Welfare debate… what next for disability?

As Labour and Conservative welfare leads spell out a vision for the benefits system, Richard Hawkes asks, what’s happened to the debate on disability?

It’s a big week for welfare.

Labour and Conservative leads are spelling out their visions for the welfare state, vying to be seen as ‘tough but fair’.

On Monday Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves told the Institute for Public Policy Research they would force jobseeker’s allowance claimants with inadequate maths or English to go on basic skills courses as a condition of receiving their benefit. Labour estimates this will affect about 300,000 people.

Iain Duncan Smith is making a key-note speech on Thursday. We don’t know the detail yet. But on Monday he and Theresa May placed a joint article in the Mail promising a “Housing benefit ban on jobless migrants”.

But as the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan says, “The changes each side is proposing amount to fiddling at the margins.”

Meanwhile there is a big, unavoidable question about disabled people’s living standards that politicians have to answer over the next 18 months.

How do we make sure that as the economy picks up we don’t leave disabled people behind?

With disabled people struggling to make ends meet and getting in debt, struggling to live independently and struggling to find and keep work it’s an urgent issue.

We know politicians are working behind the scenes on this.

Unfortunately the current political debate makes it almost impossible to focus on the real issues.

The disability debate is stuck in stereotypes: ‘hopeless disabled person in need of hand-outs’ or ‘skiving scrounger fiddling the system’.

So here are three ways we can re-start the disability welfare debate:

  1. Let’s start by seeing disabled people as individuals – not a big group of people all with identical barriers and in need of the same support. Then let’s get over the fact that some disabled people need benefits, and instead take a look at why disabled people need support. Most disabled people are facing a living standards crisis – but sitting behind this are a range of concerns – from public attitudes, to local support to live independently and simply making ends meet.
  2. How we can drive down the costs of living with a disability? The issue of extra costs has been totally ignored so far. Disabled people aspire to live an ordinary life – no more, no less. Being disabled brings with it huge extra costs, research shows it can average between £800 – £1,550 per month. This includes things like specialist food, specialist equipment, specialist clothing, accessible travel costs.   While these costs exist Disability Living Allowance – introduced by the Conservatives in 1992 –  is vital and must be protected. It creates a level playing field and enables people to live and work. Before we get stuck in discussions about eligibility and assessments, let’s remember why this support exists in the first place.
  3. How can we change employers’ attitudes? There is rightly a lot of discussion about Employment Support Allowance and the Work Capability Assessment. But the focus should be on getting people back to work. Disabled people are pushing hard to get jobs and get on in the workplace. Nine in ten disabled people work or have worked. Yet only about 50% of disabled people have a job right now. A million more disabled people could be in work. How can we make sure disabled people get the tailored, specialist support they need and how improve the work place to so that disabled people thrive?

We know all parties want to engage positively with the 10 million disabled people in the UK. We know there’s a lot of positive discussion going on. But, when it comes to welfare, now’s the time to start to address the big issues.

To volunteer or not to volunteer – that is the question

A guest blog from a volunteer at Scope’s Our Generation project.

I became a volunteer Mentor over 4 years ago after being made redundant from my job as a sales manager for a construction company. I had been doing this for over 23 years and loved it, so being made redundant was tough.

I have always felt I should try to embrace change as I have found good things can often come out of bad. I felt I needed to do something to keep my mind active so I decided to give volunteering a try.

Even though I have spent most of my adult working life being in front of people, I was quite daunted at the prospect of going to meet total strangers.

As it turned out I really enjoyed the training and met some really lovely people. My Mentees have been so varied, people from all walks of life, facing a diversity of challenges many of which I had never considered.

I do believe that the people I have encountered have made as much of a difference to me as I hope I have made to them.

I still keep in touch with several of them and meet up with them as time permits as for some strange reason they want to keep in touch with me!

So if you are in any sort of doubt, give it a try. Realise what you can give with your time and see how much you get out of volunteering!