The Tories push disability rights abroad while ignoring them at home

Published by The i paper (23rd July, 2018)

Although the post of development secretary is one of the easiest in the Cabinet, involving posing as a saviour of distressed people while budgets surge, it is a job wanted by few ministers with an eye on the top job. Most Tories loathe the foolish concept of fixing a target for spending as poverty declines worldwide and know much of the money is wasted. But Penny Mordaunt, who took over the post last November from a predecessor that once sought the department’s abolition, does at least actually believe in the cause.

This week Mordaunt makes her first real mark on the job by hosting what is grandly called the Global Disability Summit in London. The idea, which no doubt emerged from her previous post as disabilities minister, aims to share and showcase ways to assist people who are among the most excluded in societies around the world. If billions are being blown on aid, few voters would quibble with diverting a few crumbs to people with disabilities instead of the usual bunch of self-serving charities, dodgy despots and fat-cat consultants. And unlike many leading Brexiteers, she is at least a competent minister.

The aid world, of course, loves a good conference. Some leading lights seem to do little more than fly around the world bragging about alleged good works. This is a sector that places emphasis on talking to itself over hard evidence. True to form, Mordaunt has been pointing out that ‘in the developing world if you live in poverty, you are more likely to have a disability, and if you have a disability, you are more likely to live in poverty’. She says disabled people in poor places are unable to fulfil their potential due to stigma and lack of support, and is seeking to break this ‘vicious cycle’ along with barriers that exclude them.

This is all correct and unarguable. Yet look at the evidence closer to home and it smacks of sickening hypocrisy to see Britain, and this government in particular, position itself as global champions of people with disabilities (and indeed to see Microsoft, a firm notorious for tax evasion that reduces state spending, hailed as a partner in the event).

The reality is that from birth to death, life remains a struggle for most Britons with disabilities – and since taking office in coalition government, the Tories have mostly made matters worse. Only last year the United Nations condemned Britain’s failure to uphold disabled people’s rights across a range of areas including education, health, housing, jobs, transport and social security.

The Government’s risible response was to say Britain was ‘a recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’. Yet its true attitude was seen last week when a cross-party group of MPs criticised the Department for Work and Pensions for a ‘culture of indifference’ after taking six years to correct a mistake that left 70,000 chronically ill and disabled claimants thousands of pounds out of pocket. This was the latest in a string of errors – yet the bungling bureaucrats keep on getting bonuses.

Perhaps the Government should hold a similar conference on links between poverty and disability in Britain? After all, its own equalities watchdog warned those with disabilities are left behind with ‘very poor’ life chances in a report echoing the UN. ‘Progress has either stalled, or in some cases gone backwards’, said David Isaac, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Studies have found two-thirds of disabled people living alone are in penury and almost half the people in poverty are either disabled or in a household with someone disabled. And they are more than twice as likely to be in food poverty.

Such a conference could study the bedroom tax, since two-thirds of families hit by this dismal policy include a disabled adult, yet even a Supreme Court ruling of discrimination failed to force decent reform. Another session could be on the corrosive impact of overloading austerity on local government, shattering social care and support services. There could be discussions of why families including a person with disabilities are being hit hardest by fiscal reforms and why more than one million carers live in poverty. Maybe another on how Brexit is hurting those hiring care workers. For balance, a minister could point to a rise in employment levels – although people with disabilities are still far less likely to be in work and far more likely to be low paid, even with good qualifications.

There could also be proceedings on people with learning disabilities, since they suffer the worst impact of rising hate crime – all too often to deadly effect. Most say they endure routine harassment, which wounds their confidence and stalls attempts to integrate – and sometimes in places supposed to offer sanctuary. They are rarely employed and regularly dumped in the worst parts of town amid diminishing state facilities. We saw how little they are valued with release of a report earlier this year exposing how dozens die needless deaths each year due to prejudice and indifference in “caring” professions. Ministers were shamefully silent in response.

This reflects wider attitudes. Surveys by Scope and others underline a sad reality: that bigotry and paternalistic attitudes towards people with disabilities remain pervasive. The results can be fatal at worst. Often they lead to loneliness and social ostracisation. For millions of our fellow citizens the most basic aspects of everyday life from education to entertainment, from housing to healthcare, from transport to work, are a struggle. Instead of pontificating to the planet as self-proclaimed global leader on disability, ministers should rectify their mistakes and work harder to bring all Britons with disabilities in from the cold.

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