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Second Class Citizens: Disability in Modern-Day Britain

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I remember once talking to a friend who claimed that poverty in the UK isn't really that bad.

I realised that this was in part because he imagined a person in poverty who otherwise had good health: lived in a warm and safe home in a pleasant suburb; had friends and family and business colleagues; and even had a decent job and secure, albeit inadequate, income.

But when I think of a person in poverty, I know that they are typically sick or disabled; stressed and distressed; living in a property that is at least one out of cold, damp, mouldy, unsafe, overcrowded and pest-infested; either isolated from family and friends or whose family and friends are struggling just as much as they are; and whose job is insecure, high-pressure, low-autonomy, high-strain and actually makes them ill. And I include complying with the benefits system in that definition of jobs carried out by the poor.

My friend's hypothetical poor person was broadly 'okay', manifestly better off than the poor people in undeveloped countries. My poor person was being actively harmed by a government that underfunded public services and promoted poor-quality jobs through the implementation of a toxic welfare system combined with deregulation. My friend's poor person could get by. Mine was trapped.

It's for people like my friend that I wrote Second Class Citizens. I know that he cares about poverty and social injustice, because we've talked about it often. Yet I also know that he continues to support the Conservative Party. And I have many friends like him. They are people who would care if they knew, but their understanding of poverty is restricted by the world they live in, coloured by myths and misinformation.

Disabled people are the canaries in the mine

Second Class Citizens started when I decided to read what right-wing think tanks were saying about welfare. Policy based on flawed beliefs about how the world is, who the poor are and why they live the way they do results in serious harm, of which Universal Credit is only the most well-known and not even the most damaging. I couldn't leave the reports unchallenged.

The fact is that poverty is primarily a structural problem and one that is solved firstly through money and secondly through investment. But this is the opposite of what the UK government has done. At a time when more people needed the safety net of social security, the government ripped that net to shreds. During a crisis caused by deregulation and irresponsible lending, the government blamed people who either couldn't find work or simply couldn't work.

Disabled people are the canaries in the mine. When bus routes are slashed, pavements cracked and daycentres closed, disabled people lose not only somewhere to go, but the means to get there. When necessary healthcare is underfunded, benefits fall and social care collapses, disabled people can't even get out of the house. When jobs at the bottom combine a high premium on speed with low autonomy, healthy people get sick and already sick people are locked out of the labour market altogether.

The consequences are life-threatening. Our NHS provides outstanding care for the amount of resource the government allots it, but the government doesn't give it enough to pay for the need. So we have people going blind because the government didn't treat them in time. Diabetics have lost their legs and even their lives because they couldn't afford the insulin they needed. Nine people die each day still waiting for the government to get around to assessing them for disability benefits. There are an additional 200 suicides a year associated with our harsh sickness benefit process. There were 30,000 deaths above the expected level in winter 2015 and 10,000 additional deaths in the first seven weeks of 2018.

To succeed, the Tories need to change their economic minds

The new Conservative government has a massive challenge on its hands. Most of its MPs, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, contributed to the problem by voting for measures that cut support from those who need it most. This isn't a challenge that can be met by continued emphasis on a small state and low spending, because that is exactly what caused the problem. This Conservative government therefore not only needs to address a decade of failed policy, but face up to the fact that it caused this crisis through its own fundamentally flawed ideology. To succeed, the Tories need to change their economic minds.

Sick and disabled people do not have to be second-class citizens. But until we come before companies and before profit, the sick and disabled will continue to be the least - and the last.

Stef Benstead

Second Class Citizens is out now via the Centre for Welfare Reform.

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