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‘After I met DWP secretary James Purnell, he went home and resigned. If only I could do the same thing again’

Richard House talks to disability rights activist LINDA BURNIP about her campaigning, her achievements and giving evidence to the UN

Richard House (RH): Linda, DPAC is legendary for the direct and fearless campaigning you do for this most just of causes. Can you tell us first about your own background and how DPAC came into existence?

Linda Burnip (LB): I come originally from the north-east and have spent much of my life campaigning for rights and change either in my early years as a Nupe shop steward in a very militant union branch or later against Thatcher’s Tory cuts to health services and education attacks, through neoliberal Labour Party changes to Local Housing Allowance, which were the original bedroom tax cuts and latterly since 2010 campaigning to reverse the savage cuts imposed on disabled people by the Tories and Lib Dems.

If only I could do the same to all DWP secretaries of state as I did to James Purnell, I’d be happy. After we met he went home and resigned. I’m hoping to meet Esther McVey in the very near future.

I’ve always believed in equality and social justice and that public services should be run for the benefit of those they serve rather than to make profits for faceless shareholders. 

This seems to me rational rather than specifically “left-wing,” though my politics have previously been described as somewhere to the left of Trotsky.

DPAC was originally set up in response to the first Tory Budget, starting life as “Disabled People’s Protest” when we had a disabled people’s section marching against the Tories in Birmingham in October 2010. 

We knew disabled people would have to fight to stop their rights being slowly stripped away. We marched in the pouring rain, but from then on DPAC grew and grew until today our reach through social media is around half a million, with thousands of formal members.

RH: It’s difficult not to be in awe at what you and DPAC have done and are doing. Regarding former DWP minister James Purnell, perhaps Justine Greening’s declining to become DWP minister showed distaste for DWP treatment of disabled people. Can you describe some actual experience of being involved in DPAC? And what are its most notable achievements to date?

LB: Debbie Jolly, a very important person involved in establishing DPAC and how it operates, and I were both determined that DPAC should be about and for the many not the few — a movement for real change and not a platform for the glorification of any particular individual.

DPAC depends on the input of many people in many different ways — without them, DPAC as it exists wouldn’t have evolved. 

No-one involved with DPAC would suddenly have a miraculous recovery if offered £75,000 pa to go and work for Maximus or any other odious money-grabbing corporation.

We’re completely independent with no formal funding and everyone contributes what they do voluntarily because they’re committed to human rights for disabled people. 

While DPAC is run by disabled people, we welcome input and support from non-disabled allies.

We’re well-known for our direct actions, which are necessary to make ourselves heard by politicians and others who otherwise seem oblivious to our existence or who seem to wish to punish us simply for being disabled. 

These are perhaps the fun part of being involved with DPAC. It’s where we come together to protest and where we share a common goal — very empowering, especially for people whose voices are often ignored. 

We’ll continue to fight in any way we can against the many attacks the Tories continue to heap down on disabled people and we’ll not be silenced.

Our main focus for protests and direct actions has varied. Our first protests were monthly outside Atos head office in Triton Square — protests which had a party-type feel to them. 

We’ve also held tea parties and other protests outside DWP head office in Tothill Street. 

Once we turned up to find they’d put out barriers to form a cage that they seriously expected us to go into. 

More recently we’ve moved ever closer to Parliament via Westminster Abbey, which we tried to occupy a few years ago. 
Parliament is, after all, where politicians who vote to decimate the lives of disabled people are based, so we need to keep taking our demands to them.

Many disabled people can’t physically join us at these events either because they’ve no support due to cuts to care and support funding or due to the limitations of their impairments. 

So whenever we have a visible street protest we aim to have something people can do from their own homes in support. 
It’s important to us that no-one’s excluded and that all have a way in which to make their voices heard.

On a day-to-day basis we provide peer support to people who email us or contact us via social media. 

This can be traumatic, as some of the horrors disabled people are subjected to have a longer-term impact on our own mental health. 

It’s purely luck that we too aren’t forced to suffer similarly, but it’s also this that helps keep us angry and even more determined to fight back.

Importantly, as we campaign from a social model perspective, we don’t say that disabled people suffer or are vulnerable because of their impairments but because of the way they’re treated by society and what a neoliberal capitalist system subjects them to. 

We get huge numbers of wide-ranging emails and, as I don’t live in London, I do much of the backroom things rather than going to meetings or speaking there. 

This commonly means that by lunchtime I’ve responded to over 20 queries on different topics, which can leave my head spinning a bit.
DPAC also has a vibrant research team who were, with myself and Debbie, solely responsible for providing the damning evidence to the UN which led to Tory-led Britain being the first country to be investigated using the Optional Protocols in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

We presented incontrovertible evidence of at least 40 grave systematic rights violations, leading to an unprecedented investigation by the UN disability committee. 

This record of Tory government atrocities against disabled people can never be unwritten and will exist for eternity. 

RH: Can you say something about DPAC long-term aims and whether you think we’ll ever have a society in which DPAC isn’t needed any longer?

LB: Our longer-term aim is not just to reverse the attacks on disabled people’s human rights that have rained down on us since 2010 but to seek real systemic change so disabled people are fully included in society and have equality and social justice in all areas of life. 

This won’t happen until we have an education system that’s fully inclusive for every disabled child. That really would be systemic change.

Linda Burnip is a disability rights activist aka a pain in the government’s backside. Richard House is a Corbynista activist based in Stroud, Gloucestershire. For more information about DPAC or to make a donation visit dpac.uk.net.

 

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