By Blind Pew

I was lucky enough to attend a Hustings event hosted by Disability Agenda Scotland the other day. The audience comprised disabled voters from six different Disability Charities, plus their guides and carers, along with representatives from the six charities represented by DAS.

The panel was composed of five politicians from the main parties. These were Jamie Hepburn, SNP; Zara Kitson, Greens; Robert Brown, Liberal Democrats; Michael Shanks, Labour; Graeme Brooks, conservatives.

The main thing that struck me about the event was the cross-Party agreement on almost every matter. There was sympathetic understanding and a general commitment to helping the Disabled from all panel members and there were also some excellent suggestions for how things could perhaps be improved, especially from Zara Kitson of the Greens. There was very little Party political axe-grinding although Robert Brown of the Lib Dems did manage to slip in a mention of State Guardians in his opening remark when he briefly touched on the Named Persons legislation and Michael Shanks of Scottish Labour plugged the 1p tax increase several times, while Jamie Hepburn reminded the audience of measures the Scottish Government have already taken to help Disabled people. Other than that, it was refreshing to see that four of the five panel members used the term, “Social Security" rather than “Welfare Benefits" and agreed that the current system is grossly unfair to the Disabled. As you would expect, the one exception was Graeme Brooks of the Conservatives who insisted that making cuts to Social Security payments was not the UK Government’s main aim but that the Tory Welfare reform was aimed at getting people out of their beds and into work. As if this wasn’t enough to anger people who often struggle physically to get out of bed, he also managed to outrage most of the audience with some bizarre comments that it was Westminster democracy which prevented George Osborne’s budget attempt to impose further cuts and that this wonderful example of democracy was far better than the alternative which, in his mind, would be gangs of people roaming the streets armed with guns. For me, the most worrying thing was that he seemed absolutely sincere in his views. Quite how he squares his professed attachment to Christianity with the actions of the Tory Government is, I confess, beyond me. That apart, though, the discussion was generally positive from all panel members.

The other main feature was the universal anger and sense of helpless betrayal felt by the majority of the audience. The cuts, the move from DLA to PIP and the closure of many lifeline services and centres were of great concern, as was the low pay available to most workers in the care sector and the derisory sums paid via the Carer’s Allowance. Employment was also a major concern, with a general acknowledgement that Disabled people still face considerable issues, not to mention discrimination, when trying to get into work.

The panel were in general agreement that the current system is failing Disabled people but, while it was nice to know that these politicians were listening seriously to the grievances, the one big problem that was often alluded to but rarely discussed in any detail, was the serious funding issue. Of course, this was a Disability Hustings and a detailed discussion on the economic situation would not have been appropriate but the ideas and ambitions of each Party (apart from the Tories) were, unfortunately, all doomed to be hampered by the cuts to Scotland’s budget. Even Labour’s much-vaunted tax increase will not necessarily affect this since they seem to have allocated the estimated increased revenue to cover an awful lot of things and Disability Benefits will inevitably be in competition for whatever money such a system might raise.

This was an interesting and worthwhile event and all the panellists, with one exception, spoke well and were clearly well-intentioned. Hopefully, whichever Party is in power after the Holyrood elections will organise some sort of cross-Party support for further measures to mitigate the effect of the Tory policies which deliberately discriminate against the Disabled. It is a shocking indictment of those policies that the other Parties recognise the need to do something about them but, sadly, unless there is a reversal of the crippling Austerity Economics pursued by Westminster, it seems Scotland is doomed to fight an ongoing battle against these cuts. What was good to know is that, with the exception of the Tories, the other Parties professed a desire to try to do something to alleviate the many difficulties faced by Disabled people. Let’s hope that consensus view has a chance to blossom in the next Holyrood Parliament and the current Opposition Parties turn their fine words into deeds.