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The UK General Election 2015: What's in Store for Disability

  • Published: 2015-04-20 : Author: Paul Dodenhoff : Contact: p.dodenhoff@lancaster.ac.uk
  • Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff writes on the upcoming general election in the UK and the parties stated approach to disability issues.

Quote: "Current UK national debt has risen to more than £1 trillion pounds within recent times, primarily caused by the global financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession."

Main Document

Well, we are just a few short weeks from a General Election in the UK and this week the main political parties announced their election manifestos. While there is no guarantee that any positive election promises will be upheld once power has been gained, it is interesting to compare the parties stated approach to disability. Here is a brief look through each manifesto.

The Conservatives

Interestingly, the Prime Minister's introduction to the Conservative manifesto, while mentioning various social groups who have benefited from 5 years of Conservative government and how these groups will continue to benefit from another 5 years of Conservative governance, made no direct reference to disability. Probably not surprising, considering that the current PM has the dubious distinction of being head of the first government in the world to be investigated for possible violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its optional protocol ( Disabled World, 20 th August 2014 ).

Disability is rarely mentioned in the rest of the manifesto either, but the few times it is mentioned indicate a future Conservative government not only hell bent on continuing along the path that began in 2010 - UN investigation or no UN investigation. But a path that many disabled organizations have deemed cruel and out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.

Firstly, the Conservatives pledge to increase the numbers of disabled within employment by removing "barriers" to employment, transforming "policy, practice and public attitudes". The Conservatives pledge to "reassess" those on incapacity benefit so that only help goes to those who really need it, as "the days of something for nothing" is over. The Conservatives pledge to continue to cap benefits, but will make exceptions for the disabled.

The Conservatives pledge to review 'hate crime' legislation committed against people on the basis of disability, possibly bringing it in line with race, gender and sexuality (bearing in mind that this legislation was only last reviewed in 2014, with no change being deemed necessary by the powers that be). Finally, the Conservatives pledge to scrap the human rights act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.

The only thing I need to say is that any country that is prepared to scrap the 'human rights' of its citizens needs to draw a very deep breath and take one, cold, hard look at itself - particularly in light of alleged UN concerns over the Human Rights of the UK's disabled. One is left to wonder what might be coming next if current 'human rights' legislation are thought to be in the way of any future government's agenda

Labor

Once again, the disabled are left out of the introduction to the Labor manifesto, an introduction by the leader of the Labor Party, Ed Miliband, and one which sets out its vision where "hard work is rewarded" in order to "build a country that works again for working people". Tough luck maybe if you are not actually working or perceived not to be a hard worker (through perhaps having a 'disability' maybe).

Like the Conservative manifesto, disability is initially avoided. In fact, disability doesn't get any mention at all until page 33 of the manifesto, with:

"... vulnerable older people, disabled people and those with complex needs will be helped to have more control of their lives with the entitlement to a personal care plan designed with them and shaped around their needs, the option of personal budgets where appropriate, and a single named person to coordinate their care".

It is not until page 48 of the manifesto that disability is addressed again:

"Alongside strong and responsive public services, the social security system plays an important role in supporting many disabled people to live independently, and must always treat sick and disabled people with dignity. Half a million families have been hit by the Bedroom Tax, and two thirds of those affected are disabled, or have a disabled family member. It is cruel, and we will abolish it. We will reform the Work Capability Assessment and focus it on the support disabled people need to get into work. We will give an independent scrutiny group of disabled people a central role in monitoring it. And we will introduce a specialist support program to ensure that disabled people who can work get more tailored help".

Disability gets another mention on page 54:

"We will take a zero-tolerance approach to hate crime, such as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We will challenge prejudice before it grows, whether in schools, universities or on social media. And we will strengthen the law on disability, homophobic, and transphobic hate crime".

And finally, page 67: "Thanks to the Human Rights Act, some of our most vulnerable citizens, including disabled people and victims of crime, have been given a powerful means of redress. The conservatives want to leave the European Convention of Human Rights, and abolish the Human Rights Act. A Labor Government will stand up for citizens' individual rights, protecting the Human Rights Act and reforming, rather than walking away from, the European Court of Human Rights".

So, out of 83 pages, disability is mentioned directly just four times, and as quoted above. However, these pledges are certainly highly important and attempt to address some of the concerns disabled people have after 5 years of Conservative rule. Although, many people would perhaps have liked to have seen a much more forceful condemnation of the way the disabled within Britain have been recently treated, and will continue to be treated if a new Conservative government comes to power.

The manifesto, while addressing key issues connected with disability, arguably presents those issues as 'low key' as it could possibly have made them. It's almost as if the Labor Party is reluctant to mention them.

Liberal-Democrats

The Liberal-Democrat document is a whopping 158 pages long called 'Opportunity for Everyone' . The introduction is given by Nick Clegg, the current deputy Prime Minster. Once again, the disabled are not directly referred to in the introduction. However, the disabled are mentioned this time as early as page 13, where:

"There will be more jobs in our economy, with steadily higher wages and better employment rights. With Universal Credit and reforms to disability benefits, it will always pay to work"

Perhaps indicating which way the wind blows in a 'Liberal Democrat' Britain.

Page 37 states that: "We are proud of the arts in Britain and will support them properly, working to deliver access for all, regardless of income, ethnicity, gender, age, belief, sexuality or disability". But access to the arts for the disabled perhaps come second to improving access to the world of employment and making sure that work 'pays' and welfare benefits doesn't. Page 44:

"Liberal Democrats will protect young people's entitlements to the welfare safety net, while getting them the help they need to get their first job. That means doubling the number of businesses that hire apprentices. It also means providing support that has been proven to work, like work experience placements that help them get a first foot on the career ladder. These placements should be tailored for those with disabilities or mental health problems ..."

Benefits will still be 'capped' I'm afraid, but the disabled will once again be protected (page 45). While page 44 to 48 deals directly with the chaos of Britain's welfare system - a system the Liberal Democrats co-created over the past 5 years:

"Working-age benefits make up a significant proportion of public spending, and have long been in need of reform, which we have started in this Parliament. Through tough choices, we have found savings in the welfare budget and we must continue to do so as we balance the books (Page 44)".

"For too long, sickness benefits were used as a way of parking people away from the unemployment statistics. Our aim is to get everyone the support and help they need, both financially and in terms of advice and support. That does require a formal assessment: but these tests have to be fair and should not be an extra burden for vulnerable people. That is why we have made many improvements to the assessments introduced by the last government (page 48)"

Therefore, the disabled can rest assured that any future assessments of disability will now be 'fair' and 'accurate' - assessments that have long been described by campaigners as cruel and demeaning (making the disabled perform 'tricks' in order to test mobility or mental ability). The disabled can also rest assured that the dreaded 'bedroom tax' is pledged to be removed under a future Liberal Government too - a tax that could have been abolished in 2014 had Liberal Democrat politician's not failed to support its proposed abolishment.

The Liberal Democrats declare on page 39 of the manifesto that "A fair society is one in which everyone has the means to get by and the chance to get on". However, many disabled people would not agree that the Conservative/Liberal coalition government that came to power in 2010 have produced such a fair society, and one where everybody can 'get on'. As policies towards disability became primarily aggressive and regressive, simply in order to save money by cutting back on state welfare, life for many of Britain's disabled deteriorated to such a level that that some actually committed suicide in order to escape it. The Liberal Democrat manifesto encouragingly has a whole chapter (page 103 to 116) dedicated to promoting equality, freedom and opportunity for all. However, after 5 years of co-governing the UK, there is little sign where this equality, freedom and opportunity is to be seen.

Conclusion

The title of this article directly asks about what is in store for disability after the general election on 7th May.

Clearly, out of the three documents, the Labor manifesto offers the best hope of a fairer approach to disability, although that also very much depends on any future Labor administration sticking by its election pledges. However, disability within all the manifestos arguably take second, third or fourth place to other concerns, such as getting people into employment, getting them to 'work hard', and reducing public spending and the national debt. We can make this assumption primarily because disability is mentioned only rarely within any of these documents, particularly compared to other issues.

Current UK national debt has risen to more than £1 trillion pounds within recent times, primarily caused by the global financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession. Therefore, any future UK government made up from any of the three main UK political parties are determined to lower the national debt, and primarily by reducing overall public spending. Not good news for the sick, the poor, the elderly and the disabled, despite any manifesto pledge.

Britain's political system is a 'first past the post' system where only victory in any parliamentary constituency (even if it is just by one vote) is rewarded with a seat in Westminster - regardless of how many voters actually oppose that representative. In the 2010 UK election, more voters voted against the Conservative Party than voted for them. This is a common trend in Britain's electoral history.

However, there are many more political parties within the UK than just the Conservatives, Labor and the Liberal Democrats, voices that are not generally heard within parliament, although these parties attract many millions of electoral votes. The first past the post system therefore gives the main parties a big political advantage over the smaller parties, as they are also the parties with immense financial backing and access to Britain's traditional media. However, it also means that any real and radical improvements needed by Britain's poor, disabled or traditional working classes are simply not considered or addressed, and the status quo kept firmly in place. In short, there is simply no need for real change while the three main parties have a political system where they are able to pass power back and forth to each other, every 5 years. With a Labor Party that perhaps operates on the notion that its traditional vote amongst the electorate is always safe, because in reality, 'beggars can't be choosers'.

Certainly, Labor's pledge to stick with the 'Human Rights' act is a positive pledge that nobody can afford to ignore and by voting Labor perhaps the disabled of Britain will have a government who will indeed be a little softer in approach to disability. However, out of a party manifesto of more than 80 pages long, Labor deals directly with disability in just 26 lines out of those 80 pages. Not the sign of a progressive party that really seeks to give disabled people equal status and an equal voice with the abled-bodied, nor one that actually acknowledges the concerns of the United Nations.

In conclusion to the question of what is in store for disability after 7th May? If the Conservatives win power we will see pretty much the past 5 years relived over again. If Labor win power, we will probably see an approach to disability that is very much a weaker version of Conservatism as it stands at the moment, a brand of politics that the Scottish National Party have re-branded 'Tory Lite'.

Either way, perhaps not the radical positive change that many people within the UK cry out for, nor hope for.

Facts: 2015 UK General Election

The United Kingdom general election of 2015 will be held on 7 May 2015, to elect the 56th Parliament of the United Kingdom.

In the UK general elections, voting takes place in all parliamentary constituencies of the United Kingdom to elect Members of Parliament (MPs) to seats in the House of Commons, the lower house of the Parliament.


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