Book review: Austerity's Victims: living with a learning disability under Cameron and May

By Bernadette Meaden
March 22, 2019

There are almost a million adults living with a learning disability in the UK. Neil Carpenter’s book, Austerity’s Victims: Living with a learning disability under Cameron and May is a highly readable but disturbing exposition of how they have suffered, and continue to suffer, due to government choices.

In a compelling and straightforward way, Carpenter tells the stories of five working age men whom he has befriended in his capacity as a volunteer advocate for Cornwall Advocacy. Frank, Les, Thomas, Mark, and Danny* range in age from late twenties to early sixties, and all have found their quality of life deteriorating due to government decisions since 2010.

The men’s stories are much more than the ‘case studies’ which often accompany a report from a charity or a think tank. Carpenter has clearly developed good and friendly relationships with them, and their lives are revealed in an engaging but respectful and sensitive manner. Their stories are moving, often troubling, and are what make the book such a memorable read.

These personal narratives are set in the context of the political policies to which the men have fallen victim. Drastic cuts to local authority budgets have reduced or withdrawn the support they relied on to feel included in society, making their lives narrower and more restricted, and in some cases more lonely. 

One of the strengths of the book is the way in which it combines the personal and political. Whilst Carpenter has clearly done his research, references to statistics and documents are restricted to footnotes and don’t interrupt the flow of the narrative.

There is also an analysis of the men’s incomes and expenditure in comparison to the local median, and the Minimum Income Standard set by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This kind of precise bread and butter detail is almost always lacking in political debate, but is sorely needed. It’s very easy for a politician to glibly talk of ‘incentivising’ people to get a job by cutting their benefits – not so easy when confronted with the pitifully low sums of money on which men like Les and Frank are expected to survive, and the almost complete absence of opportunities for them to get paid employment.

As Carpenter says, “When I began work as a volunteer, one of my strongest impressions as I went to different day centres or visited people at home was how poor almost everyone seemed, as if poverty was an inevitable part of having a learning disability.”

And yet – almost all the individuals in the book are working to some extent in a voluntary capacity, often showing great commitment and effort.  One works at a centre growing salad vegetables. “He is helped by others at various points but he is the pivotal figure in what is produced there – so pivotal that he had to change his day off to Monday because the centre couldn’t handle without him the heavy orders that come in on Friday.”

Carpenter is clearly shocked by the inhumane way Danny was put through a Work Capability Assessment in 2016. Having slowly learned to sit, crawl, and then walk again after a severe acquired brain injury, Danny now has emphysema and other health problems to add to his difficulties. Danny’s mother accompanied him to his assessment but was not allowed to help him when he struggled to answer questions.

Danny said if had to go on to Jobseekers Allowance, with the pressure that involves, he’d be "dead in a year – it doesn’t matter". When the result came through and he heard that he would lose his ESA, he broke down in tears and asked “Who appointed them? God? Worst thing they’ve ever had is a broken finger-nail.”

After a Mandatory Reconsideration, Danny’s ESA was restored, but the experience was distressing and demanding for both him and his family – and as Carpenter says, the whole process for someone in Danny’s position was ‘insensitive and illogical’. 

The overwhelming impression one is left with after reading this book is just how terribly precarious the lives of people with a learning disability have become. An administrative hiccup, another council cut, or a callous decision by the DWP can plunge their lives into poverty and chaos, leaving them dependent on foodbanks and the kindness of neighbours to avoid starvation.

The tone of the book is admirably reasonable and restrained, but towards the end Carpenter, clearly angered by what is happening to men like Frank and Danny, expresses his feelings. He quotes the government’s Work and Health Green Paper, with its formulaic reassurances about support for people to get into work and a safety net for those who need it.

“Such pronouncements would sit nicely among the ‘alternative facts’ of the Trump administration. Who, however, would you rather believe…the bland, seemingly soothing words of the DWP or the evidence of this book which reveals a supposed ‘safety net’ with gaping holes, some of them cut deliberately?” He writes about Theresa May’s proclaimed commitment to ‘fairness’ and concludes, “the apparent commitment bears no relation to reality, to the impact that austerity has had on people like Alan and Danny. As long as it continues, for anyone with a learning disability such fairness is a lie.”

Sadly, a postscript reflects how, relentlessly, austerity is continuing. Since Carpenter finished the book, funding for a scheme that enabled Thomas to go surfing was withdrawn, Cornwall Advocacy was on the brink of closure, and the roll out of PIP was causing extensive damage. Frank was not transferred to PIP from DLA, so his weekly income was cut to £115.10.

Carpenter concludes, “With many cuts still to come it seems inevitable that by the time you are reading this, life for people with a learning disability will have deteriorated even further.”

This book is yet more evidence that austerity has been a shameful attack on those least fortunate and least able to defend themselves. One would like to think that at some stage in the future these inhumane policies will be reversed, and the politicians who devised and supported them will be held to account. This book would certainly provide compelling evidence for the prosecution.

* Names and locations have been altered and information anonymised to protect identities.

* Austerity’s Victims: Living with a learning disability under Cameron and May by Neil Carpenter  is available on Kindle, price 99p, or in paperback for £6.57 from Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1984977601

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 

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