The group meeting at Portcullis House, Westminster.
On Wednesday, many of the disabled campaigners, researchers and organisations that have played a key role in exposing the discrimination and harm caused by the government’s social security reforms travelled to Westminster to attend a meeting with five Labour shadow ministers. The meeting was chaired by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
The original idea for a meeting of politicians, activists and researchers had come from Black Triangle’s John McArdle, who had put the idea to John McDonnell.
The meeting was conducted under the Chatham House rule, so although the contributions made during the meeting may be reported, the names of those who spoke and their organisations cannot, unless they spoke afterwards, specifically adding comment on record. I was permitted to report the names of the five shadow ministers who attended.
Other ministers participating were Margaret Greenwood (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions), Marsha de Cordova (Shadow Minister for Disabled People); Mike Amesbury, (Shadow Employment Minister) and Lyn Brown, (Shadow Treasury Minister, with responsibility for social mobility).
This initial meeting is to be the launch of a series of campaigning efforts and consultation between the Labour party, disabled activists, researchers and allied organisations. Labour is also hoping to secure support from members of other political parties in the longer term.
A second meeting is set to take place later this autumn.
The discussion was particularly focused on the harm, psychological distress and deaths caused by the controversial work capability assessment (WCA), but concerns were also expressed around the table about the damage caused to disabled people by the government’s roll out of universal credit. Some of us had also submitted work in advance of the meeting and contributed to shaping the agenda.
Other crucial concerns were raised about the ongoing problems with personal independence payment (PIP), the harm caused by the welfare conditionality regime and sanctions, and the cuts to social care support. There was also discussion about the cumulative impact of the government’s reforms on disabled women.
There was discussion about the importance of putting the government’s reforms into an ideological and historical perspective, which highlighted how successive governments have been strongly influenced by the US insurance industry, which had led to disabled people seeking support “to be treated as bogus claimants”.
Added to this are criticisms of how the biopsychosocial model of disability, notions of ‘the sick role’ and ‘behavioural medicine’ have provided an underpinning ideology and veneer of political credibility to justify the steady and incremental dismantling of lifeline welfare support for disabled people.
One key commentator on this subject added “The WCA was brought in to destroy public confidence in the welfare state.”
Linked with this was concern raised at the continuing roll-out of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, which has led to mental health professionals to “come out with the sort of language we are hearing from the Department for Work and Pensions”.
One contributor told the meeting: “You can’t divorce what’s happening in DWP with what’s happening in psychiatry.”
She also added that the approach by IAPT practitioners, who largely draw on the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) model, is tantamount to political gaslighting, since it blames the victims of circumstances that caused at a structural level, and are therefore beyond an individual’s control. The government’s ideological claim that ‘work is a health outcome’ has also been embedded in IAPT practices and aims, despite there being very little evidence that employment is generally beneficial to people with mental health problems. Evidence has emerged that some kinds of employment are in fact further damaging to mental health.
There was also a call for nurses and GPs to be held to account for the way they had compromised their own medical ethics in dealing with requests for evidence to support disability benefit claims and in acting in the role of assessor for private contractors.
There was a little dispute regarding precisely where the focus should lie concerning the work capability assessment, with some people feeling quite strongly that our aim should be simply to see it abolished. The Labour party are committed to scrapping the highly controversial assessment process, but it was recognised that it’s highly unlikely the current government will do the same. One activist told the meeting that there was a need both for “harm reduction”, to address the immediate problems with the assessment process, and “system change” to secure the eventual abolition of the WCA altogether.
He pointed out: “Saying ‘change the WCA right now’ is not saying ‘keep the WCA’, it is saying ‘stop it killing so many people’.”
Several contributors said that the government had made a deliberate attempt to create a “hostile environment for disabled people”.
The meeting was broadly welcomed by disabled activists. Shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, added afterwards that he believed the meeting could herald the start of “a significant movement to expose the brutality of the system” and secure “permanent change”.
There were representatives present from many of the disabled-led grassroots organisations who have campaigned for many years against the Conservative’s punitive reforms and the disproportionate targeting of the disabled community with austerity measures. There were also researchers, union representatives and journalists gathered together to add to the discussion and to contribute in planning a response to the government’s persistent denials that there is a correlation between their policies and serious harm.
McDonnell told journalists after the meeting: “I think this is a breakthrough meeting in terms of getting many of the relevant organisations and individuals together who have their concerns about what is happening to disabled people and their treatment in the welfare system.
“I think it is the start of what could be a significant movement to expose the brutality of the system, but more importantly to secure permanent change.”
Marsha de Cordova, the shadow minister for disabled people, said that it was the first time that the various groups had been brought around the same table to talk about different issues – including crucial concerns about the imminent “migration” from benefits such as employment and support allowance onto universal credit – that all fed into the idea that the government had created a “hostile environment towards disabled people”.
She said: “It is good that we are talking about it. It’s great that we are bringing people around the table, and mainly disabled people.”
The meeting has consolidated new momentum and hopefully, a unity to our diverse and ongoing campaigns against the mounting injustices surrounding the welfare reforms, austerity, the fatally flawed Work Capability Assessment, welfare conditionality and sanctions, the targeted cuts embedded in Personal Independent Payment and universal credit.
We will be challenging the government’s persistent denial of a ‘causal link’ between their draconian welfare policies and the distress, systematic human rights violations, serious harm and deaths of disabled people that have arisen in correlation with those policies. Unless the government permit an independent inquiry into the terrible injustices that have followed in the wake of the welfare reform acts, they cannot provide evidence to support their own claims.
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