Westminster Hall Debate: Disabilities, Poverty and Inequalities

Posted on 25 Feb 2016 under Latest in Parliament

Natalie McGarry (Glasgow East) (Ind): I beg to move,

That this House has considered disabilities, poverty and inequalities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and an honour to have secured this debate, which is on an issue that is vital to people in all parts of the country. I also thank my colleagues for coming along to consider the association between disabilities and poverty, as well as organisations such as Inclusion Scotland and Disability Rights UK, which have been so kind in assisting me in my preparation for this debate. It is my real hope that this debate will contribute to putting this issue more firmly on the Government’s agenda and that the Minister will commit today to doing more to address it.

Ours is a disabling society. Some are born impaired. Some acquire impairments, some of which are visible and others invisible. All of us at some time will feel the invisible agency of a society that is organised for the convenience of able bodies. It is a society that adds to disabilities. Poverty and inequality affect a hugely diverse range of people in every constituency represented in this Parliament, but those living with disabilities especially and disproportionately face economic hardship, which for too long successive Governments have failed to tackle effectively.

While headline poverty rates suggest that disabled people are around 10% more likely to be in poverty than the population at large, it is generally thought that those figures significantly underestimate the scale of the problem. As is so often the case, the statistics fail to take into account the acutely increased costs and pressures that disabled people can face. Indeed, we know that the link between inequality and disability is reciprocal.

On the one hand, the high costs associated with living with a disability can push disabled people and their families into poverty, as many struggle with the greater costs of care, accommodation and transport. Recent research from the disability charity Scope has shown that disabled people spend an average of £550 per month on disability-related expenses—things such as taxis, increased heating and electricity consumption and the cost of maintaining equipment. As a result, those with disabilities are twice as likely to have unsecured debt totalling over half of their income, and they have on average £108,000 fewer savings and assets than non-disabled people.

On the other hand, the health and social inequalities that are so acutely felt in more deprived areas can contribute to a higher rate of disability in the most disadvantaged communities of the country. We need to recognise that being born into and growing up in poverty can have profound impacts on a child’s health, wellbeing and fitness at birth and in later life.

Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions demonstrate the extent of the disparities between more and less advantaged communities in the UK. It may be an imperfect measure of the total incidence of disability, but the DWP’s own figures on personal independence payments show that people in more affluent areas are less likely to require disability-related support. In the Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney, 405 people received PIP in October 2015. In Chingford and Woodford Green, represented by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 495 claimants were paid PIP, while 680 constituents of the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People received that support. Take as a contrast my constituency of Glasgow East, where in October 2015 1,806 people received personal independence payments. It is astonishing that my constituents are a staggering four and a half times more likely than the Prime Minister’s to be in receipt of crucial disability-related support.

Too often at my surgeries and around my constituency, I meet people whose experience of poverty has contributed to or exacerbated their disability and whose financial security is threatened every month by disability-related costs. Despite plenty of evidence that this is a deep-rooted structural issue, we have so far failed to assert the sharp focus that is so desperately required to build sustained progress for disabled people and remove the links between disability and poverty. Our collective failure to do so is harming families across the country.

Today in the UK, a third of people in poverty live in a household with at least one disabled person. One in three children in Scotland who live with a disabled adult live in poverty, compared with one in five children living in poverty who do not live with a disabled adult. Disabled people can face increased cost pressures, and families with a disabled member face disproportionately a serious social gradient.

Research for the organisation Parenting across Scotland has found that families living with disability find it even more difficult to make ends meet, with 54% of parents in Scotland with a disability finding it more difficult to pay the bills than a year ago, compared with 29% of non-disabled parents. Some 25% of disabled parents in Scotland report problems getting affordable credit, compared with 8% of non-disabled parents. Meanwhile, 26% of disabled parents were being paid less than the real living wage, compared with 10% of non-disabled parents. It is clear that families living with disability are disproportionately and unacceptably bearing the brunt of the economic inequality that increasingly defines our society.

Wealthy families in Britain are a third less likely to have a disabled child—a statistic that reveals an alarming social gradient, because those families are pushed further into poverty by the pressures of caring for those children. People with disabilities and impairments are some of the poorest and most marginalised in the country. Academics at the University of Warwick’s School of Health and Social Studies published a paper in BMC Pediatrics showing that families bringing up a disabled child are at least £50 a week worse off than those without.

A family bringing up a child with a disability will face 18% higher costs in their family budget. That is because, for example, a disabled baby needs more nappies. A family’s ability to work and find affordable childcare is a real burden. Households with disabled children will depend more on social security benefits and face the additional financial costs associated with caring for a disabled child. Fuel costs for specially adapted cars are often higher than average, and the fact that those with the most severe disabilities have to attend hospitals and clinics weekly or even daily for therapies and treatments can have an enormous impact on family budgets.

Extra energy costs are also incurred because homes often have to be kept warmer in order to protect people with disabilities from colds and bugs, to which they are especially vulnerable. Disabled children living in poverty are often housebound due to the nature of their condition, and for those with the most severe disabilities, a warm home can truly mean the difference between life and death.

If we are ever to break the poverty-disability link, we need a long-term plan to tackle deprivation, lift communities out of poverty and ensure a decent standard of living for every single person in our country. While the UK Government’s policies are sadly taking us in the wrong direction in that respect, I know there are Members on all sides of the House who agree we need to do more to ensure a better quality of life for disabled people across the UK.

Of course, this issue affects a great many people not only in this country but in every corner of the world, and there is an important international dimension to the debate. Globally, one in seven people have a disability, and 80% of disabled people around the world live in poverty. In the developing world, we see the same reciprocal relationship between poverty and disability, only with even more striking effects. In a great many countries, people living in poverty simply do not have adequate access to the healthcare, clean water and sanitation that we in the UK take for granted. As a result, they are even more vulnerable to malnutrition and disease. They are also more likely to live and work in dangerous or disaster-prone areas, all of which means that poor people in the developing world are more likely to acquire an impairment that leads to disability.

Disabled people in the developing world, as is the case here, can also too often find themselves excluded from healthcare, education, employment and opportunities to participate in their communities, meaning that those living with disabilities often constitute the poorest people in the poorest countries on earth. The Government’s international development agenda has recognised the specific need to assist disabled people, but non-governmental organisations and charities, such as CBM UK, are telling us that more needs to be done by the Department for International Development.

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