When selecting candidates for the local elections on May 2nd, our branch of the Labour Party aimed to include at least one person who knows what it is like to live with a permanent disability or a chronic illness.
Of course, there are many people in this situation who do not have sufficient spare energy, however much they would like to become councillors, but we had not taken into account one of the biggest obstacles of all: the Department of Work & Pensions. During the past decade the DWP has become overwhelmingly concerned with the economic productivity of disabled and sick people.
Work Capability Assessments (which are farmed out and run for profit) inform those in severe daily pain that if they can cross a small room they can work.
Back in 2011*, when the DWP was still keeping this type of record, 10,600 sick and disabled people who were denied benefits died within six weeks of their assessment, and the introduction of Universal Credit is only making things worse.
You may deplore these tragic effects while telling yourself that most people are treated fairly, but the system dominates the lives of all claimants and defines them entirely in terms of their disability.
If you are assessed as able to work, perhaps for a reduced time of 16 or 24 hours per week, you are liable to be penalised for any additional activities that come to the notice of the DWP.
This is not about working surreptitiously for undeclared extra income, but taking part in leisure activities outside the home and being involved in the community in which you live.
In this climate, a disabled person in receipt of benefits cannot volunteer, or be active in local societies (often possible in ways appropriate to their state of health) without being told that they could therefore work more hours or undertake more work-related activity.
This includes all forms of protest in support of your beliefs (weekend anti-fracking activists in wheelchairs were recently reported by Lancashire police to the DWP), and – it seems – serving as an unpaid councillor on your town council.
The official advice on entering local government – Make a Difference. Be A Councillor. A Guide for Disabled People – states: “Being a councillor is not a full-time job and may not affect any benefits you receive, but individual cases will vary, so do check this with your benefits office.”
The obvious vagueness of this statement is not reassuring and, whatever the official line on councillors in receipt of disability benefits, the fact remains that people in this situation are afraid to risk it.
As someone said to me when explaining why they dared not be a candidate: “There’s no such thing as doing stuff in your spare time any more. If you can breathe you can work.”
As things are, younger people with disabilities (that is, those below pension age), people with disabilities who cannot work a 40-hour week, and anyone not supported financially by their family are effectively prevented from representing their community.
If any of our members with disabilities are not in these situations and therefore feel free to become candidates, we greatly welcome their applications, but the fact remains that democracy is not being served.
Seaford, Newhaven, Alfriston & Polegate Branch, Lewes
Constituency Labour Party
* Figure acquired by Black Triangle from a DWP report