If not now, then when?

Caroline Collier

Inclusion Barnet’s CEO, and co-opted as a DPO member of the Disability Benefits Consortium’s steering group

They say it’s the hope that kills you.  In the days leading up to last week’s Budget, although uplifts to legacy benefits were not trailed in the pre-Budget announcements, there was the slender hope that recent campaigning might, just might, have done enough to gain Rishi Sunak’s attention.  That there might, just might, be an announcement in the Budget. 

In the end, there was nothing.  Whilst some continued support for Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit claimants, incomplete though it was, was welcome, legacy benefits – and the two-tier system current policy creates – were not addressed.  New people entering the benefits system receive a more generous arrangement than people who have been trying to survive on out-of-work benefits for years. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, raising legacy benefits was deemed too complex.  The (highly questionable) argument was that it would take too long to adapt the system.  After a year of restrictions – and extra costs for claimants – there has indisputably been plenty of time to address the issue. The best time to address this issue would have been at the start of the pandemic.  Given that this didn’t happen, the second best time to address the issue would have been last Wednesday.  Again, despite rigorous campaigning and cross-party support from the opposition, this didn’t happen.  So if not now, then when?

It’s easy to be disheartened following the Budget.  But what we know is that this is a government that U-turns in the face of public opinion.  They did it over free school meals, and they may yet do it over the 1% pay increase for nurses.  Their instinct over these issues has been wrong, but they will sometimes bow in the face of a determined campaign.  So we must not lose heart, and remain campaigners.

Our challenge is that in the decade since austerity kicked in, everyone has grown too used to disabled people being collateral damage in the national belt-tightening effort.  Individual tragedies pepper the front pages of local newspapers, officials promise to learn lessons, and yet still the chancellor is confident that the British public will countenance a system where a disabled person on Employment and Support Allowance receives £20 less a week than someone who is newly unemployed.  The difference that £20 can make to an individual’s life is well documented, by the Disability Benefits Consortium and others, and the cost is minimal in the wider picture of government spending commitments.  So this has to change.

So, in the face of this Budget, we, disabled people and our allies, must redouble our efforts.  Keep signing petitions and tweeting at Rishi Sunak, absolutely, but we also need to advocate constantly to friends, family, colleagues and our wider networks that the system needs to change.  Public opinion is the thing that needs to move, as this government clearly won’t get there on their own.  But we are the public, and we can do this.  For the sake of everyone choosing between heating and eating today, we must.  And that will be when things really change. 

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