More than 200 delegates gathered at the TUC Disability Conference on 25-26 May. It followed much campaigning by disabled people against the savage effect of cuts.
Disabled workers are more likely to work in the public rather than the private sector, so the massive public sector job cuts will have a devastating effect. Together with benefit cuts and housing cuts, this will drive many disabled people out of work and into poverty.
Examples include cuts to:
• Remploy and other supported employment
• NHS provision eg. mental health services face losing 6,300 staff, a quarter of the total
• Accessibility of public transport e.g. London Underground scrapped projects to make more stations step-free at the same time that it cut 800 staff
• Services funded by local councils
The government has introduced the Work Capability Assessment for benefit claimants, claiming that it is “objective” when it is anything but. One conference delegate told of her son, whose assessment identified that he had one arm and one leg that worked, and could recognise the colour of a passing car, and so found him fit to work!
Other speakers told of claimants left destitute by the withdrawal of benefits, even driven to suicide.
The Tories justify themselves by whipping up hysteria about “benefit fraud”, but such fraud runs at around £1 billion per year, a tiny figure compared with the £200 billion plus ripped off by corporations and the rich not paying their taxes.
They are taking much-needed benefits away from disabled people, despite the fact that it is on average 25% more expensive to live as a disabled person.
The impact of the Daily Mail’s daily doses of hysteria is also seen in a rise in violence against disabled people.
As is usual for this sort of event, most of the resolutions were passed unanimously. This may reflect in part a sense of unity in trade unions’ anger at Tory attacks on disabled workers — but it also reflects the exclusion of some detail on policy and strategy which might have proved controversial.
Two controversial amendments were discussed. One advocated working with disabled staff groups, felt by some delegates to be helpful but others to be a means of undermining unions; the other proposed working with the “Time to Change” initiative from various disability charities, which was seen to be too concerned with addressing employers. I voted against both of these amendments; the first was passed, the second defeated.
My lasting impression of this conference was one of disabled trade unionists furious at government attacks. A new initiative for a Disability History Month shows how hard people have had to fight for progress and rights.
The trade union movement must now organise workers’ anger into an effective fightback.