Totally shattered and pretty much at breaking point'

By Virginia Moffatt
April 8, 2015

When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007 I was initially quite pleased. Since both he and David Cameron (then Leader of the Opposition) were parents of disabled children, I thought their experience might a make a real difference.

I hoped that both of them would be mindful of the support disabled people and their families need from social and health care services. That they would be aware of the extra living costs incurred by disability. And that they would understand that the path to employment is not straightforward for sick and disabled people.

So was my optimism well founded? Unfortunately, neither leader lived up to my expectations. During Gordon Brown’s premiership, we experienced the first wave of funding cuts thanks to the banking collapse. This had some impact on social care budgets, and had Labour gained power in 2010, there would have been further cuts to come. But the worst thing that Gordon Brown did was to introduce Employment Support Allowance, the Work Capability Assessment and the appointment of Atos Healthcare to assess whether disabled people were fit to work. Before Labour left office, disabled and sick people were learning to fear the brown envelope at the door.

Sadly, Ivan Cameron died in 2009, aged only six, a tragedy that you could see deeply affected both his parents. One cannot begin to imagine how terrible that must have been for them. A few months later, his father wrote a moving account of what he'd learnt from parenting Ivan. The article concluded with these wise words, that suggest here was a politician who was going to work hard for disabled people and their families:

"Because we can never forget what an amazing job they (carers) do. Just consider what it would mean if the army of parents and carers in this country gave up, packed up, said they couldn't cope any more. The financial cost of looking after those children would be immense – and the emotional cost doesn't bear thinking about. We need to recognise that by staying strong and holding their families together, these parents are doing a great, unsung service to our society."

You would think the person who wrote that would make sure that when he got into power, he'd do everything he could to support those parents doing "great, unsung service" and the disabled adults who bear those financial costs every day. But David Cameron didn't. In fact, his government did the exact opposite. Not only did the coalition continue with Labour's disastrous work capability assessment, but they expanded the scheme against the advice of their own specialist reviewer Malcolm Harrington.

And this was followed by the cruelty of the Welfare Reform Act which introduced the 'bedroom tax', time limited Employment Support Allowance,the replacement of Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independent Payments, all of which have hit disabled people hard. As have the cuts to social care and the abolition of the Independent Living Fund.

In fact, many commentators have pointed out that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by austerity.Yet, when disabled people and their allies managed to win a debate in the House of Commons asking the government to carry out an assessment of the cumulative impact of the cuts, the government has refused. No wonder people with learning disabilities and their families marked the coalition government 2/10.

How can the man who so clearly understood the challenges that disabled people and their families face, preside over such catastrophic changes? How can he continue to claim that his government looks after 'those in need' in the face of evidence to the contrary?How can he not act when the charity that supported his son loses £250,000 due to council funding cuts imposed as a result of his austerity measures? Has he forgotten his words of 2009?

But it’s not just in this, that David Cameron’s premiership has been disappointing. It’s that when he remembers his son, the context often seems to be political. For example, at Prime Minister’s Question Time in 2012, when asked by Joan Ruddock MP, about a disabled child losing disability benefits, he claimed his government wasn’t cutting disability benefits (it was) and deflected the challenge by citing his personal experience. On another occasion, he responded to Ed Miliband’s criticism of Lord Freud’s unhelpful comments about disabled people and the minimum wage, by saying "I don’t need lectures on anyone about looking after disabled people.".

And now the election is upon us, it seems as if the Prime Minister is talking about his son more and more. In the recent non-TV debate, he said he loved the NHS who’d looked after his son failing to mention that his government’s reforms have had a disastrous effect on the service. Last weekend (6 April 2015) he spoke in the Sunday Times about the difficulties he and his wife faced caring for Ivan. Whilst Samantha Cameron took to the Daily Mail to describe how "By the end of the first year we were totally shattered and pretty much at breaking point."

I realise that the interviews happened to coincide with what would have been Ivan’s birthday and that maybe now time has passed it is easier for both of the Camerons to open up about their son's death. And I do applaud them for speaking so honestly about the difficulties they faced. But, in the middle of a tightly contested election campaign, against the backdrop of the coalition’s poor record on disability and the NHS, what should be a moving personal story does at times feel like an attempt to garner sympathy.

Disabled people and their carers certainly think so. There is currently a hashtag on twitter ‘invoking Ivan’ which is highlighting the disconnect between what David Cameron has said about disabled people and the actions his government has taken. And personal blogs from families who are caring for disabled children describe why they find such references difficult.

No-one doubts that David and Samantha Cameron loved their child. Nor that his death was tragic. But, when so many disabled and sick people and their families find themselves "totally shattered and pretty much at breaking point" due to the government’s actions, maybe it would be better if the Prime Minister stopped talking about his son quite so much.

Otherwise, it is tempting to agree with his critics, and find his behaviour hypocritical to say the least.

* More on the issues in the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

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© Virginia Moffatt is chief operating officer of Ekklesia. Before working for Ekklesia, she spent 30 years working in services for people with learning disabilities, most recently for Oxfordshire County Council.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.