Ethics & Morality

An open letter from a disabled Christian to Conservative voters

This is a guest post by Tanya Marlow – a disabled Christian and founder of Compassionate Britain, and author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty. She was formerly a lecturer in Biblical Theology with a decade of experience in Christian ministry. Now housebound with severe ME, she blogs about suffering and the search for God in hard places at Thorns and Gold

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Dear Conservative-voting friends,

While you were quietly pleased on May 8th, I was sobbing. You were sympathetic, but surprised – why couldn’t I accept that the best man won?

My reaction probably seemed extreme, but I can explain it in five words: cuts to disabled people’s benefits.

I am writing because I know you to be committed to Christ, intelligent and compassionate, and most definitely not an “amoral monster“.

Everyone – no matter how they voted – needs to know the truth about what the cuts have done to disabled people. Let me take you on a guided tour, and see if you understand my tears by the end.

It’s obvious, but worth repeating: it is expensive to be disabled. In order to simply live –  eat, drink, be washed, go to the toilet, move about, go upstairs or out of the house, get a job – it costs money, which is why disabled people need extra financial support to pay for carers, guides, wheelchairs, stairlifts, hoists etc.

Disabled people have been affected by the austerity cuts nine times more than the average person, and severely disabled people nineteen times more. Austerity should mean that everyone tightens their belts, and yet the sharp edge of the cuts has fallen repeatedly and disproportionately onto the most vulnerable. Disabled people have been cut so deep they are collectively bleeding.

Bedroom Tax

The Bedroom Tax hit disabled families hard – two thirds of the families affected by bedroom tax are disabled, using their spare bedroom for a carer, for example, or to store bulky supplies of adult nappies.

Some people have been forced to move out of the home they took years to specially adapt. Others are going hungry. Bedroom tax is a tax on disabled people.

ESA Assessments

Everyone knows about Atos, the now-notorious private company paid £500m for assessing Employment Support Allowance. It’s great in theory: weed out the fraudulent claims by getting independent assessors to get capable people back to work, saving the country money. But the government give Atos strict ‘targets’ to meet – fewer than 1 in 5 claimants are ‘expected’ to receive the maximum benefit. When they make wrong decisions later overturned at tribunal (170,000 appeals won at a cost of £66m) they receive no penalty for incompetence. Staff (who are largely physiotherapists and OTs) are therefore incentivised to refuse the benefit in as many cases as possible.

This is the mess of Work Capability Assessments: taxpayers’ money pays a private company to employ lesser-qualified staff to overrule the advice of specialist NHS doctors.

The system is not only broken; it is breaking people. People with terminal illnesses are spending their final days fighting for their income. Some were declared fit to work only to drop dead a few days later .

To have the Government say you’re not as disabled or sick as you know you are, and to know that your entire income and future depends upon that faulty assessment, is to be in a terrible and precarious position. Some people took their own lives after their application for ESA was declined.

The Government is currently investigating 49 deaths, alleged to be directly linked to the removal of benefits. It is likely that this is only the tip of the iceberg.  This is worth pausing over: these welfare cuts are not paper exercises in balancing books; people’s’ lives are at stake with these choices.

Disability Living Allowance

Meanwhile, Disability Living Allowance (a small allowance to help with the extra costs of being disabled) was targeted for cuts, and replaced with an alternative (Personal Independence Payment) that was designed to save money, not to root out fraud. Half a million genuinely disabled people lost their support, although neither their care needs nor their costs had decreased.

Independent Living Fund

What about those who are most severely disabled? Were they protected? Previously, the most severely disabled received an additional Independent Living Fund, which enabled them to have a carer so they could live independently. Some undertook degrees and got jobs for the first time because of this benefit, paying back into the system. This was scrapped by the Government – the last payment will be next month.

The Government has said that the local councils will step into help: but their funding is being cut, and already two out of five disabled people “are now unable to eat, wash, dress of get out of the house due to underfunded services in their area”. 18,000 severely disabled people are likely to lose their freedom.

Legal Aid

I predict that benefit appeals will fall in the next few years: not necessarily because the decisions will improve, but because Legal Aid has also been slashed, so the poor are now denied justice in the face of the Government’s mistakes (you are twice as likely to win a tribunal if you have representation).

These cuts have been taken, irrespective of need, failing to protect the most vulnerable. Already one in three disabled people live in poverty. And we are promised more cuts to come.

At this point you may tell me, “Don’t despair. Surely it’s better when the Church does what the state fails to provide?”

There’s no doubt that Christian charities and churches do incredible good with relatively few resources, and Christians have stepped in sacrificially to meet needs. The Trussell Trust foodbanks are one such example.

But before you say that the Church will solve this, please consider the scale, urgency and the ongoing nature of the problem. Usually disabled people have additional needs for the rest of their life. This requires indefinite commitment, not a temporary fix.

These people are not theoretical problems; they are a physical reality. The Church is not an imaginary force; it is you and I, our local churches.

This is my honest question: are we, the Church, going to wipe the bums of 18,000 people who’ve lost their Independent Living Fund?

In my conversations with Christians over the past few days I have been heartened that so many – across the whole political spectrum – are keen to speak up for sick and disabled people.

There are so many in the world who view sick and disabled people as sub-human; parasites on our economy. Christians who affirm the humanity and dignity of disabled people, who see their suffering and want to speak out against it, are a powerful witness to a watching world. Whatever our political persuasion, it is our compassion that will distinguish us as Christians.

I’m calling on compassionate Christians to hold the Government to account to protect the most vulnerable as they administer budget cuts. I’m starting a website called Compassionate Britain, which will join together Christians across the whole political spectrum, with resources to help you write to your MP.

Sign up to keep in touch. Let’s join our voices and say we want to help the Government work exactly for that – a more compassionate Britain

Thank you for listening.

Your friend,

Tanya Marlow
(a bleeding heart liberal).