Disability Support and Benefits was the subject of an Opposition Day Debate introduced by Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Liam Byrne on 21st June 2012. The Debate put the issue of the closure of Remploy factories announced by Government into the context of wider benefit and support cuts and highlighted the disproportionate level of cuts targeted at disabled people: over the course of this Parliament £3.5 billion is being cut from disability benefit yet only £2.5 billion net is being taken from Britain’s bankers. Opposition MP’s called on Iain Duncan Smith to apologise or resign over disparaging remarks he made about Remploy workers but it was mainly Maria Miller, Minister for Disabled People, who responded on behalf of the Government rather than the Secretary of State as the Government continued its misappropriation of the language of the social model to justify its oppressive policies. In the same week the Guardian published a leaked memo from Jobcentre Plus to operational staff warning about the risks of disabled claimants attempting suicide as a result of benefit losses. Although Labour lost the vote, the Condems were warned by John McDonnell MP that the issue and disabled people are not going to go away.
Labour’s motion for the Opposition Day Debate stated a belief that “cuts to support for disabled people and carers pose a potential risk to their dignity and independence and will have wider social and economic costs”. He accused the Department for Work and Pensions of dropping the aim of achieving disability equality and expressed concern that taking the DLA from 500,000 disabled people and contributory employment and support allowance from 280,000 former workers will take vital financial support from families under pressure. In both the letter and the motion for the debate he cited the mismanaged closure of Remploy factories and noted the pressing need for continuing reform to the work capability assessment (WCA) to reduce the human cost of wrong decisions. Finally Byrne stated agreement “with the eight Carers’ Week charities on the importance of recognising the huge contribution made by the UK’s 6.4 million carers and the need to support carers to prevent caring responsibilities pushing them into ill-health, poverty and isolation”.
In the motion that Labour lost by 236 votes to 298 the Opposition called on Government to:
– ensure welfare reform promotes work, independence, quality of life and opportunities for disabled people and their families;
– restore the commitment to disability equality in the Department for Work and Pensions’ business plan;
– conduct a full impact assessment of the combined effects of benefit and social care cuts on disabled people and carers;
– to reform WCA descriptors as suggested by charities for mental health, fluctuating conditions and sensory impairment; and
– re-run the consultation on the future of Remploy factories.
Liam Byrne opened the debate, giving figures to evidence how disabled people are being unfairly and disproportionately impacted by government policy. In n the debate he cited research showing how over the course of this Parliament disabled people in our country will pay more than Britain’s bankers, with disabled people in the final year of the Parliament paying 40% more than the banks. He went on to explain how Universal Credit will hit disabled people 30% harder than other people. He pointed to the unfairness of the arbitrary decision to cut Disability Living Allowance by 20% with an assessment designed to achieve that target rather than a fairer system of assessment first, and savings calculated after. Atos and the notorious Work Capability Assessments were criticised citing the figure of £50 million a year of tax-payers money being spent on an inefficient system where 40% of decisions are over-turned on appeal. He stated that 1 billion has been cut from local budgets for social care since this Government came into power, meanwhile 1,000,000 unpaid carers have given up work or had to reduce their hours and four out of ten have fallen into debt.
Opposition MPs supported the motion expressing concerns about Atos in particular and citing examples from their own constituencies of the devastating impact of benefit losses and cuts on individual disabled people. Tom Greatrex referred to his difficulties in finding out information about the government’s contract with Atos which he has been told cannot be disclosed for commercial reasons. Sheila Gilmore MP gave examples of cases where individual disabled people currently in receipt of DLA would not be eligible for PIP and the impact this would have on them. Karen Buck MP described the situation in Westminster where her constituency is based, where one quarter of the 52 million savings the local authority are looking to make is coming from adult and social care. She said that any gains disabled people would make from having their Council tax frozen is more than outweighed by the amount they must now spend on travel after cuts to taxi-card. Geraint Davies MP described government policy on disability as “asset stripping of the most vulnerable people in our society”; he said “it stinks”.
The Opposition took up the issue of the announced closure of 36 out of 54 Remploy factories following recommendations in the Sayce Review. Remploy workers are currently on a 90 day notice consultation period which ends on 25th June. Opposition MPs railed against what they described as a shambolic consultation on an impossible timetable where the rules had changed halfway through, where disabled workers had been bamboozled and where the whole process had been set against giving Remploy staff the chance to move onto creating new social enterprises. They called for a re-run of the whole consultation. The Condems attempted to use the segregation argument to support their current policy with the disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard describing Remploy factories as “apartheid for the disabled”. He asked “Are the disabled community not full members of society too?” Opposition MPs in constituencies with Remploy factories were able to describe the skilled work that goes on in the factories and to challenge the perception of the factories as segregated workplaces. They were also able to point to the higher than average unemployment figures in those areas.
Byrne said “disabled people have the same right to a job as everyone else but at present the choice of where to work is being taken from many of them” and cited how the Government’s Work Programme is failing to meet its target for disabled people by 60%. He called on Government to:
– honour the Sayce report for example in setting up independent panels to evaluate the expressions of interest
– restart the 90 day consultation process
– draw together extra work that could be available for the factories, for example under Article 19 of European regulations on procurement
– a more flexible approach to how each and every factory is dealt with
– a review of the subsidy available to the workers
In response to reports of Iain Duncan Smith’s comments that Remploy workers are “not doing any work at all. They are just making cups of coffee”, Byrne invited Smith to join him and the Sunday Express for a day working in one of the factories.
No acceptance to the invitation or apology to the workers was forthcoming from the Secretary of State. Miller defended the Government’s position explaining how the £320 specialist support budget is protected and that any money coming from Remploy will be reinvested in it. No one challenged how ineffectively this money will be spent under current Government plans, whereas at least through the Remploy factories disabled workers receive a wage. More could also have been made about the £25,000 given in the Sayce Review and widely cited by Condem MPs in the debate as the amount that it costs the State per worker employed in a Remploy factory as opposed to the average figure of £2,900 per person supported through Access to Work: this figure would be much lower if the inefficiencies and top heavy management structures of the current Remploy set up were reformed. The increasing restrictions on what Access to Work will fund, and its consequential irrelevance to being able to support many disabled people into work were also not raised.
John McDonnell MP concluded his contribution by warning the government about the consequences of continuing their current course. He said:
“Finally, the Government should not think that this issue or these people are going to go away because they are not: these people are mobilising. We now have a disability movement in this country of which we have not seen the equal before. Black Triangle occupied Atos offices in Scotland; members of DPAC—Disabled People Against Cuts—chained themselves in Trafalgar square. These people are not going to go away. They will be in our face—and rightly so. I will support them, including if Remploy workers opt to buy their factories.”
Nevertheless the vote was lost and none of the Opposition Day Debate demands will be implemented. George Hollingbery MP described the motion as “not so much something to be debated but a press release in search of an audience”. The timing conveniently coincided with the publication on the Guardian website of a memo from Paul Archer, head of Jobcentre Plus contact centres supporting ESA customers, sent to all staff in operations and stating that “The consequences of getting this wrong can have profound results” following the attempted suicide of one unsuccessful claimant. Just last week DPAC told a Labour Representation Committee meeting that disabled people have not forgotten that it was New Labour who introduced ESA, Work Capability Assessments, Atos and even Lord Freud. It is very easy to say what people want to hear when you are in Opposition but it will take more than words to eclipse the memory of how disabled people argued for years against the use of bio-psycho-social model approaches underpinning employment assessments without being heard by New Labour when they were in power.