Social Justice

DWP sparks protests by disability activists over benefit sanctions and 'inhumane deaths'

Protestors blocked roads outside Parliament and demonstrated in cities around the UK in warning work capability assessment changes could lead to more deaths of disabled people on benefits

DWP benefits protest

Activists from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) across the country came together on 4 March to protest against the government’s plans to change the disability benefits system again. Image: Chronic Collaboration

“They say sanctions are issued as a last resort but is missing two meetings a last resort? He wasn’t a criminal, he worked all his life.” These were the words of Gillian Thompson about her brother David Clapton. David was an insulin-dependent diabetic who had served in the armed forces for eight years, prior to his death he cared for his mother, who had died 20 months before him. After missing two meetings at the Jobcentre, David had his benefits stopped. He was found dead five days later in 2013.

Ahead of the chancellor’s Spring Budget, activists from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) across the country came together on Monday (4 March) to protest against the government’s plans to change the disability benefits system again.

DWP disability benefits deaths
Protesters around the country warned disability benefits policies were driving deaths. Image: Chronic Collaboration

Under plans announced last autumn, the DWP plans to change the work capability assessment, making thousands ineligible for the extra support with plans to eventually scrap them. This will mean thousands who are too ill or disabled will be forced to look for work. 

DPAC and other campaigners have warned the move could lead to many more deaths on top of others that have already died after being sanctioned or being declared fit for work. Protests took place in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Norwich and London.

“We are calling for active resistance across the UK to these brutal attacks on disabled people,” DPAC announced at the London protest, which saw the group bring the fight to the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) doorstep, outside Caxton House. Speakers such as Gillian, Winvisible (a group campaigning for disabled women’s rights) and campaigner Paula Peters of DPAC called for no more ‘inhumane’ sanctions and denials of benefits. “Benefit sanctions have no place in our society, they’re cruel, barbaric and inhumane and they have to stop,” said Gillian.

DWP disability benefits deaths protests
Protesters even got four-legged supporters involved. Image: Chronic Collaboration

Ellen Clifford, a member of DPAC’s national steering group and author of The War on Disabled People told the Big Issue: “Government ministers say the way out of poverty is through paid work but realistically some disabled people are either too ill, in too much pain or mental distress to be able to work and employers don’t want us. A social safety net actually helps disabled people to take part in what activity we can, including paid employment. People pay their taxes expecting them to go towards supporting those most in need.”

The group then moved along from the DWP base to block traffic into Parliament for over an hour, during which time the police attempted to disperse and move on protestors. DPAC chose to end the protest after members of their group became actively distressed by the police presence.

Peters said: “Fourteen years of brutal austerity cuts have come with a heavy price. Tens of thousands of disabled people have died as a result. We must continue to campaign, highlight what’s happening and hold this pernicious government to account.“

DWP disability benefits deaths protests
As well as London, protests were held in Newcastle, Norwich, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Image: DPAC North East

In Newcastle, protesters held court around the historic Greys Monument, demanding an end to cuts. Protesters also claimed that the majority of disabled benefits deaths happened in the North East.

“The North East is already part of a pilot which sees disabled people’s welfare payments go down even further as part of universal credit reforms, when so many are having to choose between not just heating or eating but forgoing food so we can afford to power our wheelchairs and ventilators,” said Francesca, an organiser with DPAC North East told Big Issue.

“The disabled people’s movement won me my rights to accessible transport, employment and independent living – it’s horrific to see our rights being rolled back but history is on our side that we will win our fight to put a stop to these murderous policies.”

Nicola Jeffery, co-founder of campaign group the Chronic Collaboration, told Big Issue she joined the protest after fighting to be believed for her own disabilities and get support.

DWP disability benefits deaths protests
Chronic Collaboration founder Nicola Jeffery. Image: Chronic Collaboration

“I am very proud to stand with the people I stood with today and I don’t care what the police say, they are on the wrong side of history, they are complicit and we need to make a stand.”

She urged others to “come and stand with us, we are going to fight this oppressive government. We will make a difference.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We support millions of disabled people every year and we will always prioritise protecting and safeguarding the most vulnerable. The welfare system encourages and supports people into work, while providing a vital safety net for those who need it.

“Our reforms to the Work Capability Assessment are being made with careful consideration of all feedback, whilst our Chance to Work Guarantee will mean millions can try work without the fear of losing their benefits.”

The Metropolitan Police has been contacted for comment.

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