Philip Hammond has been criticized by charities and MPs for suggesting disabled workers are suppressing productivity rates. He said that increased participation in the workforce, “for example of disabled people”, may have “had an impact on overall productivity measures”.
The Chancellor made the claims while giving evidence to the Commons Treasury select committee on the 2017 budget after being asked about low economic productivity levels.
After years of rhetoric about ‘strivers and skivers’, talk of a ‘something for nothing society’ and the Conservatives elevating work as a measure of an individual’s value, the current Chancellor has the gall to make a passing dig at people in work. Rather than acknowledge responsibility for the state of the economy, he has seemingly passed on the blame.
While he added that greater participation in the workforce of disabled people was “something we should be extremely proud of”, it seems hollow given the context. While charities and activists share the government’s ambition to tackle the employment gap for those with a disability, they have previously criticized its approach as counterproductive. Characterized by punitive cuts, sanctions and insecure employment, it has been described as “punitive and forceful” by Rob Holland of Mencap.
Disability campaigner Doug Paulley offers a very different picture to Hammond’s celebration of increased employment, saying: “There are a lot of people on a hand-to-mouth existence, on minimum wage, working part-time, or on zero-hours contracts.”
The latest appalling comments from the Chancellor come shortly after a pre-Budget interview where he asked: “where are all these unemployed people? There are no unemployed people, because we’ve created three and a half million new jobs since 2010.” At the time, he was criticized as being out of touch and “on another planet”.
Hammond’s comments to the select committee will rightly be hard to hear for a demographic that has been hit severely by the Tories’ obsession with austerity – from the bedroom tax adding an extra burden to those with specially-equipped homes or those who need a separate room to their partner because of their condition, to the violence of the Department for Work and Pensions ‘fit-to-work’ tests fueling suicides and permanent damage to mental health to universal credit cutting vital lifelines, pushing people into poverty.
For years, the livelihoods and safety of disabled people in Britain has been sacrificed for the economy, their lives deemed less by the Tories than ‘balancing the books’ and ‘tackling the deficit’. When confronted with the impacts of their policies, they have trotted out cold, technical responses about number of jobs created or percentage GDP growth or something about getting behind the Prime Minister to ‘get a good deal for Britain’.
Earlier this year, Hammond, whose net worth was estimated at £8.2million in 2014, responded to a struggling nurse and mum living in fear about how she was going to be able to feed her family with:
“Real household disposable incomes per capita in 2016 were at a record high and real wages are forecast to rise in every year of the current five-year forecast period.”
If Hammond thought that would be comforting, offer hope or address any of the fears struggling nurse Cheryl described, he is absolutely out of touch. More likely, it was more of the same stage management we have come to expect. This is a government that holds its hands up to the effects of its policies and says “there’s no magic money tree”.
Even the ‘just about managing’ described by Theresa May didn’t grasp the reality of Britain today – millions of people aren’t just about managing, they are on the edge of surviving. May’s promise, outside Downing Street in July last year is now empty: “We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
Tackling entrenched inequalities, crumbling infrastructure and lack of community cohesion (to name just some of the domestic policy issues Britain faces) have been sacrificed on the altar of Brexit, with the government lacking the “necessary bandwidth”. As Dawn Foster writes:
“Problems unrelated to Brexit continue to haunt Britain… twice as many people [are] sleeping rough as when the Conservatives came into power, and life expectancy is falling in some areas of the UK due to inequality and poor health… [Local residents and survivors of Grenfell Tower] feel Brexit has overshadowed the coverage of their continued hardship, with the majority of people still not rehoused…”
In the wake of Hammond’s comments, Labour’s shadow minister for disabilities, Marsha de Cordova, tweeted: “As a disabled person I am shocked that Philip Hammond is trying to blame me and other disabled people for the Tories’ economic failure. He should apologise immediately for this disgraceful comment.”
This isn’t asking the world, an apology is the least the Chancellor could do. Disabled people deserve better after years of struggle and pain. To mend the deep wounds carved into communities and livelihoods by Conservative policy will however take much more. Whether the Tories are capable of delivering such change remains questionable, happy as they are to allow money to be stashed offshore while millions live in poverty.
Image: Raul Mee (EU2017EE)