Following the Queen’s speech last week, I spoke during the Debate on the Address: Defending public services in the House of Commons yesterday. Unfortunately, as this Queen’s speech gives no reprieve, my speech focussed on inequalities, how Government policy is perpetuating this and what this means for sick and disabled people.
You can watch here or read in full below:
“I want to challenge the Government on their assertion that they will “deliver opportunity for all”, as the Prime Minister put it last Wednesday, or extend life chances for all. All the evidence indicates the contrary.
We are one of the most unequal countries in the world and under this Government that is set to get worse. In the UK 40 years ago, 5% of income went to the highest 1% of earners. Today that income figure is 15%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts indicate that between 2015 and 2020 the 90:10 ratio—that is, the ratio of income at the 90th percentile of the household income distribution to income at the 10th percentile—will increase from 3.8 to 4.2, largely as a result of tax and social security changes. In other words, the richer people are, the more quickly they will accumulate even more income, and the poorer they are, the less income they will accumulate.
We know that that is bad for society. If we are looking for constructive criticism, there is so much evidence to show that as the gap between rich and poor widens, everybody suffers in terms of social mobility, life expectancy, mental health and crime. Everything gets worse when we become more unequal, and that is what is happening. It is not just a matter of income; it is also about wealth, as we know from the Panama papers, which revealed that the richest are keeping their assets in offshore tax havens where tax is avoided and evaded.
According to the Equality Trust, in the past year alone the wealth of the richest 1,000 households in the UK increased by more than £28.5 billion. Their combined wealth is now more than that of 40% of the population—that is 10.3 million families. While the wealth of the richest 1% has increased by 21%, the poorest half of households saw their wealth increase by less than a third of that figure. I could go on. This is constructive criticism. This is the effect of the Government’s policies.
The Government, like the coalition, have a regressive approach to their budgets, and it looks as though this will continue. Regressive economic policies where the total tax burden falls predominantly on the poorest, combined with lower levels of public spending, are key to establishing and perpetuating inequalities, with all the damage that I have just described. As has been pointed out, when Labour was in government NHS spending increased by 3.2% in real terms, whereas between 2010 and the present, we have seen a decrease from 6.2% to 5.9%. That has caused a financial crisis for many trusts. In my own area in Greater Manchester, where we have had the opportunity of devo Manc, we are expecting a deficit of £2.2 billion by 2020. That is the projected outcome of the unfavourable devolution of that budget.
The same is happening in education and, in my area, in social security and support for disabled people. We have seen a general decline in support for disabled people since the 1960s. I am looking critically at Labour’s record too. In 2012 1.3% of GDP was spent on support for disabled people. Now that figure is 1.1% and it will decline to 1% by 2020. It is particularly the people on low income, including the working poor, and the sick and the disabled who have been hammered and continue to be hammered by this Government. As a result of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, 3.7 million people will have had £28 billion of cuts in support.
We have just passed the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, which will compound the cuts. We are all aware of one of those—the cut of £1,500 a year to approximately 500,000 people who have been found not fit for work in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. That is an anathema, particularly as the evidence shows that on average disabled people have extra costs of £500 a month.
That and further cuts will plunge disabled people into poverty and affect their condition. Ultimately it will affect the demand on the NHS and social care. The Government’s own data released last August show that people on ESA and incapacity benefit in 2013 were 4.3 times more likely to die, compared to the general population, which shows just how vulnerable they are. These figures were released during the August bank holiday after the Government were compelled by the Information Commissioner to release them.
Research published last November in a peer review journal estimated that the work capability assessment alone was associated with 590 additional suicides, 280,000 additional cases of self-reported mental ill health and 725,000 additional anti-depressant prescriptions. Just a week ago, when Parliament was not sitting, the Government published the peer review reports on 49 social security claimants who had died between 2012 and 2014. At the time the former Secretary of State denied that the Government held any records on people whose deaths may have been linked to the social security system. We now know from those reports that 10 of the 49 claimants had died following a sanction, and 40 of the 49 deaths were the result of a suicide or suspected suicide. That has occurred throughout the country. The heavily redacted reports highlight widespread flaws in the handling by Department for Work and Pensions officials of claims by vulnerable claimants.
Last week I called for a statement to be made on those reports, but the Leader of the House refused, so I am putting on record the questions to which I want answers. What action has been taken to address the recommendations from those reports? Will the Government review the recommendation from the Select Committee’s sanctions report last year to establish an independent body to review the deaths of social security claimants? Will they agree to an independent review of sanctions and stop the rollout of the current pilot on in-work sanctions? Finally, given the links of those deaths to the work capability assessment, will the Minister recognise that that process has lost credibility, and will he make the fresh start that we want to see?
In 2009 we became signatories to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. The Government promised a White Paper on employment to set out how they intend to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. Where is that dealt with in this Queen’s Speech? The Prime Minister said last week that the Government were reducing the disability employment gap. No, they are not. The evidence shows the contrary—that it is up from the previous year to 33%. Only 124 employers have signed up to the Disability Confident campaign. Last year 37,000 disabled people benefited from Access to Work, out of 1.3 million. That clearly will not cut it.
On education and training, why is there is such a delay in children being assessed for education, health and care plans? Why are we not increasing the number of apprenticeships available to disabled people? What will the shifting of the disabled students allowance on to higher education mean for disabled people? What about the 42% reduction in access to transport funding, which is making disabled people prisoners in their own home, and the cuts in home adaptations for disabled people? I have not even mentioned the £4.6 billion of cuts to social care, also impacting on disabled people. The cuts to local government funding will also have a direct impact on them.
This Government must look at the cumulative effect of all these cuts on disabled people, and they must value claimants in our social security system. Like our NHS, it is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, and it is there for any one of us, should we become sick or disabled.”