Britain’s War on Disabled People

In 2016, the UN said austerity had created a ‘human catastrophe’ for Britain’s disabled — but the last decade has also seen unprecedented organising to fight back.

Prior to 2010, the UK government was known as a world leader on disability. A decision was made under the Coalition government and carried forward by successive Conservative administrations that this progress had gone too far. The implementation of a fast reverse turn was of international significance, marking the first time in the history of modern social policy that things went backwards for disabled people. The fact that this was done in order to make disabled people pay for a financial crisis that we did not cause is abhorrent. It needed to be concealed from the public. The way in which right-wing politicians and the media achieved this — by creating a narrative that blamed disabled people themselves, purposefully stoking fires of division and hatred — makes it even worse.

What the government did is one half of the story. On the other is the resistance mounted by disabled people and our allies. If the Tories imagined that disabled people would be easy targets for their brutal cuts, they were wrong. Again and again, the government has been forced into U-turns and concessions. These discrete wins along the way have not been able to halt the overall regression in material conditions for disabled people, wiping away the hard-won gains of generations of disabled campaigners before us. After more than a decade of tireless resistance against austerity and welfare reform, the odds against us have grown even greater.

Targeting Disabled People

In 2016, the UK became the first country in the world to be found guilty of grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights. This was the finding of an unprecedented investigation by the UN Disability Committee into the impacts of welfare reform and austerity measures. The committee was not claiming that conditions are worse for disabled people in the UK than elsewhere in the world; what was of such concern was the large-scale retrogression of the rights of disabled people driven forward, the inquiry revealed, by deliberate legislative and policy choices.

Regressive measures, badged as government ‘reforms’, have been pushed through by the Conservatives in the face of sustained opposition since coming to power with the Coalition government. As a consequence, disabled people have experienced negative changes within all areas of our lives. In 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned that ‘[d]isabled people are falling further behind in many areas, with many disparities with non-disabled people increasing rather than reducing’, and they called on the government to urgently adopt an ‘acute focus on improving life in Britain for disabled people’.

Measures implemented in the name of austerity and welfare reform have had a disproportionate impact on disabled people. This was the truth behind David Cameron’s lie that ‘we are all in it together’. Cuts to benefits (excluding pensions) and local government made up 50 per cent of the 2010 austerity plan. Disability and carers benefits make up about 40 per cent of non-pension benefits and social care makes up 60 per cent of local government expenditure. Thus, the decision to target spending reductions in these two areas automatically led to extensive cuts to income and services for disabled people.

The combination of cuts in benefits and services was found to hit disabled people on average nine times harder than most other citizens in research carried out by the Centre for Welfare Reform. For disabled people with the highest support needs, the burden of cuts was found to be nineteen times that placed on most other citizens. Contrary to the government’s repeated claim to be ‘protecting’ and ‘targeting resources’ on ‘the most vulnerable in society’, the cuts were effectively aimed at disabled people.

At the same time, decisions were made to benefit the rich and help households with the highest incomes. A 2019 report from the Fabian Society identified how changes to tax and benefit policies since 2010 have contributed to Britain’s crisis of inequality, revealing that the government is providing more financial support for the richest 20 per cent of households than the poorest 20 per cent.

Human Catastrophe

Evidence before us now and in our inquiry procedure as published in our 2016 report reveals that social cut policies have led to a human catastrophe in your country, totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in.

– Theresia Degener, chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

These words were addressed to representatives of the UK government during the concluding session of a routine public examination of the UK under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It took place less than a year after the government dismissed the findings of the committee’s special investigation.

Death and suicides linked to cuts and benefit changes are the most extreme example of the human cost of austerity and welfare reform, but there have been many other terrible impacts, including rising poverty, food-bank use, debt, survival crime, and homelessness, in addition to dramatically escalating levels of mental distress. A study by academics from Liverpool and Oxford Universities published in 2015 found that reassessments for Incapacity Benefit from 2010 to 2013 were associated with an extra 590 suicides, 279,000 additional cases of self-reported mental health problems and the prescribing of a further 752,000 anti-depressants. Victims of welfare reform who have died or taken their lives as a direct consequence of benefit cuts are now a common item on daily media coverage.

Legislation and policies that have inflicted such suffering have also largely failed to deliver their stated aims. The transition from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) was intended to save 20 per cent compared with DLA remaining in place, but it appears to have cost around 15 to 20 per cent more. A report from the Office for Budget Responsibility published in January 2019 estimated an overspend on the DLA/PIP budget of £2 billion, leaving an estimated £4.2 billion shortfall when compared to the original savings target.

On a societal level, cuts to local authority budgets threaten disabled people’s continued existence in the community alongside non-disabled people. Funding cuts to education and social care and a failure to invest in accessible social housing are leading us towards physical re-segregation and institutionalisation. Alongside this, there has been a fuelling of attitudes that ‘other’ and thereby marginalise disabled people: on the one hand, growing disadvantage, resulting from cuts to state-funded support and leading to greater reliance on charity, has encouraged a pitying view of disability; on the other, hatred and hostility towards disabled people have been enflamed by anti-benefit-claimant rhetoric used by the government to justify welfare reform.

Political Fallout

A government does not attack its own citizens en masse without consequence. The impacts of austerity and welfare reform on disabled people have played a significant but overlooked role in the political upheaval of the last ten years. In terms of retaining control of Westminster, the Tories were largely correct in their assumption that — as Iain Duncan Smith observed — ‘[disabled people] don’t vote for us’, and thus that their attacks on disabled people would not affect their chances of re-election. Nevertheless, Cameron’s miscalculation on the EU referendum can be attributed to his failure to adequately understand the impacts of his policies and the bitter anger towards anything regarded as ‘establishment’.

Welfare reform has politicised large swathes of people. Experiences where individuals have their benefits stopped are obviously traumatic for those affected, but all benefit claimants are now subject to a benefit assessment approach which is personally humiliating. Trauma, confusion, and anger can turn to demoralisation and distress, but they can also lead to politicisation and activism. Research by the University of Essex and Inclusion London found that, in order to make sense of their situation, claimants came to think about their difficulties within the context of politics and Tory attacks on disabled people. Those who adopted an attitude of resistance towards the system and/or became politically engaged were better able to restore a sense of self-esteem that had been taken from them by their interactions with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Issues affecting disabled people have the potential to cause far greater social upheaval than the public and political profile of disability suggests. Disabled people make up 22 per cent of the population, a figure that is often underestimated. We are geographically and generationally dispersed across the population. Issues relevant to us also affect our friends, family, neighbours, and the range of workers whose jobs are linked to disability. Lack of recognition for the social significance of disability issues within politics and the media reinforces in those experiencing them the idea that their lives are not valued by those in power, making them hungry for a change from the status quo.

Forefront of the Fightback

With the Disabled People’s Movement (DPM) in decline from the mid-1990s, resistance from 2010 onwards can be characterised as a return to grassroots activism. In a conscious departure from the identity politics era of disability campaigning, new groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) were set up with the explicit aim of building alliances and joining the wider anti-capitalist movement.

One of the ways in which the British government was able to get away with making war on disabled people was by the sheer volume and complexity of the measures they unleashed. Where disabled people and their allies succeeded in holding them back was through intense and varied activity operating on many fronts and involving many people, each making an invaluable contribution in their own way. Resistance has used every tool at its disposal — from research, lobbying, protests, endless legal challenges, awareness-raising, and direct action. Collectively, the stakes are too high to give up and give in.

Since 2010, campaigners have won significant victories such as forcing Atos, a global corporation with a revenue measured in billions, out of its contract to deliver the Work Capability Assessment.  The government has been free to ignore the UN disability committee findings but it was a considerable achievement for grassroots disabled activists to secure the unprecedented special investigation that took place from 2015–16. The findings served to validate the experiences of millions of disabled people under attack from their own government. The government’s failure to slash the DLA/PIP budget can be attributed to the hard work of campaigners, claimants, advisers, and public lawyers who have consistently resisted attempts by the DWP to introduce measures limiting eligibility for the benefit.

Disabled activists have been at the forefront of the anti-austerity movement. Despite our efforts, the direction of government policy is further regression of disabled people’s living standards. One of the impacts of this is that it is becoming harder for disabled people to mobilise resistance.

The War Goes On

In December 2019, the most right-wing government in modern British history was re-elected with a significantly increased majority.

This was disastrous news for disabled people. Under Boris Johnson, the Conservatives now had the parliamentary power not simply to carry on in the same direction with the continuation of policies that have spread inequality, poverty, and immiseration, but to ramp up their attacks and implement welfare reform measures that they were previously beaten back from achieving.

An early indication of what the election result meant for disabled people was the decision announced in the New Year’s honours list to award Iain Duncan Smith a knighthood. Duncan Smith had not held a ministerial appointment since his period as secretary of state for work and pensions from 2010 to 2016. The honour effectively endorsed the dismantling of the social security safety net over which he presided. It also suggested full government commitment to rolling out Duncan Smith’s big idea, Universal Credit, in spite of the well-evidenced harms it has caused.

Into this picture, we then had the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic exposed existing inequalities within society even more starkly than a decade of austerity and welfare reform had. Disabled people were at the same time most at risk from coronavirus and also largely ignored in official responses to the pandemic. At a time of great uncertainty and anxiety, disabled activists and health workers had to challenge NHS guidelines that stated that disabled people were not a priority for life-saving treatment. Two thirds of deaths from coronavirus in the UK are disabled people. Between 15 March and 2 May, 22,500 disabled people died from Covid-19 compared to 15,500 non-disabled people.

Campaigners suspect that Boris Johnson’s original strategy of seeking to create ‘herd immunity’ and the government’s failure to do more to protect disabled people was part of a deliberate plan to remove from society those whose lives are deemed to represent a cost burden on the state. This is not inconceivable. Both Johnson and his close adviser Dominic Cummings have expressed views described by researcher-activist Roddy Slorach as ‘textbook examples of eugenic opinion’.

Speaking to city bankers during his time as mayor of London, Johnson said:

Whatever you think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130 … the harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top. And for one reason or another — boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and God-given talent of boardroom inhabitants — the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever.

Inequality is a state that Johnson and Cummings both regard as natural and even desirable for the functioning of society. It is nevertheless important to remember that the war against disabled people cannot just be attributed to individual ministers or Tory governments. Its existence is bound up with the intrinsic relationship between disability and capitalism.

What has happened since 2010 is a sharp reflection of the fundamentally important role that the category of disability plays within capitalist political economy, where it serves to identify the less productive members of society and enables a ‘weeding out’ from the rest of the population. Interrogating the relationship between disability and capitalism is a powerful way to expose the inequalities and cruelty of the system of exploitation under which we live. It is no wonder then that disability issues are so hidden and misunderstood within mainstream society: they need to be shrouded in myths and misconceptions in order to obscure the true nature of capitalism.

Those of us who want a fairer world must fight for improvements in the living conditions of disabled people as part of — not in isolation from — the rest of the working class. But our resistance must also be consciously situated within the struggle to transcend capitalism itself. Only then can we guarantee freedom from oppression and a society where diversity is truly valued.

This article is excerpted from Ellen Clifford’s The War on Disabled People: Capitalism, Welfare and the Making of a Human Catastrophe which is now out from Zed Books.

About the Author

Ellen Clifford is a disabled activist who has worked within the disability sector for over twenty years. She currently serves on the national steering group for Disabled People Against Cuts.