Government Street Magic

by Simon Duffy

The government is getting away with targeting disabled people and the Left has failed to respond.

First published: 25 February, 2014 | Category: Disability, Economy, Employment & Welfare

One of the strangest features of our political landscape is the failure of the Left to take advantage of the vicious targeting of cuts on disabled people. I still do not quite understand how this has happened. It is almost as if the current government has mastered street magic and the art of misdirection. Somehow we just don’t see one of the great injustices of our times – right before our eyes. 

Of course part of the reason for the government’s success is that even the kind of bright and well intentioned reader of the New Left Project may not understand the complexity of the welfare system nor the true meaning of some of the government’s policies.  So, in brief, here is an outline of how disabled people have been targeted for the most extreme cuts in income and support: 

The biggest cut in percentage terms has been to local government (a 42% annual cut by 2015). But few people know that most of this will have to come from social care – support for disabled children, disabled adults and the frail elderly.

The biggest cut in cash terms (about £22 billion annually by 2015) will be to benefits and tax credits (although pensions are protected). These cuts will be achieved by a whole range of complex measures, many still in the pipeline. Perhaps the biggest is achieved by reducing the indexation level for benefits, meaning that the poorest will become relatively poorer, year after year.  Moreover many of the specific cuts to benefits are being achieved by targeting disabled people – the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the introduction of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and many changes to Housing Benefit, including the Bedroom Tax. 

Our latest analysis of the impact of the cuts is set out in our recent publication ‘Counting the Cuts’. Our analysis shows that by 2015-16, on average the annual loss in services or income, per person will be as follows:

For most people - £1,126
For the poorest 20% - £2,744
For disabled people in poverty - £4,660
For people needing social services - £6,409 

In other words the burden of cuts falling on people with the most severe disabilities is 18 times greater than the burden falling on the average citizen. How is this possible? 

Partly it is simply because it is possible to hide so many of these cuts within the crazy alphabet soup of modern government. It is a full time job to understand even one part of the modern welfare state and few people can make their way through the acronyms, bureaucracy, bizarre contracting and assessment system and the many ‘technical’ changes which all serve to disguise the blunt reality – the government is cutting incomes and services for disabled people by using its multi-billion pound Whitehall bureaucracy to rationalise its actions as ‘reforms’.

Even more worrying is that the government now seems to have gone further and is now using the press and television to portray disabled people as scroungers, skivers or fraudsters. The level of misrepresentation of reality is staggering – while benefit fraud is only 6% of tax fraud (fraud, not tax evasion, tax evasion being an even higher figure) the terms ‘benefit fraud’ or benefit cheat’ are used 600% more than ‘tax fraud’ or ‘tax cheat’. 

Two possibilities lie before us. It may be that, while this is all radically unfair, it is simply politics as usual. Disabled people are not a powerful interest group, they are not seen as democratically important, and if they can be successfully stigmatised by politicians and the media, then what else can we expect. Why would we expect the Left to act or to challenge what is going on? They must only do what is politically feasible.  This seems to be the judgement being made inside the Labour Party today – disabled people are an unfortunate casualty of war  but the Labour Party cannot risk any break out from its trenches to rescue them. They must be sacrificed.

The alternative view is that the current government’s campaign, its unfairness, vitriol and plain absurdities could be an easy target for any Labour Party that had the courage of its convictions. The British people, once they understood the nature of the injustice being carried out in their name would be outraged and would support political leaders who tried to address these injustices. Of course this is what I want to believe, and this is the assumption I want to work on. It’s for this reason that, with friends and colleagues, we created the Campaign for a Fair Society – to try boldly make the case for fairness. 

I suspect that this is a Schrodinger's Cat Problem – the actual state of the British people’s psyche cannot be determined in the abstract and without reference to Labour policy itself. If Labour doesn’t speak out then it is all the more likely that people will believe that there’s nothing wrong – nothing to speak out about. For surely the Labour Party would speak out if such an injustice was really happening? But if Labour does speak out, with conviction, sharing the facts and with the support of disabled people themselves, then it could galvanise the innate sense of justice within the British people. 

However, as it stands, it does not seem likely that Labour will take this opportunity. The fear of being presented as incompetent, spendthrift or just plan soft seems to dominate Labour policy-making. And it is certainly fair to note that in recent decades social justice has not won elections. So where does that leave disabled people and the other minority groups that are targeted for cuts and government sponsored stigma? 

There are of course many organisations – large and small – who would seem to be natural advocates of disabled people. Why have these organisations not been campaigning and drawing this injustice to the attention of the British people? Well of course some have, but often these campaigns have been muted or misdirected. For example, in 2011 Mencap led a campaign called ‘Don’t Cut the Frontline’ targeting local government and calling on them not to cut social care. But this campaign reinforced the false claim of central government that social care had been somehow protected. 

Some of this timidity must be due to the fact that many charities are primarily large service providers who, over the past 20 years, have become increasingly dependent on funding from local and central government. Partly I think that this timidity also reflects growing centralisation and elitism. The proliferation of well paid roles for heads of charities to run quangos or government committees, seems to have had the effect of taming most charities. 

This process cannot continue, for it is self-defeating. Ultimately charities will pay the price for their submissiveness and lose public support. And in the short-run we can see new networks of disabled people leading very effective, if small scale protests, campaigns and research projects. For example, the Spartacus Network has generated a series of high quality reports on the failures of DWP policy with no funding – just intelligence, hard work and social media. This is not yet a popular movement that will reshape electoral agendas – but it is where the best and the brightest are to be found. It is the future. 

Finally, I think this phenomenon provides one more reason why the Left really needs to rethink its purpose. Social injustice is real but it is no longer dressed in nineteenth-century clothes. Other forms of disadvantage and injustice must be identified and understood. 

The Left must also demonstrate a deeper understanding of how positive social change happens. There is a whole world to discover in the chasm between the market and the state. The Left needs to fight against that Fabian impulse to micromanage us to death. It must find again its faith in ordinary people, in value of freedom and the role of communities. When disabled people do overcome injustice and prejudice they seek independent living and citizenship – not state control and an institutional life. They have much to teach the Left about what really matters and what is worth fighting for. 

Dr. Simon Duffy is Director of The Centre for Welfare Reform.

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