The chancellor stepped up in the latest show of austerity and magicked up more than enough meanness to sate a country drowning in shabbiness, filthy waterways, poor quality food on almost empty supermarket shelves, depleted public services and mounting evidence of inept government in times of crisis.
The insidious impact of the cost-of-living crisis is visible everywhere. We may expect to see homelessness and poverty but that doesn’t mean they should be the norm, or normalised. Nor does it mean that they are inevitable and something to be weaponised as an excuse to inflict even greater deprivation on those least able to combat it in a country that spends more supporting inequality to benefit the rich than the rest of Europe.
There’s plenty of reassurance in the UK that ‘help into work’ will be available but the reality for the vulnerable is an absence of the basics. Take public transport in some parts of Yorkshire: those in wheelchairs can find themselves stuck at bus stops when the bus already carries pushchairs. Get a taxi? Fat chance. If you are lucky, it’s possible to book one of the two available in some towns in advance and fork out £15 on a two-mile one-way journey. Or £150 a week. More, if you are accompanied by a helper.
The reality of being vulnerable and trying to access work is very different from the reassuring rhetoric that accompanies every new ‘get back to work’ piece of performance art.
It doesn’t have to be like this
The European Parliament’s policy department for citizens’ rights and constitutional affairs recently published a report on “targeted measures to persons with disabilities to cope with the cost-of-living crisis”. It outlines evidence from case studies across EU states and concludes that the Covid, energy, and inflation crises have a disproportionate, adverse impact on vulnerable people and their families, and place them at greater risk of poverty and social exclusion.
It advises against putting all disabled people who already face additional needs and increased costs into a broad general category because this means that their specific needs may not be recognised, addressed or considered. The danger is compounded because benefits are often targeted at ‘families’ and those on low incomes.
It notes that energy efficiency policies may further disadvantage the group least able to find the money to invest in more climate friendly energy products and sources.
It stresses that those who may need to spend more on energy to cope with the demands of their disabilities may be doubly disadvantaged if policymakers overlook their particular needs and fail to earmark resources for them when fashioning new energy initiatives.
Several measures could be taken to improve the situation, and many in Europe feel that there are better ways of addressing the particular needs of the disabled and vulnerable, beyond monitoring how EU funds are used to support their employment. This includes temporary support measures and also targeted use of the European Social Fund that the UK used extensively before Brexit. More tellingly, it is recognised that service users must be included in their design and delivery to guard against the kind of possibly unintended effects such as those illustrated above, and so ensure the introduction of effective measures to protect against the increased risks of poverty and social exclusion.
The EU Disability Strategy 2021-2030 stresses the need to realise equal opportunities, combat disability discrimination, and boost individuals’ autonomy in general to facilitate equal access to participate in society and the economy. It recommends reducing persistent inequalities, including compensating for the extra costs related to disability and eligibility for disability benefits, and eliminating the benefit trap. To do that requires a rethink of how crises are managed in general. In the EU, there are signs that more states agree that one-off ‘crisis’ payments should be replaced by automatically upgrading of social benefits to mitigate the persistent adverse impacts of the rising cost of living.
That demands a medium and long-term vision for developing a reliable, sustainable, fair, and feasible approach to developing and delivering benefits. There is no place for the shaming and divisive approach preferred, it seems, by the chancellor.
Evidence that people with disabilities face greater financial hardship in general is not new. In 1975, the EU established an agency to collate information on living and working conditions (Eurofound). Its recent reports on the impact of the pandemic and energy crisis confirm all this and highlight the disproportionate impact a slower recovery from those crises had on the disabled as inflation kicked in.
It also underlined that women were at greater risk of energy poverty than men, owing to their lower than average income: more women were behind with paying their energy bills. It noted that evidence of the additional risks of poverty for those having cognitive impairment (including dementia, autism, Alzheimer’s, Down’s syndrome etc) and/or a child with disabilities is available: where’s the appropriate policy response?
It’s behind you, Jeremy!
The European Foundation calls on governments to replace one-off generalised payments with “an extra-ordinary fiscal effort” to invest in improving the lives and wellbeing, therefore, of the disabled. Failure to do so, it argues risks creating more marginalised people and ever more divided societies. It’s not just Gen Z and Gen Alpha who legitimately complain of a sense of exclusion from society. It’s there in plain sight.
Worse still, UK claimants face the prospect of DWP investigators having the power to access and collect third-party data from banks to see how they spend their money, and execute search and seizure orders by going into claimants’ homes, and even arresting them rather than calling the police. A subtext of criminalisation looms.
Unless he responds more appropriately, the risk for our jolly chancellor is to get boo-ed off stage.