Rishi Sunak last week ramped up his government’s demonisation of disabled people with yet more punitive measures on top of already planned attacks to welfare. Millie looks at what the proposals mean and argues for socialists to centre the fight to defend disabled people. 

Speech delivered by a disability activist during The Big One, an Extinction Rebellion protest in April 2023. Photo credit: Steve Eason

Sunak’s latest attack on disabled people last week brought a slew of new proposals spreading fear among those targeted. While the plans, such as handing Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) officials responsibility for ‘fit notes’, may never become reality with Sunak facing general election defeat this year, the political rhetoric is causing real distress and scapegoating disabled people for government failings. Disabled activist Linda Burnip of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) told rs21 the latest proposals seemed ‘unworkable’, while plans to take responsibility for ‘fit notes’ away from doctors were ‘a good way to hide the lack of GPs’.

For months, the government has promised disability welfare changes, Labour has pledged to get more people into work, and headlines have screamed about work-shy claimants. In November’s Autumn statement the Tories announced plans to force more sick and disabled people to look for work. Changes to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) would mean fewer people classified as ‘limited capability for work related activity’ (LCWRA) and more people moved into the ‘limited capability for work’ group. People in the latter category receive less money, and have to show they are taking steps to get ready for work. These changes, planned to take effect in 2025, would only affect new claims. There is also a proposal to eventually phase out the WCA other than for Personal Independence Payment.

Part of the reason for the increase in sickness and disability is the Covid pandemic, which has been called a ‘mass disabling event’. The government, having failed to protect people and in fact forced many people to be exposed to Covid at work, in hospitals, and in care homes, is now punitively cutting support for those harmed. The same is true for people harmed by bad housing and NHS waiting lists.

Government announcements emphasise that work has changed, there are more opportunities to work from home, and therefore people have less reason to be on benefits. This is flawed. Lots of work could be done remotely, but in practice isn’t, due to employers’ resistance. Home working is more likely to be offered to people in higher status, higher paid roles, while available jobs are falling. Where there is greatest need for workers, jobs often cannot be done at home, such as those in the construction industry.

Working from home does not by itself remove barriers to employment. Disability is not reducible simply to the need to sit down. Many conditions make it difficult to complete a full working day on a computer at home. People who are too sick to work need to be given support and allowed to get on with their lives in peace, not constantly hounded.

The government claims to be acting in the best interests of people ‘written off’ who, with the right support, could work. The crucial issue here is that the ‘right support’ is not there. Employers habitually do not make adjustments, do not offer flexibility, do not take on disabled people who are qualified for the job, and hound out staff who develop a health issue. The support that is supposed to be on offer to help disabled people take up employment is under-resourced, with people waiting months.

The proposed benefit changes also increase the number of people exposed to conditionality. This is an important issue in the benefits system and means that benefits are conditional on looking for work or ‘work related activity’ such as writing a CV or enrolling on a vocational course. This applies to people who are working part time as well as people who are not working. In-work conditionality has created serious problems for people such as single parents and disabled people, working part time and claiming Universal Credit, under constant pressure to increase their hours. The proposed scrapping of the WCA would place more disabled people into conditionality, putting them at risk of sanctions and being forced into inappropriate and damaging work. ‘Forcing disabled people into work they cannot sustain will simply lead to further deterioration of their mental and physical health and push more people to suicide,’ said DPAC’s Burnip.

Socialists must resist the brutal, dehumanising targeting of vulnerable people. The movement has to be welcoming and accessible to disabled people and not give ground to the rhetoric of ‘hardworking families’ and ideas of deserving and undeserving working class people. ‘We must resist this at all costs’, said Burnip. ‘DPAC will be taking to the streets again to do so.’ Socialists must support these protests by disabled people. We also need to make sure disabled people – who are 24% of the population – are considered and fully included in all our work. Housing is a disability issue. Workplace struggle is a disability issue. The NHS is a disability issue. We must not see people in work as superior to people who are not, nor allow chauvinistic ideas about strength and physical fitness to permeate the movement. Ill health and vulnerability are part of the human condition, not a sign of weakness, and people should be encouraged and supported to talk about their experiences not treated as a burden. Disabled people have always been part of the working class struggle and must always be part of it.

Like refugees, the treatment of disabled people is an indicator of how the government will treat the rest of the working class a few years on. We can resist attacks on disabled people and defend the rights of all claimants and counterpose a politics of care to the politics of punishment and brutality.

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