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Leeds Hardest Hit Demo

Around 400 people gathered in Leeds City Centre last saturday to protest the vicious government cuts, which will harm the most vulnerable members of our society. The Hardest Hit campaign, organised by the Disability Benefits Consortium and the UK Disabled Peoples Council, brought together disabled people from across Yorkshire and Humber to give clear message to the ConDems: “NO MORE CUTS”.

Simon Conneff, Hyde Park & Headingley Socialist Party

The combined effects of cuts to benefits and public services will be particularly disastrous for disabled people, as many different types of support which enable them to get about, to look for work and to stay in work, to study and to live independent and dignified lives are coming under fire. As Robyn Brockie, Women’s Officer for the NUS Disabled Students’ Campaign, explained, “we are affected by every single cut”.

Not only are cuts being made to Disability Living Allowance and Incapacity Benefits, the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance disproportionately affects disabled students, 50% of whom relied on EMA. “We are not looking for handouts. We can’t find work or stay in work without the support. We want to be in society, but the cuts will isolate us”. There are many additional costs to being disabled that people don’t see. Participation in higher education is difficult, many disabled students find that their choice of University is limited by having to live with, or close to, their family, with many having to return to their parents after graduating they have graduated. Robyn felt that higher education was essential to her and others being able to find meaningful and stable employment.

But the government seems determined to kick away the support which allows people with disabilities to participate in society. It has also been quick to throw people off benefits, awarding a lucrative contract to ATOS to assess whether people are fit to work. This highly flawed process, sets targets for, and incentivises, declaring people fit, even when it runs contrary to medical opinion. As Val Buxton of Parkinson’s UK explained, “Parkinson’s sufferers might be assessed as not needing benefits because of a lack of understanding of the condition.”

Hardest Hit Demo Rally

This cabinet of millionaires is using deficit reduction as cover for an ideological attack on our society’s neediest. Tim Mcsharry of the Access Committee Leeds spoke of the “devastating impact [which] could take disabled rights back several decades”. In the media we have seen hysteria and stigmatisation of people on benefits, an unintended consequence of which has been a sharp increase in hate crime directed against disabled people, for which, says Mcsharry, the government must bear responsibility.

Local MP Hilary Benn said the government’s actions were unfair, that its economic policy isn’t working, and spoke of the need to boost demand in the economy. “We need to persuade the government they’ve got it wrong and that they need to change their minds.” Though Labour’s lobbying against the Welfare Reform Bill is welcome, their message of slower, gentler cuts is not providing a real alternative, and their leader’s comments that working people should be given priority to social housing only serve further stigmatise those who cannot work.

It was left to speakers like Sheila Banks, from Leeds Trades Council, were left to point out the need to oppose all cuts, and Socialist Party member Andy Smith got huge cheers when he demanded that the council stop making cuts to our services, including the termination earlier in the year of the Leeds Crisis Centre.

Socialist Party member Andy Smith addresses the rally

That we should refer to the extra support which people with disabilities rely upon as “benefits” is rather disingenuous. As Paul Williams of MENCAP put it “I don’t see many benefits of being disabled”. Paul and his wife Janet both have a learning disability. He was her main carer for 5 years, until she was taken into residential care. They are trying to find a place where they can live together again and he can look after her.

In his work for MENCAP, he is fighting the misperception that disabled people are well off. Most of his £150 Disability Living Allowance goes on paying the gas bill. He doesn’t drink, smoke, gamble, go abroad or buy new things. But his allowance is now under threat, and he has been told he should be working full time. The government’s ruthless, dogmatic attacks on the welfare state have no consideration for the impact upon real people who already have to fight hard for to be included in society. “We are not scroungers”, says Paul. “We don’t want everything. We just need enough. We want a society where disabled people are valued and respected.”

A smaller protest also took place in Bradford with around 60 people attending.