Jumbob is the name Frances Ryan gives to a 68-year old Ayrshire man with chronic lung disease, bone disease and fibromyalgia. She interviewed him in the winter of 2017. He sat wrapped up in a quilt in his freezing cold flat. He could only afford to put the heating on for 15 minutes for visits to the toilet. On bad days he sits huddled up in an old tent pitched in his living room. In 2013 when the coalition government introduced its “tougher” benefits regime Jumbob had at a stroke lost £100 a week.
Despite their cuddly image the Lib Dems joined with the Tories from 2010 to 2015 and shared in the decision making that resulted in austerity. Contrary to their false narrative that “we are all in this together” the coalition government imposed the greatest burden on those who were least able to bear it. This has devastated the lives of so many people, including those who are disabled. To be disabled does not mean that you are in some special category, unlike “ordinary” people. As the organisation Disabled People against the cutsdeclares on its website:
“Disabled people are not “the disabled” – we are a diverse social group of people with a variety of impairments.”
It is not the failure of people with disabilities but rather deliberate government policy that has robbed its victims of dignity and a decent life by the reduction or even the axing of benefits and the starving of funds for essential public services. An early example was the freezing of benefit increases at 1% in April 2011 that, given inflation, has entailed a year-on-year impoverishment. As Ryan says, “it is not inevitable for people with disabilities to be afraid, desperate or isolated.”
NEARLY 12 MILLION OF US
There are far more of us who have some form of disability than is commonly realised. The estimated figure is 11.9 million (6.4 million women and 5,5 million men) and there are millions more who care for a loved one who is chronically ill or disabled. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that in 2018 over a third of all adults living in poverty were disabled. That is 4 million people.
In 2013 Simon Duffy of the Centre for Welfare Reform pointed out that if protected areas of public expenditure were excluded the projected cuts in the period up to 2015 amounted to a startling £75.2 billion. More than half of these cuts fell on just two areas: benefits and local government, And over 60% of local government expenditure is taken up by children’s and adult social care. These services have been savagely squeezed in a way that was scarcely imaginable before 2010, when Labour was last in power. For the individual disabled person it is not only that benefits are pitched so low that frequently there isn’t sufficient money to pay for the basic necessities: food or heating or rents or to repair a broken-down appliance like a washing machine. There are also increased demands on depleted incomes such as payment for items (e.g., incontinence pads) that once were provided for free. When David Clanson, a diabetic. died in 2013 he had no money to pay for credit on his electricity and therefore could not keep the fridge working in which he kept his insulin. Neither could he afford to buy food. Within 3 weeks of having his Jobseekers Allowance sanctioned because he had missed two Job Centre appointments he had died from diabetic ketoacidosis. His sister noted that there was a pile of CVs beside his body. Since then research has found that disabled out-of-work people are 53% more likely to be sanctioned than other claimants who are not disabled.
The hardship caused to disabled people is often cumulative, one cut following upon another. And the decision making, which the government has put into the hands of private companies, is seriously flawed: nearly 70% of appeals against these decisions are upheld.
One of the chapters in Ryan’s wide-ranging book is about women who are disabled or chronically ill. In recent years more and more of what jobs there are for women in the labour market are part-time, low paid and insecure. This catches out women with physical difficulties or with poor mental health. In 2018 the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) system was judged by the High Court to be “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health problems. The court ordered the government to review over a million cases.
Ryan interviewed a number of women who for a variety of reasons that included bipolar disorder and low or intermittent energy levels were unable to hold down a regular job or who had so many unexplained gaps in their CVs that they never got called for interviews. Some of them had resorted to sex work to make ends meet.
Domestic abuse is far too common. Studies have shown that disabled women, especially those who are Deaf, are far more likely to suffer controlling behaviour and other forms of domestic abuse at the hands of their partners than are other women. Here again austerity strikes as neither local government nor specialist charities are able to properly fund refuges and other kinds of support. This is just one element in the undermining of local government run services. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services write in their 2019 annual survey of the human cost of services that are severely under- funded. “What of the council whose stretched budget means there isn’t enough money to enable some people to see anyone for days on end?”
Mothers who are disabled are at enhanced risk of having their children taken away without their consent, perhaps on charges of neglect. Such charges are more likely if they are without the resources to feed, house and clothe them properly. The preventative services that once provided families with the kind of help that kicked in before there was trauma have been cut to the bone.
PUBLIC OPINION HAS SHIFTED
We must not fall into the trap of feeling it is all hopeless. There are signs that the government’s attempted stigmatization of the disabled and chronically ill is failing. Austerity has become a dirty word. In 2017 the proportion of people who thought that claimants were fiddling the system was down to 22%, the lowest for 30 years. The British Social Attitudes Survey in 2017 showed that 67% supported funding for disability benefits as compared with only 52% in 2010.
Frances Ryan’s book is a clarion call to action. The shift in public opinion that she highlights is the solid basis for bringing about a restoration of decency and solidarity. That is Labour’s task.