Photo: Paul Mattsson
Photo: Paul Mattsson

David Maples, Brighton Socialist Party

Early in the Covid pandemic, summer 2020, some GPs issued blanket “Do Not Resuscitate” orders on disabled people living in care homes. Around the same time, the National Institute for Clinical Evidence (NICE) issued guidance advising clinicians that, if life-saving treatment had to be rationed, a patient’s independence should be taken into account. In the first two waves of the pandemic, nearly two thirds of people who died were disabled.

In March 2023, 1.9 million people were experiencing self-reported long Covid. Two years earlier, the government had opposed setting up an inquiry into the impact of Covid on disabled people.

Ignoring health issues, Tory chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s 2023 Autumn Statement included a renewed focus on getting disabled people into work. Rather than tackling the complex issues which prevent many disabled people from working, the government’s policy amounted to ‘pull yourself together’ and if you don’t, ‘we will sanction you’.

Esther McVey, the ‘minister for common sense’ said any equality, diversity and inclusion roles in the civil service should be focused exclusively on statutory requirements. This ignores that many statutory requirements are woefully inadequate.

But can we expect better from a Keir Starmer-led government?

To get disabled people into work, the new government will need to rebuild capacity within the NHS. Currently approximately 8 million people are on waiting lists and the NHS has a major staffing problem with 130,000 unfilled posts. The lack of support from Labour for restoring NHS pay to 2010 levels in real terms shows that there is no end in sight to this problem.

The mental health charity Mind has called for the establishment of a commission led by disabled people to redesign benefits assessments rather than sanctions and a system that “doesn’t get mental health”.

Other campaigners have highlighted the need to support fluctuating health conditions, which standard jobs can’t accommodate, and the need to update the social security system to meet new challenges rather than repeating punitive approaches.

All this has been a closed book to Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, who has been a keen supporter of the benefits cap, including the two-child limit.

The Trades Union Congress is holding its Disabled Workers’ Conference in Liverpool on 23-24 May. It has recently produced a useful report on the disability pay gap. Non-disabled workers earn around a sixth more than disabled workers. Starkly, non-disabled men are paid on average 30% more than disabled women.

Not only are disabled workers paid less than non-disabled workers, they are also more likely to be excluded from the job market with 6.7% unemployed compared to 3.3% for non-disabled workers. For Black and minority ethnic (BME) disabled workers, 10.4% are unemployed, compared to 2.6% of white non-disabled workers.

Disabled workers are also more likely to be on zero-hour contracts, disabled women BME workers nearly three times as likely as non-disabled white men (6.0% to 2.2%) to be on these insecure contracts.

Disabled workers need a ban on zero-hour and insecure contracts, with full rights from day one. The trade union movement must demand, as a minimum, that Starmer’s Labour reverse its rowing back on workers’ rights pledges.

The TUC is calling for mandatory disability pay gap reporting for all employers with more than 50 employees, and for employers to have a duty to produce targeted action plans, in consultation with recognised trade unions, identifying the steps they will take to address any gaps identified, including ensuring disabled workers feel confident in completing workplace equality monitoring.

TUC research has found that the most common issues union reps had to tackle on behalf of members were disability related.

Getting and keeping reasonable adjustments in place is an ongoing issue for disabled workers. Before the pandemic, 45% of disabled workers who asked for reasonable adjustments failed to get any or only got some of the reasonable adjustments they asked for.

It is clear that the existing legal protections and workplace initiatives used to identify and remove workplace barriers disabled workers face are not effectively addressing the scale and seriousness of the issues we encounter. Despite government rhetoric, the waiting list for Access to Work decisions – a government scheme meant to assist disabled workers to get or stay in work – increased by 8% between June and December last year.

Too often, the current legislative protections are proving to be paper based protection only and not properly protecting disabled workers. This requires well-informed and well-supported militant campaigning workplace reps. Disabled workers can play a central role by organising for trade unions to adopt fighting campaigns.

Within this, the newly elected left leadership in PCS, as the union for workers who administer the benefits system, can play a significant role by campaigning with disabled people’s organisations for the punitive benefits system to be replaced by ‘living benefits’ for all who need them.

After over a decade of Tory attacks on disabled people, there will be huge expectations that things must start to improve once they’re out of the door. But Starmer’s Labour is promising to stick to Tory spending plans, and fails to oppose the Tories’ rhetoric against disabled people.

With a Starmer-led government failing to meet working-class people’s needs for improved living standards and decent public services, support for the idea of a working-class political alternative will grow. The establishment of a new mass party of the working class fighting for socialist ideas – based on meeting people’s needs rather than profit – would be a huge step forward for disabled people, and all working-class people, fighting to end discrimination and inequality.