On the 9th February 2012 ENIL and the European parliamentary group GUE/NGL (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) held a hearing in the European Parliament. The purpose of this hearing was to show from a number of perspectives how people with disabilities are being negatively affected by the EU current austerity policies. This is the first time that ENIL has held a hearing in the European Parliament. ENIL presented its ‘Proposal for a European Parliament Resolution’ on the effect of the cuts. The hearing was received positively in the European Parliament and three Members of the Parliament participated in the hearing, Kartika Liotard, MEP, Netherlands, Cecilia Wikstrom, MEP, Sweden and Paul Murphy, MEP, Ireland. The hearing was streamed live and there was up to two hundred people watching online throughout the hearing, with approximately eighty people in the Parliament itself.
The hearing began on a optimistic tone with MEP Cecilia Wikstrom’s opening address in which she made it clear that the although the financial climate is affecting every faction of society that hope is necessary at this time.
Panel 1: Understanding the impact of austerity measures on persons with disabilities
The hearing was in two parts with two different panels. Understanding the impact of the austerity measures on persons with disabilities was the focus of the first panel. Throughout this first panel, four themes emerged; (a) disability and policy, (b) de-institutionalisation, (c) disability and the media and (d) individual accounts that were shared.
(a) Disability and Policy: Since the financial crisis there has been an impact on the way in which policy has been implemented, interpreted and devised. One of the most important issues raised by Prof. Alan Roulstone (Expert on global and European disability policy) was that short term cuts often ignore the long term benefits. These policy decisions do not just have economical effect, but social and political effects. John Evans OBE ( Advisory Board member of ENIL) noted that throughout this financial crisis, it is the welfare systems that have been hit hardest and further reductions would increase poverty. He pointed out that many of these cuts have been made without any dialogue between governments and those whose benefits they are cutting. John Evans further argued, Independent Living has positively changed people’s lives, however some people are now struggling to survive.
(b) De-institutionalisation: Prof. Alan Roulstone pointed out that short term cuts could allow institutions to grow, which would reverse the positive trend towards de-institutionalisation. Kapka Panayotova (Director of CIL, Sofia and Chairwoman of ENIL) spoke about Bulgaria and the reality that despite EU funding, thousands of people still reside in institutions. She spoke about the issue of re-institutionalisation, with new institutions replacing the old ones just being named differently, for example small group homes or family –type residence facilities.
(c) Disability and the media: One issue that has become prevalent since the beginning of the financial crisis has been the coverage of disability in the media. John Evans pointed out that the portrayal by the media that there are too many people claiming benefits was an injustice to people’s dignity and respect. While the media may portray this image, the reality is far from this with Evans pointing out that ENIL receive complaints from people struggling to maintain their rights and quality of life. Prof. Alan Roulstone, echoed this sentiment and noted that it is only in the last four to five years that disability issues have received this type of negative media coverage. .
(d) Individual Accounts: One of the most striking points of the hearing was the impact that the austerity measures are having on the everyday lives of people with disabilities from both countries with a long tradition in progressive disability policies such as the UK and newer member states such as Bulgaria. Michael McCabe (Chairperson of Centre of Independent Living, Carmichael House, Dublin) from Ireland gave clear examples of how the lives of Irish CIL members were being affected “by the stroke of a pen” by the Irish Government cutting their benefits, while the Irish government continue to spend a colossal sum of money to bail out the banks in Ireland.
Panel 2 : Addressing the threat of cuts to the rights of persons with disabilities at the European level
The second panel addressed the threat of cuts to the rights of people with disabilities at the European level. It identified actions that can be taken by the European Commission and the European Parliament to address the current situation and ensure that the rights of people with disabilities in the EU are upheld. Simona Giarrantano ( Policy Officer at the European Disability Forum) spoke of how the cuts in one area, such as local authority funding can have knock on effects to other social services. She reiterated that these cuts have been taken with little consolation between government and those in receipt of the funds, which is in violation of the United Nations Human Rights Convention. She pointed out that on a societal level it necessary to invest in people and in quality services for Europe after the financial crisis.
Sian Jones ( Policy Officer at the European Anti-Poverty Network) focussed on a strategic approach to inequality, suggesting mainstreaming disability as it is so closely linked to poverty, that it could receive funding from the European Structural Funds. Peter Lambreghts (ENIL and Onafhankelijk leven) was clear in his opening message that we need to take up this fight for our rights as we need ENIL now more than ever. He spoke of the need to change the way in which political leaders think about disability. He addressed how to move forward and that ENIL is open to suggestions on how best to do this. One suggestion of note, being the creation of an ad-hoc working group. He made it clear that promoting social inclusion and reducing poverty should be at the heart of the Parliament’s agenda.
Moderator of the second panel MEP, Paul Murphy, pointed out that cutting funding is a political choice and if different choices are not made then Europe will be further away from the targets laid down by the European Commission in Europe 2020, than we are today.
The hearing in the European Parliament on the 9th February was significant for many reasons. Above everything else, it raised awareness of the issues that we, people with disabilities are facing in the current financial climate. Ultimately, there was one unqualified message and that was that the austerity measures are negatively impacting on our lives on a number of levels. These issues and how they are addressed are at the heart of the very fabric of the European Union. The second part of the hearing made significant suggestions on what actions can be taken to ensure our rights as members of the European Union are upheld. The hearing ended on the same positive note that it had begun and with a call to action from Jamie Bolling, our Executive Director of ENIL to fight for our rights.
Coming Up!In the next issue of the Newsletter two Irish MEP’s Mairead McGuinness and Paul Murphy discuss disability issues in relation to the current austerity measures.
Michael McCabe’s Full Address to the European Parliament:
GUE/NGL Flickr: Photos of the hearing in the European Parliament
Videos from the hearing
Interview with Jamie Bolling and Peter Lambreghts.