Conservative disability activist Graeme Ellis was so incensed by last Wednesday’s budget that he immediately sabotaged the Conservative Disability Group website he ran, and resigned from the party.
Ellis came to the sudden realisation that it was simply no longer possible to be disabled and a Conservative supporter when he heard that disability benefits were to be cut just as tax breaks were being given to high earners – the same issue that Iain Duncan Smith said motivated his resignation as work and pensions secretary.
Now Ellis says he feels cynical about the ex-minister’s attempts to portray himself as a martyr. “I read his resignation letter. I can’t believe he is sincere,” Ellis says. “He has had ample opportunity in the past to speak out, but he has voted for cut after cut after cut after cut. Has he just now developed a conscience?”
A lifelong Conservative voter, Ellis has been an active member of the Conservative Disability Group for the past four years, responsible for its website. Immediately after the budget, he vented his fury by destroying the group’s online presence, removing all its content and replacing the home page with a curt note stating: “This website is temporarily closed owing to disability cuts ... Graeme Ellis has resigned and will no longer develop or host this site.”
His protest had an unexpectedly powerful impact, attracting headlines, and crystallising the sense that this was a cut too far, even for Conservative activists. “I just exploded. I was so incensed. Any sense of caring for the vulnerable in society went out the window. They were taking money from disabled people with one hand, and were giving money back to big corporations and high earners with the other,” he says.
“It wasn’t premeditated or planned. It was supposed to be a small snub to the group and the Conservative party,” he says. It was only later when he received several stern texts and emails informing him that Conservative party headquarters wanted him to reinstate the site immediately, and when news programmes started calling, that he realised that his modest act of protest had hit a nerve. There is a revealing news clip of the chancellor looking uncomfortable as Ellis sets out how the cuts will hurt.
Ellis, 59, a mild-mannered disability rights adviser from Lancaster, who has used a wheelchair for the past seven years because of diabetes-related nerve damage, suddenly found himself landed with the job of explaining to the country why this latest set of disability cuts were intolerable – even to a committed Conservative supporter.
“I want to highlight what a load of crap disabled people are going through at the moment. That’s something good that has come out of this,” he says, in an upstairs room at Lancaster’s, Here To Support centre, a precariously funded advice centre, that currently receives about 60 calls a week from people locally who believe they have been wrongly refused disability benefits and are in financial and emotional turmoil.
Ellis is very well-informed about the complexities of disability policy, after spending thousands of hours untangling refused benefit applications, and attending hundreds of tribunals with clients, fighting for decisions not to award disability benefit to be overturned. He is convinced that the two latest cuts – the £30 weekly reduction in employment support allowance (ESA), and the cuts to those eligible for personal independence payments (which the Institute for Fiscal Studies say will hit 370,000 people, with an average loss of £3,500 a year) – will have catastrophic consequences.
He is unconvinced by the government’s decision not proceed with the policy in “its current form”, noting that the money is still set to be cut from the disability budget. “To cut our income, to reduce our ability to survive is one way of making a cull. People will die,” he says. While he recognises that this may sound melodramatic, he points out that this is precisely what has happened with previous decisions to tighten eligibility for other disability benefits.
Ellis is now planning to join the Labour party, and will meet with shadow minister for disabled people, Debbie Abrahams, this week, to discuss how he might advise the party on disability policy.
Ellis has been feeling doubtful about his own allegiance to the Conservative party for some time. He has felt unhappy with the “scrounger and shirker” narrative that has underpinned much of the party’s thinking on benefit cuts, and was unimpressed when he heard Duncan Smith talk at one of the Conservative Disability Group’s annual public meetings. But when he discussed resigning after last May’s election, colleagues in the group urged him to stay and continue to try to influence the party from within.
Until recently, he had a residual affection for the Conservative party. “I liked the talk of the ‘big society’, the idea that they were a new caring Conservative party. I support the shrinking of the state, devolution, more regional devolution,” he says.
“As a disabled person your heart went out to David Cameron; he was contending with his son’s difficulties. I thought that if he has a son that is that disabled, he is going to care for the disabled.”
By joining the Conservative Disability Group he had hoped to “be able to influence policy a little bit for the greater good. It turned out not to be like that”. He is sorry to have burnt bridges with colleagues at the group, but when he saw the budget headlines, his “blood boiled” and felt he had no choice but to resign. “I had to speak up because I felt that this was a huge injustice for the disabled community.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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