The future of the left since 1884

Leaving no one behind

We must transform our social security system into one which enables disabled people to participate fully and equally in society, argues Marsha de Cordova MP.



In 1945, a Labour government came into power with a radical vision for a welfare state that would leave no one behind. Labour pledged to implement the Beveridge report, strengthening Britain’s social contract with those facing hardship in society.

More than 70 years later, Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto for disabled people, Nothing About You Without You, was a clear statement of our commitment to that social contract. The manifesto sets out Labour’s plans to transform the social security system based on the social model of disability. This means recognising that people are disabled by society, rather than by their impairments or differences. Our manifesto was clear that building a social security system that works for disabled people can only be done in conjunction with tackling these societal barriers. This is why we pledged to enshrine the UN convention on the rights of disabled people into UK law, a strong and ambitious commitment to promoting disabled people’s rights in every part of society.

In Britain today, one in five people face an erosion of their rights because they are disabled – be it in accessing justice, housing, education or employment. Disabled people face countless barriers to participating in almost every part of daily life. Incorporating the convention of rights for disabled people fully into UK law is one of the key ways that disabled people can participate fully and equally in society.

In the last decade, spending on social security for disabled people has shrunk by £5bn, in policies labelled as ‘grave’ human rights violations according to the UN committee for the rights of disabled people.

These cuts have been accompanied by an important shift in the treatment of people in receipt of social security, including disabled people. In November 2018, the UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty captured this shift in the culture of the Department for Work and Pensions. He concluded that under the Conservative government, compassion in our social security system has been replaced with a “punitive, callous and mean-spirited approach”.

Instead of treating disabled people with compassion and respect, this government has created a hostile environment that all too often drives people to hardship and destitution, a hostile environment characterised by callous assessment frameworks commonly associated with mental health crises and an unnecessarily cruel sanctions and conditionality regime.

Ending the hostile environment for disabled people means more than reconstructing our hollowed out social security system from the depths of austerity. It means transforming the culture of our social security system away from one which strips disabled people of dignity, to one which enables disabled people to participate fully and equally in society.

Over the past nine years, hundreds of thousands of disabled people have been wrongly denied access to personal independent payment and employment and support allowance as a result of an unfit for purpose assessment framework.

Labour will proudly scrap the cruel work capability and personalised independent payment assessments. Instead of assessments that rely on an abstract set of descriptors, we must introduce a framework that reflects disabled people’s lived experience.

Since 2010, more than 1 million disabled people have had their social security payments sanctioned for failing to comply with requirements set out by the DWP. Not only are these sanctions counterproductive, there is also clear evidence that they plunge disabled people further into poverty. That is why Labour will end the punitive sanctions regime, which has pushed many disabled people into destitution.

Above all, building an enabling social security system means dismantling barriers to accessing the labour market. There are currently 1 million disabled people in society who are out of work but want to work. The disability employment gap, the rate at which non-disabled people are employed versus disabled people, has stubbornly remained at just above 30 per cent for the past decade.

The government’s approach to employment support has bitterly failed to offer disabled people employment opportunities. According to Action for Hearing Loss almost a third of employers feel uncomfortable with employing someone with a hearing impairment. Horror stories are common: for example, a young deaf woman desperately in need of a job being rejected one thousand times. If you are deaf or disabled, you will likely apply for 60 per cent more jobs than non-deaf or disabled people.

That is why Labour is committed to reviewing the Access to Work scheme to see how it could be expanded, as well as requiring organisations with more than 250 employees to report annually on the proportion of disabled people they employ. To fully incorporate the UN convention of disabled people into law, we must create fully inclusive workplaces that treat disabled people equally. For every hour worked, disabled people earn on average £1.50 less than their peers. Much like the gender pay gap, we must tackle this inequality in our workforce.

We need to build a social security system that we value, and are justly proud of, as we are the National Health Service. But for the past nine years, we have watched the social security system diminish and the people who use it vilified as skivers or scroungers. Reversing this trend is vital to dismantling the hostile environment facing disabled people in Britain today and to rebuilding a social security system that is fair and there for all of us in our times of need.

This blog is part of our Poverty and social security: where next? series. Read more about the project here.

Marsha de Cordova MP

Marsha de Cordova is the Labour MP for Battersea and shadow minister for disabled people.


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