Disability and British policy: a personal reflection

My partner and I moved to Belgium at the start of 1999. We had a little girl, eighteen months old; and another child on the way. By the time her brother arrived that summer, our daughter was burbling away as two-year-olds do, asking for favourite toys, food and videos (DVDs had not yet come in) and delighting in the new arrival in the family.

And over the next six months, she lost it. The stream of chatter dried up. She stopped looking us in the eye. Creative play seemed to have come to an end. And the normal channels of communication were replaced by stereotypical repetitive movements, just like an autistic child would do.

Autism? Surely not. I had never heard of a case of a child becoming autistic after a period of normal development. But it turns out that such autistic regressions are not at all uncommon, usually around the third year of age. And so our beautiful girl continued to grow physically, while retreating mentally into a world that was not ours and never will be.

Of course, we were devastated; and the first decision we had to make was whether or not to move back to the UK, where at least we would be able to deal with health care professionals and social workers in English. By great good fortune, a close family relative was a retired psychiatrist who had worked with children with learning disabilities in England, and her very strong advice, delivered at an early stage, was that we should stay put in Belgium, where the social and health systems have not been gutted by decades of cuts.

And we did, and it was one of the best decisions we have made. Life with disability, whether your own or that of a close family member, is very tough. But we have always felt that the Belgian state was on our side, ensuring that our children could have a decent quality of life without that impacting my ability to contribute to the economy through my work. I am (thank God) well paid, and end up with a pretty hefty tax bill to the Belgian state. We get much more back in respect of how our daughters are provided for (our youngest, born at the end of 2002, is similarly afflicted, though slightly more able than her sister). Reforms to the system happen all the time, but they tend to be in the direction of making the system more accessible and flexible in response to individual circumstances – as a humane system would want to be. And I am glad that the same support, and more, is available to households less wealthy than ours.

As time has gone on, I’ve watched with horror (and relief for our own situation) as the British benefits system has been more and more thoroughly gutted in the name of penalizing the undeserving poor. Let’s be very clear: the last Labour government started it, with the 2007 Welfare Reform Bill which introduced the Work Capability Assessment, a test which effectively sorted disabled applicants for benefits into the deserving and undeserving poor. The British state is not on your side if you have any kind of difficulty, unless you comply with its humiliating demands to prove that you are worthy of being treated like a human being.

This cruel and ineffective policy was taken further by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, and subsequently by the Conservatives alone. There seemed to me very little to choose between George Osborne, who tastefully joked about Gordon Brown possibly being autistic, and Iain Duncan Smith, who was consistently on the front lines defending the government policies that he had designed and implemented.

And then at the end of last week, even Tory MPs could not accept the massive cuts in disability allowance that Osborne was proposing as part of the 2016 budget; and Duncan Smith, who (as the New Statesman put it) had spent five years in the Cabinet not resigning over cuts to disabled people’s payments that did happen, finally resigned over that one that won’t happen.

I watched the Andrew Marr interview with Iain Duncan Smith this morning. It was pretty electrifying. Whitehall has suffered a critical setback in its war on the poor and disabled. Ten years of rhetoric from all parties about disability scroungers was corroded into sludge in ten minutes by one of its principal architects. He described the budget as “deeply unfair” and unequivocally opposed the welfare cap. The terms of the UK debate on disability benefits have been changed out of all recognition in the last 48 hours.

I do not warm to Iain Duncan Smith who, if he is sincere now, should never have taken the job in the first place. He says, in effect, that he did not realise that government policy was really to support those who vote Conservative while punishing those who don’t. Either he is lying, or he is telling the truth, and neither alternative reflects well on him.

But the fundamental point is that the parameters of the British debate have been fundamentally reset. Even Tory MPs now know that the game is up, and the continuing cuts to benefits for the poor and disabled cannot be defended as either effective or fair. A lot of ink will be spilt and pixels tinted in the next few days on the impact of his resignation on the EU referendum and the future leadership of the Conservatives. Those are interesting issues, but, please, let’s not forget the people who this was all about – those whose voices have not been heard because they have been too busy trying to survive what successive governments have thrown at them.

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