11 May 2011

Thousands of disabled people protest cuts

Health and Social Care Correspondent

Thousands of disabled people protest in London against cuts to benefits and services – but the Minister for Disabled People did not attend, as Victoria Macdonald writes.

Maria Miller, the Minister for Disabled People, was criticised today for failing to appear at a protest rally against welfare reforms and cuts to services.

The ‘Hardest Hit’ protest in Westminster was attended by several thousand people, many of them disabled but also care workers and health service staff who are also being affected by cuts.

Dame Anne Begg, Labour MP for Aberdeen South, who is herself in a wheelchair, told the rally that the Government was not listening on benefit cuts.

“Miller’s absence shows that,” she said.

Hardest Hit marchers (Jennifer Rigby)

Ms Miller told Channel 4 News that the welfare system did urgently need reforming but she rejected criticism that the Government was failing to listen and said that there had been unprecedented consultations with disability groups.

When we asked if the Government had failed to adequately explain their reforms, Ms Miller said that co-production was “at the heart of what the Government was doing”.

She added: “Perhaps we need to make sure those disability organisations are able to explain their role in the development of the policies to the people they represent.”

She said: “Perhaps today’s event and people marching today is more symptomatic of the fact that disabled people feel not in control of the support they get. What we are talking about is a much more individualised set of support and I think that will make disabled people far more empowered in terms of determining their own futures.”

Why are disabled people protesting? 
Disabled people are worried by several different issues - which are all hitting them at the same time.

Cuts to social care by cashstrapped councils mean that one in four disabled people have already been hit by cuts or higher charges. Disability living allowance is being replaced by the personal independent payment, but many fear losing out as the Government seeks to cut £1bn from the bill by 2015. And incapacity benefit is to be replaced with the employment support allowance, and all claimants reassessed.

Helen Thomas, who has multiple sclerosis, told Channel 4 News the process of being tested for the new benefit had been "appalling".

"Hearing people call you a scrounger or insinuate you're faking it, and there's nothing wrong with you, that's no way to live your life and the fact is the Government are the ones that are doing this to us."

Read more from Channel 4 News on the disabled protest against cuts

First of its kind

The march itself was thought to be the first of its kind, with organisers saying that never before had so many people with disabilities come together to express their anger. And it was over a whole range of issues, from welfare reform to cuts in services. Many of the people we spoke to had not yet been affected by changes to the welfare system but were fearful of what the future held.

Lord Low of Dalston, who is visually impaired, said today that the Minister would have had a different idea of what was happening if she had come to meet the disabled people gathered at the march.

“People don’t come, in some cases hundreds of miles because they feel a little bit out of control. If the Minister came and talked to the people who have come here she would find that people are very angry and fearful about the cuts they are experiencing,” Lord Dalston told Channel 4 News.