Opinion

Instead of helping disabled people, Rishi Sunak wants to force us to work ourselves to death

Disability rights journalist Rachel Charlton-Dailey expresses outcry at Rishi Sunak's speech at the Conservative Party Conference, where he spoke more about smoking than benefits.

Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak delivering his speech at the Conservative party conference. Image: BBC

“It’s time for a change and we are it.” This is how Rishi Sunak, the man who has been in charge for almost a year and in the Tory cabinet for five, rallied the Conservative Party Conference against the powers of Westminster.

He also said “politics doesn’t work” and that it hasn’t for the past 30 years. This is despite his party being in power for 17 of those 30 years. 

The prime minister’s remarks about trans people and immigrants were deplorable even for this government, but it’s not my place to write about them. As a disability rights journalist, however, I was shocked but not surprised at the way he spoke about those on benefits. 

There was barely any mention of the cost of living crisis, beyond him saying he would make it better. He spoke for 37 minutes before mentioning disability, so imagine my shock when he announced they would be tackling “the single biggest cause of ill health, disability and death”.

No, not 13 years of a government that has killed countless disabled people by denying them things such as benefits and housing. Or the fact that we’re in the middle of both a mass-disabling event and the biggest cost of living crisis in decades.  

He was of course talking about smoking. 

This is not to downplay the effects of smoking, which absolutely does cause the majority of cancers and many other health problems, but this plan of his to ensure children never smoke by raising the smoking age every year wouldn’t benefit people people as much as pledging long term support and research into long-Covid. 

He then moved on to shouting about stopping the boats before telling everyone his values were “service, family, work”. This led nicely to him bragging about how great he thought he handled furlough during the pandemic. Of course, he didn’t mention how Eat Out to Help Out led to a spike in Covid-19 or that pushing businesses to return to normal led to disabled people having to choose between their jobs or their lives. 

Which is why it was baffling that straight after patting himself on the back for his part in the pandemic response, he then expressed disbelief at how 65% of those attending work capability assessments were deemed not fit for work last year. 

“Are people three times sicker today than they were a decade ago? No, of course not,” he laughed after mentioning the figure was up from one in five in 2011.  

It’s as if we haven’t just spent three years in a pandemic which created hundreds of thousands of disabled people. Or that said pandemic and the government’s lack of action affected disabled people the hardest, with six in 10 deaths being disabled people. 

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He spoke about benefits for just 58 seconds, with no action on how we help those who can’t work. Instead, as many of his colleagues do, he assumed everyone deemed not fit for work was actually faking it and actually can. By contrast, he spoke for more than five minutes about smoking.  

Of course, Rishi Sunak isn’t offering these people support or easing the burden of the cost of living crisis, no he just wants to force them back into work. “It’s a tragedy for those 2 million people being written off. I refuse to accept this and that is why we are going to change the rules so that those who can work, do work.” 

I don’t know about you but what I think is a tragedy is that after 13 years of being demonised and subjected to cruel assessments, cuts and being left to die, disabled people are now being treated like, to quote Jeremy Hunt, “workshy benefit shirkers”.  

Instead of supporting disabled people, who are some of the worse off thanks to the Tories, the prime minister wants to force us to work ourselves to death. But isn’t that quintessentially true Tory values? 

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