Black and White issues: Green Versus Red.
It’s not always clear what is the right decision to make, when options are removed from context. Coalition government policies have had a horrific impact on many people who were dependent upon the benefit system. This is not an abstract political conundrum as depicted by think-tanks, newspapers (across the ideological spectrum), and government ministers – it has proven a very real matter of life and death for a significant number of disabled adults, along with unemployed men and women. Despite repeated denials from DWP Ministers, the Department for Work and Pensions has conducted peer reviews into at least 49 cases in which people have died following the removal of benefits. Some of these instances were so shocking, that it remains deeply troubling how seldom the media pays any real attention to the consequences of welfare policy; and how limited accountability is.
There is a general election in no more than a few weeks’ time. So, for people seeking a democratic means of remedying these circumstances, there is an important decision to make about which party they should vote for; and more importantly, what type of government they want the country to have.
Given the way that disabled people have suffered as a consequence of coalition policies, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can be ruled-out of consideration here. Ukip’s policies for disabled people do not, apparently, exist. So, they can be left aside as well. This leaves two parties who represent potential alternatives to present polity in Westminster: the Green Party, and the Labour Party.
So, what are the differences or similarities between these two parties’ policies and proposals on disability?
The Green Party divide their pledges for disabled people into “general policy principles relating to disability“, and specific policies on social welfare. Its principles are unambiguous. In summary, the Greens assume a “rights based approach” which will “enable people to live independently”. It takes the social model of disability into account; focusing “on the need to adapt society to enable (rather than disable) people with impairments”. It supports “the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons” and the Equality Act of 2010; which “aims to protect disabled people and prevent disability discrimination”, particularly “in the areas of employment, education, access to goods and services, buying and renting land and property and provision by public bodies”. Furthermore the Green Party recognises “the link between poverty and disability” – not merely in “the context of employment and occupation” but also in terms of “social protection, education, housing and goods and services”. It proposes to remedy this through “its income policies and by ensuring effective equality of opportunity in education, training and employment.”
In terms of social welfare, the Green Party’s specific policies are comprehensive. Underpinning them is a pledge to “strengthen the disability rights commission and laws that help to enforce the Disability Discrimination Act”. They state that “care packages need to provide one-to-one support”, and that “personal care and support for disabled people should be provided free”. Moreover, “skills training for job or independent living will be provided” to disabled people. Independent living support will be funded by “each local authority”. With regard to the benefit system, the Green Party “supports the current position of benefits”; however “it would work towards streamlining it in the short and medium term and replacing it with Citizen’s income in the long term”.
It is difficult to replicate a breakdown of Labour’s policies and principles, because they have not been published in like manner. However, Labour have released a number of pieces from which their general principles on disability can be surmised. In the Making Rights A Reality report, these were outlined as: “The right to work. The right to live independently. The right to live free of crime. The right to a home. The right to a family life”. This document does not outline policies; instead, it collates the concerns drawn from a number of parties during a consultation on disability.
However, the most recent set of proposals were included in Labour’s ‘Commitment to Disabled People‘, by Kate Green – Shadow Spokesperson for Disabled People. These were centered on “the equal participation and inclusion of disabled people across all aspects of society”. Labour pledge to “enable those who can work to do so”; while ensuring that “our social security system properly protects those for whom work isn’t possible, and enables them to live their lives to the full and with dignity”. They also outline their proposals for education and training:
“We’ll ensure our reforms to vocational education work for young disabled students, and that they have the same chances as non-disabled students to go to university. We’ll make sure careers advice recognises the ambition of young disabled people, and supports them to achieve their dreams and goals.”
With regard to helping disabled people who are long-term unemployed, and seeking work, Labour propose to replace the Coalition’s Work Programme with “a new specialist Work Support programme of locally contracted support to help disabled people who can work to get jobs”. They also announce that their guarantee of “a paid job to all young people who have been out of work for a year and are claiming unemployment benefits” will be “accessible to those young disabled people who claim Jobseekers Allowance”. Further to this, they vow to “investigate how we can extend this approach on a voluntary basis to those on disability and sickness benefits, because we believe that everyone who wants to work should have the chance to do so”. For disabled people already in employment, Labour state that they will “work with employers to ensure college courses and qualifications give disabled people the skills they need, career pathways for disabled students, and encourage managers to support their disabled employees to develop their careers”.
As with the Greens, Labour outline a similar programme for the social care of disabled people – namely “personal budgets for all who want them”; and propose to “take a ‘whole person’ approach to meeting needs”. (The principles behind this were outlined in the Labour MP Liz Kendall’s Speech). The Green Party offer much the same – that is, “independent living services (Centres for Inclusive Living) to provide advice, advocacy, and support to help people manage their care packages”. One of the few points of contrast between the two parties’ policies is Labour’s pledge to “create a new cross governmental committee, with membership jointly consisting of ministers from all relevant government departments and disabled people themselves”.
These are the general aims. The specific policies Labour have proposed are to make “disability hate crime a specific criminal offence”. To “overhaul the failing Work Capability Assessment” through “improving the quality of assessments by getting tough on failing contractors with penalties if they get assessments wrong”. They also state that they will “give disabled people a real say in how Work Capability Assessments are improved”; and pledge to “get a grip of the huge Personal Independent Payments backlog”. They propose to set up the aforementioned “new specialist Work Support programme to help disabled people into jobs”; and to end the Bedroom Tax “imposed on hundreds of thousands of disabled people and carers”. In terms of policy proposals themselves, they aver that they will undertake “rigorous equality impact assessments of all policy proposals”. As with the Greens, Labour cite the United Nations convention on disability as the ethical framework their policies will be guided by.
It should be noted that the pledges of both parties fall short of a holistic departure from the policies of the Coalition government – particularly with regard to the conversion of Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment, which thereby removed 20% of recipients from support; along with the abolition of the Independent Living Fund which is set to come into effect this year. Moreover, neither have stated that they would end sanctions for disabled people in the Work Related Activity Group; nor ultimately end Work Capability Assessments. All told, in terms of policy and principles on disability, there is more in common between the Green and Labour parties than there is difference.
However, the context here is voter intention. The trends for both of these parties since 2010 has fluctuated markedly in the case of Labour; but remained relatively constant in the case of the Greens. Ipsos Mori measure the percentage of voters, and who they state they will vote for in the upcoming General Election. The most recent data, for March 2015, puts Labour support at 34% of the electorate, and the Greens at 6%.
So, it is evident that the Green Party have comprehensive policies on disability; but they also have no realistic prospect of becoming the governing party. Labour’s policies are very similar, though perhaps more limited in some respects. However they have a very strong prospect of being elected into government. Therefore voting for the Greens means a vote for very good policies which they will not get the opportunity to implement. Voting for Labour means a vote for similar policies, which they will probably get the chance to put into effect.
Labour’s policies and principles on disability are not holistically distinct from the Coalition’s; but neither are those of the Green Party. Both Labour and the Greens offer a decidedly similar prospect for disabled people; with perhaps the most significant difference between them being the Green Party’s proposal of a Citizen’s Income; and the Labour Party’s policy of disabled people taking a consultancy role in government. Irrespective of similarity and difference, only one of these parties stands a realistic chance of becoming the next government. This is the choice people have – it is ultimately something which people need to decide for themselves; but it is important to do so on the basis of foreknowledge.
It would be remiss to overlook a recent furore, which bears a strong relation to this issue. As before, context matters. In recent days, there was an outcry in response to comments about benefit claimants made by the Labour Party’s shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Rachel Reeves; which seemed to indicate that Labour would not represent the interests of people who do depend upon benefits.
Reeves’ sentiments originally appeared in a Guardian article by Amelia Gentleman; and were quoted as such:
“We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work,” she said. “Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.”
The lobby-group, Disabled People Against Cuts, objected to this in a letter subsequently published by the same newspaper:
“Such comments play into the government narrative that seeks to create a false division between workers and benefit claimants, and increase the stigma Reeves claims to want to end. A robust social security system protects workers when work is not available and protects those who cannot work on account of discrimination or illness.”
They were not alone, as testified to by the various criticisms quoted in a Disability News Service piece.
Firstly, let’s clarify what Reeves actually said here – because it differs significantly from the implication conveyed in the original article:
“Is it a problem if Labour is seen as the party of the welfare state?”
“Yes of course, but we’re not. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work. Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people – the clue is in the name. We are the Labour party – we are not the party of people on benefits. But the welfare state was always supposed to be there to protect people in times of need, whether that was because they lost their job, or they became disabled, or they had a child who is disabled, to help with the cost of childcare, to help you when you are no longer earning because you are retired. That’s what the welfare state was created for. I want to ensure that the welfare state is there for my children and their children in the future.”
This is obviously far more reasonable than was initially reported; and the conclusions formed by DPAC/DNS et al are wide of the mark – at least, in terms of Reeves’ attitude towards the social security system and those who need it. If anything Reeves was saying the opposite here – Labour are the party for these people: but they will focus on helping people to gain employment, as well as ensuring that social protection is available for people should they need it.
Whether this is to be trusted or not is open to question. Unfortunately, Reeves has prior form on this – having previously vowed to be ‘tougher‘ than the Coalition on unemployed people. Moreover, prior to the last General election, the Conservative party made specific pledges in their Contract For Equalities (2010) on disability support, which they subsequently broke. Amongst other things, they had stated that “we will preserve Disability Living Allowance”, which they replaced with Personal Independence Payment; and contended that “people who cannot work because of a disability or illness should never be forced to work, and will continue to receive unconditional support through the benefits system”. In reality, people in the ESA Wrag group can be made to work without pay indefinitely; and support is strictly conditional as is evident from the extraordinary rate of sanctions people in this group have suffered. This stands aside from the appalling misery inflicted on people who were subjected to repeated work capability assessments. So, it ultimately makes little difference what promises people make before elections; or how specific they might be. It is largely a question of trust, and educated guesswork.