In a series of interviews, Able Magazine is speaking to the major political parties about disability issues and the forthcoming General Election.
Jonathan Bartley, is the co-leader of the Green Party and was interviewed by Able Magazine editor, Tom Jamison.
Disabled people might know you best as the person that challenged former Prime Minister, David Cameron about the segregation of disabled children in schools, back in 2010. What’s the state, in your view, of that particular issue?
I don’ think it’s good. Under the guise of choice, we’re seeing an increasingly segregated system with a lot of children being excluded because of their disabilities, by the back door; for example, through managed moves. Particularly those that are labelled as having behavioural problems. That tends to be more about the environment and an inability of schools to be equipped properly for disabled children to be included.
With cuts to schools, quite often it’s SEN budgets that are being cut by schools because they don’t know where else to cut. Teachers are not being equipped properly and there isn’t a proper emphasis on disability awareness in teacher training colleges.
Governments seem to get confused by the idea if individual requirements…
The drive within education is to produce units to compete in a global marketplace – and in the context of Brexit that seems to be even more the case. The Government gets the social model of disability but it’s very much become a medical model of disability which locates the ‘problems’ with the child or the adult – and doesn’t see that the issue is with the barriers – and that’s as true in the transport system as it is in the workplace – and it’s true in education. There’s an awful lot of work to do in that respect.
(Despite) the cuts to welfare, the Government recognises that there is a group of people who by their own acknowledgment are too sick to work but they are still cutting their benefits by a quarter, as if somehow cutting their benefits will force them into work. So it’s really confused and messed up. It doesn’t have a coherent policy or plan. The emphasis is not on removing the barriers.
The fact that we have a public transport system that, even in London, that the majority of which is inaccessible is a form of transport apartheid.
It is down to political will. The problems are the barriers – and the barriers can be overcome.
We can and should be so much better; we’re the fifth richest country in the World – and we have been, in the past, at the forefront of disability rights. It seems to have come to a grinding halt and those rights have been undermined.
Do you put this down to complacency?
You could say it’s complacency, you could say it’s ignorance. I think there are reasons. For example, you look in the House of Commons and it’s not representative – in many respects. You haven’t got the voices in Parliament who can bring that experience and wisdom to bear.
One of the reasons I’m doing this job-share as co-Party Leader with Caroline Lucas is because I support my son and I need to spend time going to hospital appointments and fighting those battles with social services, public transport, direct payments: you name it…! The MPs aren’t really experiencing the real world; they’re in that bubble.
Give that there are millions of disabled people in the UK, why has no party really targeted them strategically in the same way that pensioners are?
It’s also about the voting system. In a General Election like this one, where it’s ‘first past the post’ and because there are many ‘safe seats’, there are really only a few hundred seats that ever really change hands. It’s a few hundred thousand voters in these seats that determine the outcome of elections and because disabled people are spread out across the country, they don’t have the clout to determine the outcome. If we had a proportional system and suddenly all of the disabled people voted for the party that best represented them, suddenly you’d have a massive change – and parties falling over one-another to get those votes.
There are wider systemic things that must be changed in order to bring about that reform in the heart of Parliament.
So the point of our job share is, for example, when they closed the independent Living Fund, Caroline was inside Parliament speaking in the debate and I was outside on Westminster Bridge, blocking the traffic with disabled activists, supporting them.
There needs to be more activism because we are seeing again, public spaces like libraries close down, which disabled people might be disproportionately affected by, as well as other support services in the community being cut. Increasingly, disabled people are being marginalised, segregated and pushed out in public spaces – so they’re not visible.
Where disabled people have won rights in the past, it has been about being visible.
What struck me, when I had the confrontation with David Cameron in 2010 was that over the next 24 hours we had a debate about disabled children.
What specific policies of yours should disabled people take notice of?
It’s also about challenging the lie of austerity. We are having a very dishonest conversation about tax at the moment. Every party knows that after this General Election, taxes will have to go up. Austerity has failed manifestly. Everyone else in the world gets it.
Taxes are going to have to go up because we’re going to have to support our public services: our NHS, social care – these things aren’t going to go away and nobody is being honest about that, except us.
Let’s have a debate about who’s going to pay. That’s crucial because if we don’t have that debate we know what’s going to happen after the election. If the Conservatives get back in with a thumping great majority it isn’t going to be the richest that are going to pay, it’s going to be the majority, who aren’t rich or wealthy, who are going to foot the bill and that includes many, many disabled people.
Should disabled people be seen as a protected characteristic, like pensioners?
Absolutely, if we have a triple lock on pensions, why on earth don’t we have the same kind of protection for disabled services? But we’ve already fallen behind with that so it’s not just about securing, it’s about reversing those real term cuts and carers allowance as well. It’s simply not enough.
We’ve got bigger proposals. We want to pilot a ‘basic income’. We’ve been talking about this for years. We are being left behind as a country, because it’s been piloted around the world in different places. There needs to be reform of our welfare and those disability benefits would be excluded from that basic income. So the basic income would come in and then benefits would be on top of that – because we recognise that where there are increased barriers there needs to be extra support to overcome those barriers just to have basic inclusion and basic equality.
We’re campaigning for the reintroduction of the Independent Living Fund in the short term and for the placement of money that was devolved to local authorities to be ring-fenced. We’re producing a disabled manifesto as well – but I can’t pre-empt that with specifics, because we want to make a bit of a splash when it comes out.
Where did that idea come from?
I pushed it very hard up the agenda. This was my route in to the Green Party. It was after the confrontation with Cameron in 2010; I took a long hard look at the party manifestos and I realised that the Green Party was the only party that ‘got it’ for example, with the social model of disability, so I joined a few days after that.
It’s a statement of our priorities really.
We’ve seen growing inequality and the money spent in the wrong places. We’re saying things don’t have to be like this, we can be so much bigger and so much better; we can be a compassionate society. The problem is not that there isn’t enough money, it’s that it’s in the wrong hands and so we need the political will.
Can we really consider the UK as a compassionate society? Is there a potential downside with these policies that you create a ‘them and us’ situation?
I think we’ve already reached that point. I think this is a government that pursues divide and rule policies. We see it over migration, education – with grammar schools, where parents will be competing against one-another, we’ve seen it in the area of welfare – right from 2010.
It’s time to pick a side. It isn’t about compassion really; it’s about rights and basic justice. It’s not about philanthropy or charity, it’s about fundamental human rights and when these rights are threatened, it’s time to stand up and champion them. It’s no time to be timid.