On Wednesday 11 May thousands of disabled people and their supporters marched to parliament on the 'Hardest Hit' demonstration. They demanded an end to cuts that are placing the burden of the financial crisis on society's most vulnerable. I'm not good at judging large demonstrations, but there were easily 2000 people present and likely more.
That large numbers were mobilised shows the sense of moral outrage many feel towards a cabinet that expects the disabled to manage on significantly reduced benefits and with much less support whilst searching for jobs that exist only in ministers' wildest fantasies. I spoke to Brian Davis, a member of GMB who came to the demonstration with Remploy, which represents disabled workers. He explained the problems people are facing.
"Two years ago they closed 28 factories that employed disabled workers, this year 760 people have been given voluntary redundancy, some factories now have only twenty to thirty people working in them. Trainees are being brought in, but none of them are being taken on. People don't know what they'll be going on in their factory next week. People I know are on anti-depressants, two people who took voluntary redundancy have committed suicide and two are in prison. The government expects everyone to work, but benefits are being cut and there aren't any jobs. We want the government to tell us Remploy is safe."
I also learned from Dave Bean, PCS Vice President (personal capacity), that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is facing 68% cuts - which he said would mean a 68% cut in jobs. Cuts to the service would have a detrimental impact on the disabled as around 48% of the calls the EHRC receives are from disabled people. The EHRC workers have been balloted over action, though there is no information on the PCS website about a strike and people are called to sign a petition and write to their MP. Dave Bean agreed that unity between public sector workers and service users is important and said "we deliver the service - we want to deliver a good and proper service."
Before the march a rally was held. The platform was quite apolitical, with a lot of speakers from charities. The actress Jane Asher, the opening speaker and president of Arthritis Care, the National Autistic Society and the Parkinson's Disease Society, seemed to express contradictory views. Initially she said that "there need to be savings", criticising David Cameron, who "promised that savings would protect the vulnerable". However, she said that the demonstration was "calling on the government to put a stop to the cuts". Both Liam Byrne (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) and Dame Anne Begg spoke from the Labour Party, both had plenty of rhetoric, but little to suggest in terms of action. Liam Byrne said that demonstrators needed to "tell the government that there is a different way" and to support him in "tabling amendment after amendment" to the Welfare Reform Bill.
It was left to a disabled student, Gerry Hart, from the Darlington Association of Disability, to point out that the Coalition's actions were a response to 'inherent faults of the capitalist system' and draw comparisons with last year's student demonstrations and the fight against the poll tax. Mark Smith from the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People pointed out that disabled rights were won through direct action, "both inside and outside of the law" and that disabled people cannot allow these hard won rights to be given up.