is the need for a change in society’s perceptions of people with disabilities. This latest move by the Government, which tells the public that people with certain types of disability do not deserve the same care as others, is therefore a misinformed step in the wrong direction.
I was one of several MPs that recently challenged the Government in Parliament over the cuts, but received little reassurance for the people and their families who will now struggle to make ends meet. While the Government claims that the changes will not impact those currently receiving PIP, it fails to acknowledge that new claimants will lose out under the tighter regulations, and will be left without the support they so desperately need. Even those who do currently receive PIP now face living with the spectre of reassessment – on new, harsher terms – hanging over them, which will undoubtedly serve to exacerbate their mental health conditions further.
Disgust at this new low has come from dozens of disability organisations and across the political spectrum. Highlighted recently by the Scottish Government’s disabilities delivery plan – A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People – the SNP is committed to upholding the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. But when condemnation of the changes has come from some rebellious Tories themselves, and from the right-wing Bow Group think tank, the Government should really question the morality of this move.
In the absence of a U-turn, the democratic way forward is for the Government to commit to a debate in Parliament, where MPs can stand up for the thousands of people in my own constituency, and in constituencies across the country, who will be impacted by this policy. Accordingly, I have written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green, urging a fundamental re-think of the policy and calling for a much-needed debate. To push through this devastating change without the opportunity for debate is simply wrong – not least because the Government explicitly promised not to bring in further disability cuts during this session of Parliament.
For too long this Tory Government has consistently and deliberately undermined the rights and dignity of disabled people, who have unfairly borne the brunt of the Government’s failed economic policies. This shameful step is a new low for a Government whose treatment of people with disabilities has already been condemned internationally by the United Nations. At a time when it has been revealed that Government departments have wasted £600 million of taxpayers’ money on fruitless spending – including £103 million on eight helicopters which were not fit for purpose, and tens of millions of pounds on developing overseas embassies which never materialised – it is truly disgraceful that, yet again, it is society’s most vulnerable people who will suffer as a result of this Government’s failures.
With the chaos of a hard Tory Brexit looming – and the continuing obsession with austerity and scapegoating of minority groups that this will bring – we must continue to hold this Government to account and fight for a fairer society for disabled people.