Disabled people have expressed their anger after no-one from either of the coalition parties was willing to speak to thousands of disabled people who had travelled from across the UK to attend this week’s Hardest Hit rally and march in London.
Organisers have now estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 people – the majority of them disabled people – took part in Wednesday’s march to protest at the government’s cuts to disability benefits, its welfare reforms and cuts to services for disabled people.
Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, declined to speak at the rally, while the Liberal Democrat backbench MP Jenny Willott pulled out of speaking the day before the event.
The march – organised by the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) and members of the Disability Benefits Consortium – took place as the coalition government marked its first anniversary.
Julie Newman, UKDPC’s acting chair, told angry protesters that Miller had said she could not speak at the rally because she had to attend prime minister’s questions in the Commons.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said later that Miller was “not able to accept the invite because of other things that were already in her diary”, while a Liberal Democrat spokesman said Willott had pulled out “due to a variety of circumstances”.
Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, told the rally that he believed it was “more important to be here listening to you than sitting over there in the House of Commons listening to the prime minister”.
He praised protesters’ “courage, passion and determination” to “tell people in power the consequences of their actions”.
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, told the rally: “I don’t consider Maria Miller to be minister for disabled people, I consider her to be a minister against disabled people.”
He proposed a motion of no confidence in Miller and the government, drawing a huge roar of approval, followed by near silence when he asked for dissenting voices.
Harrison told the rally that the coalition had “unleashed” an “all-out assault on our rights”.
He said disabled people in Norfolk were losing vital services they rely on for their independence, while people with sight impairments who had moved out of institutions to live independently in the community were having to move back into institutions because of the spending cuts.
He said: “We have come a long way for disabled people with direct action inside and outside the law. We have hard-won rights. We are not going to let them take them away.”
Kirsten Hearn, chair of Inclusion London, said the cuts to disability benefits and services, job losses, rising inflation and high unemployment meant disabled people “just don’t stand a chance”.
She also pointed to the failed work capability assessment, inaccessible workplaces, cuts to Access to Work, and the closure of the Independent Living Fund, as well as threats to equality legislation.
She added: “They say we are all in this together, but some of us are more in it than others.”
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP, said that those who had attended the rally were also representing the many thousands of disabled people who had not been able to travel to the protest.
She said the cause of the budget deficit was “nothing whatsoever to do with the benefits you receive to make your lives both productive and worthwhile”.
Gerry Hart, a 16-year-old member of Darlington Association on Disability’s Young Leaders group, attacked the coalition’s “blatant lies” and added: “I for one will not stand by while this coalition destroys the welfare of the people it is supposed to be caring for.”
After the event, Newman said the non-appearance of anyone from the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats to speak at the rally – or even to send a message of support or an apology – was “shoddy” and “made people think the government does not have any regard for what disabled people are saying”.
She said “masses and masses” of disabled people had lobbied MPs after the march, which passed in front of the Houses of Parliament.
When asked for a reaction to the rally and march, a DWP spokeswoman said: “We are reforming welfare to make sure that the billions we spend on benefits goes to those who need it and that for the first time disabled people get proper help and support to live independent lives and work in the mainstream jobs that they want.”
She said the current system was “not fit for purpose and is failing disabled people”.
The day after the rally, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services released a new survey of its members – completed by 98 per cent of them – showing that English local authorities were planning to cut spending on adult social care by nearly £1 billion this year, with nearly a quarter of the cuts coming through “service reductions”.