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‘The way disabled people are treated is almost Dickensian’

JARED O’MARA tells the Star why he is on a ‘crusade’ to put disability rights at the centre of Labour’s agenda for change

There were so many high points during the election last June that it can be difficult to pick a favourite — the exit poll, Canterbury, the victory in Kensington after its die-hard Tory occupant forced two recounts.

But the richly deserved defenestration of Nick Clegg from Sheffield Hallam is definitely a contender, and the man who did it stands out as one to watch even in a crowded field of excellent new MPs on the Labour benches.

The first MP with cerebral palsy says he is on a “crusade” to put disability rights at the centre of Labour’s agenda for change, and holds that despite one in five people having a disability as defined by the Equality Act, their struggle is still not accorded the same importance as those of other victims of discrimination.

“We need the non-disabled majority to stand with us,” Jared O’Mara says.

“You see how fervent non-BME people are about campaigning against racism, or how passionate non-LGBTQ people are about LGBTQ rights?

“That’s commendable, but I feel sometimes the problems facing disabled people get a bit lost and we need to be shown the same solidarity.”

As in so many areas, years of slow and hard-fought progress on equal rights for disabled people has been swept aside in seven years of Conservative and Liberal Democrat “austerity.”

O’Mara tells me things have got “profoundly worse” for disabled people as the Department for Work and Pensions spearheaded what he terms a “witch hunt” trying to prove people with serious illnesses were “fit for work.”

Whatever the rhetoric about modernising the system, the replacement of the disability living allowance (DLA) with the personal independence payment (PIP) was essentially a cost-cutting exercise, with hundreds of thousands losing support.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimated last year that the cut would cost 290,000 disabled people an average £4,100 a year.

The horror stories are now familiar — rushed assessments by bungling privateers Atos and Capita, “targets” for cutting benefits meaning assessors made decisions before even seeing the vulnerable people they were judging, thousands dying after being declared “fit for work.”

The recent sanctioning of Alan Barnham, who assessed PIP claims for Capita, exposed the callous abuse of power by a nasty man. But it also exposed a system designed to encourage exactly that: “Getting as many reports through the door as we possibly could — [doing] as much as possible before meeting a claimant,” as he told the professional standards tribunal.

“The way we’ve been treated is almost Dickensian,” O’Mara contends.

“What’ll they do next? Bring back the workhouse? I don’t think that’s melodramatic.

“All these inquisitions have seen people with very severe illnesses falling by the wayside. Too many people don’t understand the correlation between cutting benefits and people being able to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.

“We’ve seen cuts towards local authority budgets, to mental health spending, cuts across the board.

“We’ve seen an increase in all forms of homelessness.”

The number of people sleeping rough in England more than doubled between 2010 and 2016, but O’Mara points out that there are “many nuances of homelessness” — he knows a mentally ill constituent who was forced out of his home by the bedroom tax and is now forced to sofa-surf in between periods on the streets.

“He is one of many who have been literally cast to the kerb.”

Shortly before we met, Britain was chastised by the United Nations for breaching the rights of disabled people and failing to consider the impact of cuts to their lives.

The Tories insist that they had no choice but to cut spending — a mantra regurgitated again by O’Mara’s old adversary Clegg this month, when he whined that Labour was “demonising austerity.”

But the new MP for Sheffield Hallam is having none of it.
“This is about transferring wealth ultimately,” he says. “We’re seeing tax breaks for millionaires and huge amounts of tax avoided and evaded while these attacks on the weakest are taking place.

“The reason is that the Tories want the money that our great welfare state, created by the Labour Party, would spend on providing for people’s needs to be redirected into their friends’ bank accounts.”

The sheer hypocrisy of the Tories’ demand that disabled people magically find work was revealed when the Cameron government simultaneously took the axe to the Remploy factories, some of the only disabled-friendly places of work in the country.

“Absolutely. Look at the literature from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There’s nothing on the provision of jobs that are suitable.”

And the cuts have fallen against a backdrop of hostile coverage of the disabled, resulting in a rise in disability hate crime of over 40 per cent in 2015-16.

“It’s to do with this rhetoric of skivers and shirkers,” says O’Mara, “as well as programmes like Benefits Street, which feed a narrative of disabled people as comedic or grotesque.

“There’s nothing new about that of course — people with disabilities have always been laughed at in circuses and displayed in freak shows.

“There’s also paradoxically been some negative consequences to the positive press around the Paralympics — with people saying: ‘Oh, well if a Paralympian can do that surely all disabled people can manage.’

“Though actually even Paralympians have been suffering, seeing their benefits slashed after doing Britain proud at Olympic events.”

O’Mara is referring to cases like that of wheelchair athlete Carly Tait, one of 59,000 who lost her motability car after PIP assessments.

Disability rights has been a passion of O’Mara’s since his childhood.

“I knew how tough things were for me — and while it’s not a competition, I knew that in the grand scheme of things my condition was not nearly as limiting as some others’.”

O’Mara explains to me the social model of disability, which distinguishes the impairment — the “physical, mental or emotional condition, in my case cerebral palsy” — and the disability, which is socially inflicted on the disabled individual by unequal treatment and the denial of opportunities.

“This is one of the most important issues in the country and for me it will be a focus of my work as a Labour MP.

“There have been MPs who have done great work around disability rights, including the late Lord Ashley of Stoke and David Blunkett, but I’ve not seen an MP who made it their mission as I intend to.

“We need to start standing up and getting angry — the work being done by Disabled People Against Cuts is absolutely inspirational. These people are fighters. We need more in terms of direct action, and we need to stop being embarrassed about bothering people or being annoying.

“I’m not going to let people bully me into silence or say I’m a one-trick pony because I’ve decided this is an injustice. I’m going to make my cause.”

O’Mara is certainly not worried about charting his own course in Parliament, an institution he criticises as archaic and, in the chamber, needlessly aggressive and intimidating.

“I’m not like the smooth young politicians who came through in the Blair days,” he laughs, saying nobody in Labour expected him to win in Sheffield — “and I doubt they’d ever have given me a safe seat!”

Still, Labour is changing, and O’Mara is thrilled to be part of that.
“I want to see us come out of this conference with unity,” he says. “I think we can work together and we can win the next election.

“People have seen the prime minister in Jeremy Corbyn now. I know there was scepticism in the PLP, but look at what he did in the election campaign — it was brilliant. He is a great communicator and has put an ocean between us and the Conservatives.”

Jared O’Mara is MP for Sheffield Hallam. Ben Chacko is the Morning Star’s editor.

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