Disabled 'under attack from Tory right wing': Campaigners claim MPs are kicking against political correctness and also looking to cut taxes before the next election

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S 6.5 million disabled people have been under attack by a succession of government policies over the past year.

The assault began after the 1993 Budget when Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, announced legislation which will reduce dramatically the numbers entitled to state benefits with effect from next April.

It continued in May, when Nicholas Scott, minister for the disabled, helped kill off a civil rights bill which would have given disabled people legal redress against unfair discrimination in all walks of life.

And finally, earlier this month, within days of being made Secretary of State for Employment, Michael Portillo disclosed the Government was ending an employment scheme which gave a degree of priority to disabled workshops, threatening about 8,000 jobs. He claimed a European Commission directive prevented such 'positive discrimination' in awarding public sector contracts, but the European Commission insisted the rule was never intended to disadvantage disabled people and said a way could have been found to enable the scheme to continue.

Just why the Government appears to be targetting a group which retains strong public sympathy and support is not easy to comprehend. According to some campaigners and politicians, a combination of factors have conspired. Firstly, they argue, disabled people are victims of desperate cost-saving measures to enable the Government to make tax cuts before the next election. Secondly, the powerful business lobby, represented by the Institute of Directors, overcame all-party support for the civil rights bill by persuading ministers it would have put an unreasonable burden on companies. And thirdly, according to some campaigners, there seems to be a backlash against political correctness by right-wing Tories.

According to the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, one of the most vocal and effective disability rights groups, some MPs are so reactionary they would repeal sex and race discrimination laws if they could.

Disabled people, who suffer a wide range of physical and mental handicaps or difficulties, will be hardest hit immediately by the changes to the social security benefit system which come into effect in April 1995.

Under the measure, invalidity benefit and sickness benefit are to be abolished and replaced by an incapacity benefit, to be paid at a lower level and taxed. A tighter medical test, assessing capacity for any kind of work, is also to be introduced cutting the numbers entitled to it. The Government has estimated that between 250,000 and 280,000 people currently on Invalidity Benefit will lose entitlement, following the medical review, within two years and up to 70,000 potential new claimants a year will fail to qualify.

The cuts were brought in because of the growth in the numbers of people claiming Invalidity Benefit to 1.5 million people at a cost of pounds 6.1bn last year.

Those who can no longer claim the benefit will have to apply for the new Jobseekers' Allowance which will replace Unemployment Benefit from 1996. Entitlement to this benefit will be reduced from 12 to 6 months after which those still without work will receive means-tested income support providing they can prove they are genuinely seeking work.

RADAR fears that thousands of people who would have been entitled to invalidity benefit will lose all benefits - they may not satisfy the medical test that they are inacapable of any work, but they may also be unable to prove they are actively seeking and capable of work every week.

The biggest setback for campaigners was the 'talking out' of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill due to a series of 80 wrecking amendments drawn up by civil servants at the Department of Social Security on the instructions of Mr Scott, and tabled by right-wing Tory backbenchers. The Bill had won overwhelming suppport at the end of its Second Reading debate with 235 MPs in favour and none against.

The Government justified its opposition to the Bill arguing the cost to business would be pounds 17bn. But an analysis of the figures by All Party Disablement Group showed the real cost of implementing the Bill was nearer to pounds 5bn. So great was the outcry at the Government's tactics that in July Mr Scott published a consultation document setting out alternative, watered down, proposals, covering employment, financial services, access to goods and services and a new advisory body.

Critics complain the proposals ignore important areas such as education and transport. The measures would abolish the existing 3 per cent quota under which government departments and employers of more than 20 people must recruit a quota of registered disabled people. Previously approved guidelines that access to all buildings should be enforced through building regulations have been quietly dropped. And discrimination in the provision of goods and services such as restaurants would effectively be sanctioned if there were existing physical barriers.

Sir John Hannam, the Conservative co-chairman of the All Party Disablement Group, says the new proposals on anti-discrimination measures are a step in the right direction but do not go far enough.

Sir John, who was a sponsor of the civil rights Bill, believes the Government misjudged the strength of feeling in the country in support of the Bill and was forced to produce some new measures. He strongly disputed the suggestion that recent measures showed the Government was hostile to disabled people, but conceded he was concerned to ensure that 'genuinely' disabled people were not disadvantaged by the changes to the benefits system.

Lord Ashley, co-chairman of the All Party Disablement Group,said the consultation document proposals were 'pathetically inadequate'. The Government's policies would backfire and could lose them the next election. Disabled people and their estimated 6 million carers, are a powerful lobby.