At the Conservative party conference this week, the most vulnerable members of society found themselves firmly in the prime minister’s line of fire. Liz Truss still hasn’t ruled out plans to bring in a real-term benefits cut during the UK’s worst cost of living crisis in a generation. While the new prime minister used her conference speech to place an emphasis on “hard work and enterprise” and “doing things differently”, for disabled and low-income claimants, the apparent plan to starve benefits – ensuring they remain below the line of inflation – seems designed to strip people who claim benefits of their security and dignity.
When the Conservatives first took power with the coalition government in 2010, David Cameron’s earliest targets were those in receipt of disability and low-income support. As reported in the book The War on Disabled People, when the 2010 austerity plan was announced, disability and carers’ benefits had accounted for 40% of the non-pension welfare budget. Social care also made up 60% of local government spending. As a result, the earliest austerity cuts hit disabled people and their carers the hardest, economically and in terms of local services.
Government figures released in 2019 showed that on average, nine disabled claimants died every day while waiting to be approved for support, and the personal independence payment (PIP) assessments brought in by George Osborne in 2013 have seen more than 80,000 disabled claimants refused the benefits they’re entitled to. A 2016 report by the UN found “grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights” by the UK government, with the leader of the report, Prof Philip Alston, singling out “sustained and widespread cuts to social support” as a primary cause.
Truss’s flirtation with the idea of more disability cuts has therefore only piled on the frustration and despair that disabled people have been feeling for over a decade. Rachel Charlton-Dailey, founder of online disability publication The Unwritten, told me recently: “If [the prime minister] cuts benefits further, I don’t know if we’ll all survive this winter … The Tories have already decimated the disabled community. [Under their leadership] the benefits system went from something that barely helped us, to something that’s there to catch us out and make us live in fear.”
Cassandra*, a 26-year-old disabled claimant from Southampton, would only speak to me anonymously, fearing that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would find a way to stop her benefits if they knew she had been speaking to the press. While some people who’ve never had to contend with the benefits system may feel her worry over reprisals is unfounded, in May this year, it was reported that the government was considering giving the DWP the power to arrest and search the homes of claimants they suspected were cheating the system. She said: “[This government] puts you constantly on edge, scrolling the news for the next awful, life-changing decision they could make.”
These cuts have also left many disabled people in precarious living situations. A report by Shelter last year found that 1.8 million disabled people in Britain don’t have a safe or secure home, in part due to a lack of accessible housing, which has left 400,00 wheelchair users in England living in homes that are unsuitable for their needs. Cassandra hasn’t been able to move out of her parents’ home because of a lack of suitable properties covered by her benefits, even when she’s been well enough to work part-time. She told me: “At the age of 26, I can’t see myself living independently. A big source of my anxiety is never being able to build a life, even just a simple one, where I don’t have to choose between being able to eat or being able to afford my rent.”
The ongoing Conservative belief seems to be that by punishing those on benefits with increased poverty, they will be forced into work. But with 40% of universal credit claimants already in work, and many recipients of disability benefits not allowed to work, the result of cutting economic support is not more workers, but instead, more food bank users.
While the prime minister may be committed to her hardline stance against the most vulnerable, opposition is now even being registered from members of her party who have previously backed benefits cuts. Among them is Esther McVey, who removed disability support as minister for disabled people; Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has consistently voted against raising benefits in line with prices; and Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of universal credit. Whether or not these high-profile party members have suddenly discovered a conscience, their opposition certainly suggests that they’re aware of how a benefits cut would look to voters.
Whether she succeeds or not, Truss is merely continuing previous Conservative policy by putting the burden of economic recovery on those least able to bear it. At the conference, the prime minister’s message to the UK was: “We have your back”. For those of us who rely on a social safety net, that sentence may just as well have ended: “and we’ve pinned a target right there”.
* Cassandra’s name has been changed to protect her anonymity