What do the manifestos say about disability?
There are 14 million disabled people in the UK (over a fifth of its population). They are more likely to be unemployed, in poverty and facing disadvantages in education, health and housing. As recent exposés demonstrate, too many people living with mental distress and autism, and people with learning disabilities are interned in inappropriate institutions where they are abused.
Disabled people are often neglected in mainstream politics. Reflecting this, the Disabled People’s Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (an alliance of disabled people and their organisations in England) have written a manifesto for the forthcoming UK General Election, which outlines a ‘vision for an inclusive, fair and equal society free from barriers that exclude, discriminate and marginalise.’
To secure its vision, the ROFA’s manifesto outlines 16 “Priority ‘Asks”. In this article we examine how close the pledges in the manifestos of the main political parties in the UK come to meeting these demands. We have examined the manifestos of the following parties: Brexit, Conservative, Labour, Democratic Unionist Party, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Sinn Féin. We have focused only on the main election manifestos. We have not examined additional publications, such as Labour’s separate disability manifestos.
Labour mentions ‘disabilities’, ‘disability’ or ‘disabled’ 44 times; the Conservatives 15 times; the Greens 12; the Liberal Democrats 11; Plaid Cymru, 7 and SNP twice. The Brexit Party, Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin do not mention ‘disability’, ‘disabilities’ or ‘disabled’. Disabled people might benefit from some of the pledges in their manifestos, but because they make no specific pledges about disability they are excluded from the following.
Research undertake by the Centre for Welfare Reform, A fair society? How the cuts target disabled people found that disabled people in the highest need have been hardest hit by austerity cuts. Cuts to benefits and services must, the ROFA argue, be reversed.
The Conservative Manifesto does not mention austerity or cuts to social welfare benefits and services. While it promises some changes to Universal Credit and an end to the ‘benefit freeze’, other mechanisms of austerity (e.g. the ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘two child limit’) are to remain. The Liberal Democrats also do not mention austerity. They refer to the damage that ‘cuts’ have done to selective services and commits to reversing some of them (see below).
Labour, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP all highlight the damage caused by austerity and pledge in their manifestos to end or reverse austerity. Each outlines a number of areas for action across social welfare and public services detailed in the sections below.
A planned programme of strategic, national and local investment
There is little indication in the Conservative and Liberal Democrats manifestos of a commitment, as the ROFA ask, to co-production to get the ‘equality and inclusion [of disabled people] back on track’.
In the context of an increasing number of people living with long-term conditions, however, the Liberal Democrats argue a greater integration of health and social care is needed, a consequence of which will be ‘people can design services for their own individual needs’.
Labour supports the disabled people’s movements principle of ‘nothing about us without us’. They commit to creating a new Department for Women and Equalities led by a Secretary of State which will champion the social model of disability ‘throughout government’.
Labour, the Greens and the SNP all make commitments to support disabled people run for elected office. Labour and the Greens will reinstate the Access to Elected Office Funds. The Greens will introduce job-sharing ‘at all levels of government’ to ‘make politics more accessible, especially for disabled people’.
A legal right to Independent Living
The ROFA demand legislation to enact Article 19 (Independent Living) of the United Nation’s Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the 12 pillars of Independent Living. Labour and the Greens commit to embed the UNCRPD into UK law. The Greens will introduce a legal right to Independent Living and create a National Independent Living Service to ‘support and empower disabled people who do choose to live independently’. Labour says it will ‘support the right of disabled people to be treated independently’. Labour’s National Care Service for England would be ‘underpinned by principles of ethical care and independent living’.
The Conservative, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP manifestos do not mention the UNCRPD or make a commitment to a right to Independent Living. Plaid Cymru commit to social care that ‘puts people’s independence above the needs of bureaucracy’ and that supports ‘lives worth living rather than merely keeping people alive’. The Liberal Democrats commit to reinstating the Independent Living Fund. They give no detail about its funding.
All parties pledge more spending on the NHS either through commitments to overall spending or for specific issues – the Greens an additional £6 billion a year until 2030; the Conservatives an additional £34 billion a year by the end of the parliament that will be ‘enshrine[d] in law’ and the Liberal Democrats an additional £7 billion a year for health and social care spending. The Conservatives will make hospital parking free for those in greatest need, including disabled people.
Labour pledges increased health expenditure at an average of 4.3% a year. Specific pledges include scrapping prescription charges in England. The SNP call for the UK government to match Scottish per capita NHS spending, leading to increased overall spending on the NHS. They also propose legislation to ensure the NHS is ‘publicly owned, publicly operated and its services publicly commissioned’. Plaid Cymru promise additional expenditure to train and recruit additional doctors, nurses and dentists for the NHS in Wales.
The Liberal Democrats highlight the ‘scandal’ of learning disabled women dying on an average 20 years younger. It pledges to set a target for reducing this through measures such as fair access to screening, prevention, health and care services. Labour are committed to ensuring ‘all our [health] services are made accessible to … disabled patients’. Plaid Cymru will provide better support for people with learning disabilities, including increasing the number of specialist nurses in hospitals to address health inequalities.
Urgent action to tackle the Social Care Crisis
The ROFA demand reinstating funding to 2010 levels for social care, and abolishing charges for it and restrictions on the use of self-directed support.
With the exception of the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to provide free end-of-life social care, the Conservative and Liberal Democrats do not pledge to end social care charges. The Conservatives pledge that people will not have to sell their homes to pay for social care. The Liberal Democrats pledge that there will be a cap on care costs, but do not say what this will be. They also pledge to bring together health and social care funding in one ‘single place-based budgets’. Neither mention changes to self-directed support.
Labour’s National Care Service will be community-based and person-centred with free personal care for over 65s with the ‘ambition’ to extend this to working age adults. They will establish an eligibility criteria that caps costs at £100,000 in old age. They pledge to reverse cuts in social care and provide additional support to enable people to live in their own homes.
Free social care for ‘elderly and other vulnerable citizens’ through a new National Health and Social Care Service is one of Plaid Cymru’s five key priorities. They are committed to free social care at the point of need.
The Greens pledge £4.5 billion to provide free social care to the over 65s and to explore how to extend this to all.
The Conservative manifesto makes few pledges to carers. It recognises the gendered nature of informal caring and sees this as a problem in terms of its impact upon women’s paid work, its solution to which is an extension of leave entitlement for unpaid carers.
The Liberal Democrats will introduce guaranteed respite breaks for unpaid carers, a package of free services for young carers and change the qualifying criteria of Carers Allowance.
Labour promises to increase Carers Allowance for unpaid full time carers (to the level of Jobseekers Allowance). The SNP will argue for an inflation-related uplift in benefits, but make no specific mention of carers. Similarly, Plaid Cymru want to negotiate ‘an appropriate fiscal framework’ for devolved responsibility for welfare benefits, including Carers Allowance, but do not mention carers elsewhere in their manifesto. The Greens pledge a universal basic income for all citizens, with a full Carers Allowance paid on top of this.
De-institutionalisation and the closure of residential institutions and hospitals for disabled children and adults
Institutions in which disabled people are abused and tortured, the ROFA demand, should be immediately closed, and resources urgently found to provide community-based support that are ‘non-clinical, user-led and culturally appropriate’.
The Conservatives pledge to ‘make it easier for people with learning disabilities and autism to be discharged from hospital and improve how they are treated in law’ and will provide £74 million over three years for community care for people with learning disabilities and autistic.
The Liberal Democrats pledge to urgently close assessment and treatment units. The Greens extend their commitment to Independent Living by specifying it would make ‘compulsory treatment, chemical and physical restraint, isolation and seclusion’ illegal. Labour pledge to create additional care packages to enable people with learning disabilities and autistic people to move out of ‘inappropriate inpatient hospital care’.
Plaid Cymru make a specific pledge to ensure neurodiversity is treated as an equality issue and extend the Equality Act to name autism as a protected characteristic. They also propose an Autism Act for Wales grounded in a rights-based approach.
Radical reform of mental health and mental capacity laws
The ROFA demand a ‘radical shift’ to include such issues as full human rights for people living with mental distress and people with learning disabilities, including ending detention in institutions and involuntary treatment, and a right to refuse treatment.
The Conservatives pledge to introduce a maintenance grant to aid nurse recruitment in areas ‘struggling to recruitment, including ‘mental health’. With no detail, it pledges also to treat ‘mental health’ with the ‘same urgency’ as physical health and to legislate so people ‘suffering from mental health… have greater control over their treatment and receive the dignity and respect they deserve’.
‘Mental health’ is mentioned 59 times in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto. Based on the principle of ‘care not containment’, its pledges are to increase funding to enable an extension of the coverage of services working with people living mental distress to various groups and to increase capacity in such services.
Labour pledges £16 billion per annum ‘to ensure new standards for mental health are enshrined in the NHS constitution’ and £2 billion to modern hospital facilities for mental health crises, including ending inappropriate out-of-area placements. It commits to the full implementation of the independent review of the Mental Health Act and that people are given ‘choice, autonomy and the treatment they need’.
Plaid Cymru pledge parity of esteem for mental health services and to tackle ‘stigma and discrimination’. People should not be forced to travel to ‘outsourced and often inappropriate residential facilities’. They pledge to invest in community mental health services, including alternatives to medication.
The Greens commit to fit-for-purpose mental health services available to all, parity of funding and to ‘evidence based mental health therapies within 27 days’.
The ROFA demand ‘inclusive and adequate welfare support’, which includes the immediate scrapping of Universal Credit and sanctions, and the restoring of 2010 benefit levels, with inflation-related increases; assessments for benefits to be done by the public, not private, sector. New benefits should be co-produced by disabled people, address barriers to full inclusion and recognise the additional costs of disability.
The Conservative manifesto pledges to continue the roll-out of Universal Credit and, with no detail, pledges to do more to make sure that it ‘works’ for ‘vulnerable people’. It also pledges (although it has already been announced) to end the ‘benefit freeze’. It notes that a National Strategy for Disabled People that by the end of 2020 will examine ways of ‘improving the benefits system’. While it is not clear to what it is referring, the Conservative manifesto pledges to reduce reassessments when a significant change in condition is unlikely.
The Liberal Democrats will keep Universal Credit and increase Local Housing Allowance in line with average rents in an area. They pledge to reverse the cuts to Employment and Support Allowance for those in the work-related activity group, and to abolish the Work Capability Assessment and replace it ‘real-world tests’ done by local authorities.
Labour ‘will scrap’ Universal Credit with the ambition to ‘design an alternative system that treats people with dignity and respect.’ Such a system should aim to end poverty by guaranteeing a minimum standard of living. It pledges to stop ‘dehumanising’ disability benefit assessments and pledges they will brought ‘in-house’.
The Greens will also replace Universal Credit and introduce a universal basic income with additional payments for disabled people and carers. The SNP demand the end of the benefits freeze, uplifts to benefits in line with inflation and the abolition of the bedroom tax and punitive benefit sanctions. Plaid Cymru want welfare powers to be devolved, to have ‘full control’ of Universal Credit and to remove the bedroom tax.
The Conservatives, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP do not commit to the assessments for disability benefits being done by the public sector.
The ROFA demand a right to accessible housing, the scrapping of the bedroom tax and urgent action on homeless and disability.
The Conservatives pledge to make housing ‘suitable’ for disabled people and, although not specifically about disabled people, pledges to end rough sleeping and prevent homelessness by building affordable housing. It is silent on the bedroom tax.
The Liberal Democrats confuse homelessness and rough sleeping. They pledge to publish a plan about ending the former and to ending the latter (though not specifically in relation to disabled people). The Greens outline a range of policies to counter homelessness, but do not specifically mention disabled people. Similarly, Plaid Cymru’s and the SNP’s housing policy does not mention disabled people.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP pledge to abolish the bedroom tax.
The Greens pledge to support local authorities to have better housing for disabled people, including a disability housing plan and to increase the number of houses built to ‘mobility standards’. It does not mention the bedroom tax.
A fully inclusive education system
The ROFA calls for an increase in funding for Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) and the halting of segregated education and the exclusion of disabled children from schools. It demands ‘inclusive education’ for all pupils and learners
The Conservative manifesto does not mention inclusive education, but notes that the Conservatives have existing commitments to increase SEND funding, and support pupils and students to get careers advice and internships.
The Liberal Democrats pledge additional funding for SEND and to give local authorities powers and resources to act as Strategic Education Authorities for their area, including responsibility for SEND functions. They also pledge to require universities to make mental health services accessible and to legislate for a Student Mental Health Charter.
The Greens pledge to ‘create a fully inclusive education system’ to enable access to local schools and ensure disabled children are fully supported in those schools, including accessible buildings and curriculum, although also commit to special provision where parents want this. Labour commits to providing ‘the necessary funding for children with special educational needs and disability’.
Plaid Cymru and the SNP do not mention disability or special educational needs in their discussion of education.
Access to justice
The ROFA note that disabled people need equal access to justice. It demands cuts to legal aid be reversed and its coverage extended; greater funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and a parity of disability hate crime with other forms of hate crime.
The Conservatives pledge to protect disabled (and other) people from physical attack or harassment. They do not mention wider dimensions of justice for disabled people.
Labour will ensure legal aid for inquests to deaths in state custody and the preparation of judicial review cases (which includes the deaths of disabled people in health and social care services).
The Liberal Democrats acknowledge disabled people face discrimination, but note little specifically about disabled people in relation to it. They pledge to review the funding of the EHRC to ensure that it is adequate.
Plaid Cymru state all hate crimes must be treated as serious offences and pledges to extend the Equality Act to include neurodiversity as a specific protected characteristic.
The Greens pledge to retain the Human Rights Act, introduce a legal right to Independent Living and embed the UNCRPD into UK law.
The SNP manifesto does not mention legal aid or the broader areas of justice for disabled people.
Inclusion and full participation
The ROFA’s concern here is with the discrimination and exclusion faced by disabled people. It demands the Equality Act 2010 ‘should be obliged to take proactive steps to ensure good, services, built environment and infrastructure comply with accessibility standards and promote inclusive practices.’ British Sign Language (BSL) should have legal status.
The Conservative manifesto is bereft of such commitments to disabled people. It does note the publication of a National Strategy for Disabled People before the end of 2020 covering the benefits system, housing, education, transport and jobs.
Labour propose a range of new initiatives and policies across a wide range of areas, including reinstating the Access to Elected Office fund (as do Greens, while SNP pledge to more generally support disabled people to stand for election to the House of Commons); creating new duties under the Equality Act, including disability leave; recommending the EHRC prepare a ‘specific code of conduct’ about reasonable adjustments and giving BSL full recognition in law. Labour also pledge to work with employers, trade unions and public services to improve awareness of neurodiversity in the work place and society; to improve rail accessibility, and to introduce new minimum standards for taxi and private hire vehicles.
The Liberal Democrats pledge to improve disabled access to public places and transport; improve the blue badge parking scheme; creating a benchmarking standard for accessible cities, and banning discrimination by private hire vehicles and taxis. It would also give BSL legal recognition and make political parties publish diversity data.
The Greens would fund local authorities to improve provision of public toilets, the closure of which is a significant bar to full participation, and to ensure fully accessible bus and train travel.
Plaid Cymru do not mention issue of inclusion and participation for disabled people.
Employment, Conditionality and sanctions
The ROFA are rightly critical of social security benefits for disabled people. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and conditionality regime should be abolished, and there needs to be a move from the idea that waged work “is the only ‘meaningful activity’ for human beings”.
With the possible exception of fewer reassessments for disabled people where conditions are unlikely to significantly change, the Conservative’s make no pledges to improve social security provision for disabled people (see above). The Liberal Democrats pledge to support disabled people into work. It also pledges to separate employment support from benefits administration and to replace sanctions with incentives. Neither question the basis of social security in relation to wage work.
Labour, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP pledge to end benefit sanctions and to uplifts in benefit levels. Labour will stop the WCA and Personal Independent Payment assessment. Any assessments will be undertaken in-house. Labour state people will receive support to ‘live a full independent life’. The Greens commit to a universal basic income with additional payments for disabled people.
All disabled people should have a right to work and employment
The ROFA’s demands with regard to paid employment are related to removing barriers.
The Conservative manifesto argues about the importance of work, but makes no specific pledges to improve access to it for disabled people. It pledges to reduce the disability employment gap, but there is little detail about how this might be achieved.
Plaid Cymru say disabled people should be ‘encouraged and supported into employment’, including through the provision of sheltered employment services. Labour will require all employers to be trained to support disabled workers, and require employers of over 250 staff to report disability pay gaps.
The Liberal Democrats says it will help disabled people to access ‘meaningful work’ and that, along with others, disabled people should be ‘paid fairly’, but provides little detail on how these will be achieved specifically for disabled people.
The SNP wants devolved powers over employment, but does not outline how this would help support disabled people access work.
Real and effective co-production with Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) across the UK
THE ROFA demand ‘meaningful, well-resourced and accessible engagement and co-production’. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats do not offer this, with the exception of an undetailed pledge by the latter for individualised health and social care services.
Labour commits to the disabled people’s slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ and to embedding the social model of disability (which should include real co-production) across government, including amending the Equality Act to reflect the social model.
Labour and the Greens commitment to embedding the UNCRP presumes real and effective co-production.
Plaid Cymru and the SNP do not engage with such issues.
The rights of disabled people that are a consequence of European Union membership, the ROFA demand, must be replaced by legal protections that are of the equivalent.
The Conservatives pledge to ‘get Brexit done’, but say little about if and how existing rights and protections that come from membership of the EU will be reproduced after Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats pledge to end Brexit so the institutions and governance structures of the EU will remain.
The Greens are campaigning for remain. Whatever the outcome, they commit to ensuring there is ‘no rolling back of the rights and protections in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights’. Plaid Cymru and the SNP are campaigning for remain. They do not make specific commitments about legal protections. Labour pledges UK standards and rights will keep pace with European rights and protections, including legal protections for citizens’ rights.
Planning for the climate emergency, the ROFA argue, must recognise and address the needs of disabled people.
None of the parties make specific reference to disabled people in their climate and environmental policies, although disabled people may benefit from different policies like investment in public transport and insulation.
Accessible versions are only deemed fully available if they are released on the same basis as the main manifesto, i.e. free and open access online.
Only the Liberal Democrats (clear print and audio) and Green (easy read) had some accessible versions available when their main manifesto was published.
By 6th December all the parties we are considering had some, if not all, versions available:
- Conservatives: audio and BSL versions with braille, easy read and large print available by request (phone or email).
- Green: audio, BSL, easy read and large print
- Labour: audio, braille, BSL, easy read and large print.
- Liberal Democrats: audio, BSL, easy read and large print
- Plaid Cymru: BSL, easy read and large print
- SNP: BSL only
Overall, none of the parties meet the ROFA’s vision of an ‘inclusive, fair and equal society free from barriers that exclude, discriminate and marginalise’. Labour comes the closest. Its manifesto notes the importance of the social model of disability and the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’. Beyond Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ specific reference to ‘care not containment’ with regard to mental distress, the political parties considered here do not have principled frameworks for developing the kind of society envisioned by the ROFA. This is not to argue that disabled people will not benefit from some of the pledges made in the manifestos, but these often lack detail and because they are not informed by a principled view of what society should be like for disabled people they have an ad hoc feel.
Action is required across all 16 of the ROFA’s areas of concern. None of the parties are strong on all domains. Even Labour, for example, does not acknowledge the urgency of de-institutionalisation and says surprisingly little about disability and housing and education. To varying degrees, the other parties make pledges that will undoubtedly improve the situation of disabled people in some aspects of their lives, but they in no way add up to a vision of barrier-free society, something that has not even come across the radar of the three parties (the Brexit Party, Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin) that do not mention disability at all. There is a real choice for voters on Thursday on disability issues.