Protestors in the grounds of Westminster Abbey in central London, during a demonstration calling for the preservation of the independent lining fund for disabled people. Dominic Lipinski/PA Images. All rights reserved.This election, there is much more to talk about than Brexit. As we hurtle towards a snap general election on the 8th of June, it has never been more important to consider the suffering that sustained austerity continues to inflict. Framed by the Tory government as a rational and necessary response to financial instability in the wake of the 2010 crisis, the politics of austerity have rippled through all aspects of daily life – none more so than the daily lives of disabled people.
Despite making up 8% of the population, disabled people in Britain continue to bear the brunt of 29% of all cuts, meaning they carry the single biggest burden of austerity and welfare reform. Since 2010, such measures as the introduction of Personal Independence Payments (PIP), the introduction of the Bedroom Tax, and the abolition of the Independent Living Fund exist alongside a larger machinery of welfare reform, which has seen crippling cuts to social care, mental health support and legal aid. Combined, these measures exacerbate the physical, financial, and mental vulnerability of those they target, rendering increasingly fragile the basic supports required to sustain life.
In the week of the Brexit referendum last June, the United Nations released a report criticising British austerity as constituting a breach of the UK’s human rights obligations. Recognising that cuts under the Tory government have had a “disproportionate adverse impact” on the most marginalised and disadvantaged in society, the report went largely unnoticed amid the chaos of the referendum’s aftermath. Brexit was a distraction then, and, in the lead up to the general election, it once again threatens to drown out conversation about other issues. It is easy to forget that obscured by speak of hard and soft Brexits, there is a clear choice about social policy.
The welfare reforms implemented by the Tory government have set in motion ever increasing levels of societal inequality and injustice. They have also exacerbated a culture of hostility towards the people routinely scapegoated for the financial problems of the government. The vocabulary of ‘scrounging’ and ‘shirking’ has been powerful in legitimising cuts, with disabled people frequently cast as benefit frauds.
“It makes me feel I shouldn’t be existing. Makes me feel guilty that I’m alive.”
When asked about the impact of this kind of demonising rhetoric, Charlie* said: “it makes me feel I shouldn’t be existing. Makes me feel guilty that I’m alive.” Beyond feelings of guilt, Charlie explained that the normalisation of hostile rhetoric had led to feeling unsafe when out on the street: “It makes me feel even more vulnerable when I’m out… one time I was out somebody was quite verbally abusive towards me, about scrounging off the government and taking their money.” Charlie’s experience of verbal assault isn’t uncommon; in the last year alone, incidents of hate crime against disabled people have increased by 41%.
The effects of cuts and reduced benefits are now tightly stitched intro the fabric of daily life. Acute financial pressure, the threat of homelessness, and the need to use foodbanks have become normal experiences for hundreds of thousands of disabled people across Britain. Punctuating the experience of poverty, is the unrelenting stress of further cuts, and of mandatory annual re-assessments for PIP, which apply even in the case of long-term severe conditions.
Having been through drawn out periods of waiting between her PIP assessment, the decision, and the consequent appeal, only to have to repeat the process again the following year, Rebecca* describes living in constant fear of losing her mobility aids. She tells me that anxiety about future cuts now permeates her day-to-day life: “I’ve started having panic attacks. I have anxiety most nights now.”
The cruelty of austerity resounds nowhere more strongly than in the number of deaths linked to the cumulative assault of cuts. The number of deaths attributed to Work Capability Assessments (WCA) since 2010 is estimated to be as high as 90 per month. Indeed, between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died after their claim for Employment Support Allowance ended, when they were deemed ‘fit for work’ by a WCA. These figures reveal the violence of a particularly callous brand of social policy, which, by determining who may be accommodated in society, and who may not, renders some lives invisible, unliveable, and invalid.
These figures reveal the violence of a particularly callous brand of social policy, which, by determining who may be accommodated in society, and who may not, renders some lives invisible, unliveable, and invalid.
Recently, Theresa May was publically confronted by a woman who, since having her Disability Living Allowance replaced by PIP, has no longer been able to pay a carer to support her needs. The woman’s anger was palpable, revealing the desperation of a person repeatedly unheard and ignored. In response, Mrs May sang her government’s now tired refrain: that money is being used for those “most in need.” It is a refrain that repeats the message, that unless you are the “most vulnerable”, you are not needy enough.
The upcoming election presents a choice. Labour’s manifesto pledges to end austerity, promising to scrap the bedroom tax, to increase carers allowance, to end the privatisation of assessments and to end the stress of reassessments for those with long-term conditions. By upholding cuts to benefits and social care, a Tory future offers the continuation of austerity as business as usual.
But the human cost of business as usual is great. As Charlie describes: “with this government there is nowhere to run. They are stripping me of everything that made me feel safe enough to try to exist.”
The Brexit conversation is important, but in the lead up to the election on the 8th of June, we cannot let it be the only conversation.
*names of interviewees have been changed