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Westminster’s assault on welfare will result in Cruel Cymru for the disabled

23 Apr 2024 7 minute read
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Daniel Leal/PA Wire

James Downs Mental Health Campaigner

In recent weeks, Rishi Sunak and other commentators from the political right have painted a picture of life in the UK for the disabled, and specifically the mentally ill.

These are people like me, and possibly you – or at least many people you will know.

According to the Prime Minister, in a recent speech to the Centre For Social Justice, we suffer from a “sicknote culture” – mistaking trivial day to day worries and sadnesses for debilitating clinical anxiety and depression. How silly of us.

Our doctors then sign us off on our whim, so we don’t have to face the responsibilities we want to shirk at any given opportunity. 

Toxic rhetoric

Somewhere in the midst of the toxic rhetoric and stigmatising language that has been so freely used about some of the most vulnerable and underserved people in society, there might be some useful points to be made.

Yes, it is not helpful to be “parked on welfare”, if under different circumstances – where you are able to readily access helpful treatment and can find work that accommodates your health needs – you might find it beneficial to work.

Rishi’s “moral mission” to help people return to work could be, at heart, all about providing compassionate and supportive care for disabled people and supported activities for them to participate meaningfully in society. 

Only, it’s not about that. Of all the many things that could be highlighted about why people have become too unwell to work, or found themselves meeting the legal definition of disabled, it is revealing that the chosen approach is to wield rhetoric that disabled people who rely on benefits perceive to be an assault on their dignity and the little security they may have.

A still from the collaboration between Helpu, a leading men’s mental health hub, UK Mens Sheds Association and Pontypridd Mens Shed

Characterising mental illness as some lesser form of disability, or simply an over-medicalisation of everyday life that involves “subjective and unverifiable claims” is invalidating to the lived experiences of people living with serious mental illness, and insulting to those professionals who do not diagnose schizophrenia or bipolar disorder on the basis of self-report. 

Mental health awareness: unintended consequences 

This is the government that not too long ago was funding mental health awareness programmes to encourage people to think about their difficulties in terms of mental health and illness, and to ask for help.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of that has been people misinterpreting challenges to mental health as diagnosable mental illness, but that’s what access to professionals is for – to diagnose, or not.

Yet access to professionals has not increased in line with the demand to see them, and this leaves many with the additional difficulty of feeling overlooked or not sick enough to access care.

Many people who are seriously unwell and disabled by their conditions may get less care as a result of increased demand and insufficient capacity. 

A failure to take responsibility 

The nuanced conversation around mental health awareness is one worth having, but nuanced is not what we are getting from the government in Westminster.

Nor are we getting any sense of responsibility – for failing to anticipate the increased illness and disability burden that comes with pandemic, lockdown, a cost of living crisis, climate breakdown, child poverty, and rampant inequality.

“People are not three times sicker than when I came into power”, says Rishi, but where is the evidence for this?

The government’s complete failure to understand the realities of serious mental illness is made clear by the Prime Minister, in the same breath, talking about those who “really” need help, in contrast to people struggling with mental illness.

For all the talk about supporting the vulnerable during COVID, and “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health, it’s now clear that the Tories were closet Victorians all along: wow we have the undeserving sick as well as the undeserving poor.

A culture of cruelty 

The so-called “sicknote culture” might be worrying, but the culture that seeks to cut the support that people like myself have needed to afford some kind of dignity for a life with incurable disabilities is truly disturbing.

It also doesn’t make sense, as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is paid to anyone who qualifies, irrespective of whether or not you are in work. It isn’t exactly easy to get either.

James Downs

I had to take the DWP to tribunal myself after being owed thousands of pounds in benefits that stopped when my PIP was wrongly taken away – an experience that was profoundly degrading and resulted in admissions to hospital from the impact of the stress on my physical disabilities, and interventions to prevent suicide from the mental health crisis team.

Any disabled person claiming PIP, or unwell person claiming out-of-work benefits, will find Rishi’s description of “the gateway to ill health benefits” completely laughable. 

How do we address increases in disability and illness?

How we can avoid this cruelty involves more than stepping away from using divisive and degrading language about the disabled and mentally ill, or provoking alarm at the prospect of stripping vulnerable people of their financial support – though this would be a good start.

We also need to build a system where people are supported, with compassion, for as long as is needed. 

We need to understand that many disabilities are lifelong, and the extra costs that are involved do not go away when you are lucky enough to find employment that benefits you financially and hopefully in terms of wellbeing, too.

Work is not treatment, or therapy, or the only thing of value that people can participate in.

A kind and compassionate society views investing in providing human dignity and the alleviation of suffering as inherently valuable, too. 

We need a government that will take responsibility for presiding over the managed decline of health services that can no longer provide effective treatment for those who need it, rather than one that blames economic ill health on those who are to be blamed for their own ill health.

We need a government that is serious about creating opportunities for supported work, where suitable, rather than one that talks about a “moral mission” to return people to work but cuts the £100m Work and Health Programme in England and Wales that is designed to do just that. 

A different kind of politics

We know that Rishi Sunak’s government will not do any of this.

So the question is, who will? Maybe we can hope that Labour in Westminster will be different, but Rachel Reeves’ clinging to fiscal rules at any cost often sounds at worst like more of the same, and at best like the possibility of a little more support in the future for people who have been neglected for years already. 

This is not just about money – it’s about the kind of society we want Wales to be.

Do we really want a Cruel Cymru for the disabled as a result of decisions imposed at Westminster?

We don’t have a “sicknote culture” here in Wales, we have sick and disabled people.

We need to share a culture that supports these people, and imagine what other options we have for creating a political system that can sustainably bring a more Compassionate Cymru into being.

James Downs is a mental health campaigner, researcher, psychological therapist and expert by experience in eating disorders.

He lives in Cardiff and can be contacted at @jamesldowns on X and Instagram, or via his website:

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Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
29 days ago

There has been such a stigma and bashing of people on benefits, by the Tories, that much of the general public has been conditioned into thinking anyone on them and not working are scumbags and scroungers. There has been a lot of discrimination and victimisation as a result. It’s wrong. Many genuinely need the help. The cruel Tories believe it to be another vote winner, they’ve no compassion or morals.

26 days ago
Reply to  Steve A Duggan

I agree. There has been a stigma which along with these periodic threats and diminishing healthcare services I’m sure has only worsened many people’s conditions. However, I’m not sure how many people are buying into this bilge anymore. I’m not on social media so I might be missing the tone, but a quick scan of the coverage from the guardian to the gutter press suggests that reporters and commenters alike (with the exception of Julia Brewer-Whatever her name is from GBNews) are rightly sickened by this blatant targeting of the vulnerable. Which makes sense as the likelihood of the average… Read more »

29 days ago

This is who they are after next, who will it be after this attack.

Unless you are well off or rich in this country, they will continue to beat you down. There never is any levelling up apart from any wealth you generate for business. Private health care adverts are increasing on the various outlets, my main take from them is not waiting for treatment. Ring a bell?
Then we have that truly nasty department that is the DWP.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
29 days ago

First they came for the refugees and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a refugee…

Then they came for the mentally ill and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t mentally ill…

Which group of society will be targeted next, will it include me?

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
27 days ago
Reply to  Richard Davies

I am afraid it will be all of us if we don’t wake up and take control of our situation. Any political system imposed out of your own control will not ultimately serve our people and therefore we, in Wales should be making plans for our how we as a nation should serve the peoples of Wales. The UK is an empire on its final chapter. It will collapse as all centralised empires do. We will have to build a country with its own economy and our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. If Welsh Labour’s only… Read more »

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
25 days ago

Totally agree mate!

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
29 days ago

Yet another ploy to stigmatise and cut spending on those with a mental health problem. The services for this group are even worse than the health services available for other problems. Clearly when people need help the tory instinct is to throw them under a bus with Labour following in hot pursuit.

19 days ago

As someone who is physically disabled and also with serious kidney disease I am extremely frightened by their ideas. They are happy to spend vast sums on anyone else but think that we shouldn’t be allowed to decide what we need to spend money on. They have no idea. Who would choose this life?

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