As Frances Ryan writes in this blistering polemic, Britain faces fundamental questions about what kind of society it wants to be. Will we choose a survival-of-the‑fittest system, in which poverty and disability are treated as moral failings, deserving of punishment? Or are we prepared to face our own vulnerability, recognise our shared humanity, and rebuild our welfare state?
Ryan, a Guardian columnist, makes clear just how far we have fallen over what she evocatively calls the “precipice of national character”. Over six chapters she sets out the many ways in which disabled people have been made to pay since the financial crash. In Poverty we learn how the cumulative impact of benefit changes – cuts to council tax support, the bedroom tax, increased sanctions – has pushed an estimated 650,000 disabled people into destitution.
The chapter on Work considers how parts of the media reviled disabled people as fakes and “benefit cheats” in the early years of austerity, laying the groundwork for a new, punitive system of benefits assessment. By 2016, there were 3,700 benefit investigators – five times as many as investigate tax evasion (benefit fraud costs the taxpayer £1.3bn a year, while the tax gap caused by unpaid taxes is around £35bn). At the same time, the support that had been in place to help disabled people into work was stripped away.
Chapters on Independence and Housing look at how these problems have been compounded by cuts to social care services. It is a miserable catalogue of penny-pinching: meals on wheels being scrapped; disabled people being charged for care visits, or left alone and unable to wash or eat; Motability cars taken away, leaving people housebound; people being refused wheelchairs and/or essential alterations to their homes. One particularly shocking example is that of Robert, a tetraplegic man housed in a second floor flat with no lift access; in order to leave his home, his carer has to drag him down the stairs.
In Women and Children, Ryan examines how these groups have been particularly impacted by austerity: in some tragic cases the loss of benefits and support services for disabled mothers has led to their children being taken into care. Hundreds of thousands of children have been left looking after their disabled parents in the absence of state services. All of this is harder to challenge because of cuts to legal aid.
I wonder if the book might have been better structured as a series of case studies, which would have dialled down the polemic and encouraged more empathy. Ryan has a devastating case to make; the question is: are we ready to listen?
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