Thursday 29 September 2011

Two Legs Better

Orwell's Animal Farm is an allegory about the corruptive influences of power under Stalinism, but sitting here tonight I find myself applying that same allegory to Labour.

Yesterday, at the Labour Party Conference, Ed Miliband held a Q&A session and was challenged by disability activist Kaliya Franklin (aka @BendyGirl, author of Benefit Scrounging Scum ) over his attitudes to disability. Charged by Kaliya that he was "reinforcing the destructive rhetoric" of the ConDems towards disabled benefit recipients, particularly through the disabled man he lambasted earlier this year as just as irresponsible as any banker because he hadn't been able to find work, attitudes repeated in his keynote speech on Tuesday, Miliband responded: "The problem is I met his next-door neighbours … and they didn't actually refer to him, but they said: 'Our problem is we are working incredibly hard and we are worried we are paying for people who can't work.'" And as far as Ed is concerned, that justifies condemning that man, and all disabled benefit recipients by extension. No thought that much of the impact of disability is invisible, no thought that the neighbours might just possibly be disablist, just he's disabled, they're angry, and they have more votes.

As Orwell had it as things went wrong for the lesser animals, 'Four Legs Good, But Two Legs Better'.
Now the interesting part of this from my personal perspective is that earlier this year I was interviewed by BBC South East about my experience of disability hate crime. One of the points that I made, and one that was backed on air by the disability charity Scope and other experts, was that the rise in hate crime results at least in part from government propaganda intended to confirm non-disabled people in their impression that disabled benefit recipients are all frauds and slackers. The Conservatives trotted out Mark Reckless, MP for Rochester and Chatham, to defend themselves. How did he do that? By saying that if people thought those around them were receiving disability benefits without deserving them, then they were fully entitled to be angry. No thought that much disability is invisible, no thought that the neighbours might just possibly be disablist, just he's disabled, they're angry, and they have more votes.

Two politicians, one a hardline Conservative, one the leader of the Labour Party, both making exactly the same argument to justify their attitude that criticism of disabled benefit recipients by those who know nothing about them is perfectly justified.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

17 Cities to Take Action Against Atos and Government's Welfare Policy Tomorrow

Press Release from Benefit Claimants Fight Back

Towns and cities around the UK will see protests tomorrow (30th September) against Atos, the IT Company responsible for carrying out the con-dem government's Work Capability Assessment. As part of a National Day of Action Against Atos, organised by disability, claimant and anti-cuts activists, people will be gathering outside Atos' offices in Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Brighton, Chatham, Cheshire, Birmingham, Glasgow, Hasting, Norwich, Oxford, Bristol, Chester, Plymouth, Sheffield and York.

In London a demonstration is being held outside the BMJ Careers Fair where Atos will be exhibiting in an attempt to recruit doctors to work on their Disability Assessment teams. Thousands of people have been denied or stripped of vital benefit because of decisions made based on Atos' assessment procedure which involves a short interview and a computer based test. Many people have had conditions worsened, either by being forced into the workplace, having much needed money withdrawn or the stress of the assessment process, which has been described as relentless. Sadly some have taken their own lives after hearing of Atos and the DWP's decisions to remove their benefits. Even people with cancer and other terminal illnesses have been deemed 'fit for work'. The government has pledged that this form of testing will be extended to all disability and health related benefits.

This week over one hundred groups and individuals signed a letter to the BMJ and the RCN urging them to stop allowing Atos to recruit at their events and in their publications:

An online protest will see companies and organisations which do business with Atos contacted and informed of this company's 'callous and cruel' treatment of disabled and sick people.

Supporters of Disabled People Against Cuts have said that "As long as ATOS continues to treat disabled claimants little better than animals they will continue to protest against them and seek means to discredit them."


Tuesday 27 September 2011

Ed Doesn’t Get It

We had already had a hint of where Ed Miliband stands on welfare support for disabled people in his ‘I met a man’ speech, where he compared us to the bankers. There was the leader of the Labour Party telling the nation, when rates of disability hate crime are already rising, when tabloids vilify us daily, that disabled people who are unfit to work are just as irresponsible as the bankers who brought on the crash in pursuit of their huge bonuses. Nice. Well today he made his speech to the Labour Party Conference, and it’s more of the same.

We won’t be able to reverse many of the cuts this Government is making.

Cuts like the axing of the Independent Living Fund, the plans to time-limit ESA and leave 400,000 disabled people who aren’t fit for work without income from next April, and the scheme to cut one in five recipients of DLA under the guise of ‘simplifying’ it. Labour is letting the ConDems do their dirty work, and Ed is setting the stage to say he can’t reverse the cuts, when what he means is he won’t reverse them. I vilify the ConDems for cowardice when they blame Labour for all their economic woes, it’s only fair I do the same to Ed when he tries to pass off his policies as forced on him by the ConDems.

The something for nothing of celebrity culture.
The take what you can of the gangs.
And in parts of some of our communities, a life on benefits.
You know what your values are.
But they are not the values being rewarded in our benefits system.
We must never excuse people who cheat the welfare system.
The reason I talk about this is not because I don’t believe in a welfare state but because I do.
We can never protect and renew it if people believe it’s just not fair.
 If it’s too easy not to work.
And there are people taking something for nothing.

I don’t know what he thought he was saying here, other than that it might go down well with the Little Englanders who read the Daily Mail, but look at what this section is saying about people dependent on welfare; it compares us to Z-list celebs, gangsters and rioters, and it says that people on benefits aren’t like right-thinking people, that we have different values, that we are ultimately all cheats. No doubt he’ll protest that wasn’t at all what he meant, but it is precisely what will be understood by huge swathes of our society, and the acceptance of disabled people who depend on the benefit system because they are too disabled to work will spiral ever lower.

And if at the same time people who have paid into the system all their lives find the safety net full of holes.

At last, something that sounds like he might have a clue, but the damage is already done, and there’s more to come.

We need a new bargain.
 Based on Britain’s values.

Which sounds fine, but there are immense problems with Britain’s values, we see that in the newspapers that brand us cheats and fraudsters on a daily basis, because they know that goes down well with their readership, we know that from the hate crime statistics, from the people who abuse us on the street for daring to be disabled. Britain’s values around disability stink, they stink at every level of society, from the Ministers who see us as a soft target, to the MPs who think we should be pleased to work for a pittance, to the police who too often dismiss the idea that disability hate crime exists, to the judges who inevitably reward our abusers with the lightest of sentences, to the media which demonises us because it sells papers and we aren’t strong enough to fight back, and the people on the high street who elect those MPs and Ministers and buy those papers and tut-tut about how they’re all at it, you know. We need a party with the courage to ignore Britain’s values when those values are morally and ethically wrong, and to drag us kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, with the moral courage to condemn bigotry in all of its forms, not pander to it because there might be a vote or two to be had. 

That is why I say all major government contracts will go to firms who commit to training the next generation with decent apprenticeships.
And none will go to those who don’t.

Sounds good, but what about the 70%+ of employers who openly state they wouldn’t employ a disabled person, in clear contempt of the law? Do they just get the wink to continue?

And we must challenge irresponsible, predatory practices wherever we find them.

Unfortunately I don’t think he meant ATOS assessment centres.

The wealth of our nation is built by the hands not just of the elite few but every man and woman who goes out and does a day’s work.

So what does that make those of us too sick or disabled to work? Parasites?

But the truth is that the problem in some of our schools is not just investment.
 It’s also about values.
Of bright children held back when aspirations are low.
Or when closed circles at the top of society shut them out.

He might almost be talking about the way disabled people are excluded, but he isn’t.

VAT went up.
 He called it a tough decision.
 Tax credits were cut.
 He said they couldn’t be afforded.
 Help paying for childcare was hit.
He said it was the only thing he could do.

Even when he’s talking about Cameron hitting those who can’t afford it, ILF and ESA and DLA are beneath his notice.

Only David Cameron could believe that you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer.
It’s wrong. 
It’s the wrong priority.
It’s based on the wrong values.
How dare they say we’re all in it together.
So we need a new bargain at the top of society, and in our benefits system too.
So it rewards the right people with the right values.

Again he links people in receipt of benefits with those taking immoral advantage of the opportunities provided by their wealth. Repetition makes it clear it is an intentional strategy to demonize us by association, and the only reason can be that it will go down well with the knee-jerk contempt of the Daily Mail readers.

We have to face the truth.
Even after reforms of recent years, we still have a system where reward for work is not high enough.
Where benefits are too easy to come by for those who don’t deserve them and too low for those who do.

Again the underlying message is that if you can successfully claim benefits then you must be playing the system, and that work is the gold standard by which all else must be judged. But there are many hundreds of thousands of disabled people who can’t work through no fault of their own, and a message that only through work can you be valued is unfit for any Labour leader, or for that matter for anyone who claims to believe in even the vaguest concepts of equality.

So if what you want is a welfare system that works for working people then I’m prepared to take the tough decisions to make that a reality.

Except when it would come to saying that ATOS should be sacked and admitting that ESA is a failed, if not farcical, attempt to embrace the ultra-right-wing, American, definition of disability as a form of social deviance that should be punished, not supported and which has caused untold damage to millions of disabled people through the stress and fear it engenders.

Take social housing.
When we have a housing shortage, choices have to be made.
Do we treat the person who contributes to their community the same as the person who doesn’t?
My answer is no.
Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility.

There it is again, the idea that if you don’t get out there and find work, contribute actively to society then you’re irresponsible. Precisely the same line he used to condemn disabled people as no different to bankers in the ‘I met a man’ speech. But what about those of us who can’t contribute to our communities, who are so disabled we can barely access them? When I spend most of my life flat on my back, because I can’t bear to sit or stand, then what exactly does Ed think I can do for my community? How does someone with severe mental illness contribute? Or severe ME, or any of hundreds of other disabilities? How do we compete in his little scheme as equals? And if we can’t compete, then is that scheme not just not fit for purpose, but is it something that scars and diminishes the Labour Party just by being something they would even consider?

David Cameron likes to talk tough on welfare, but do you know who the big losers are from his changes?
Time and again it’s those who work hard, who try to get on.
It’s the cancer patients who have worked all their lives but now lose their support

Ed’s keen on cancer patients, guaranteed vote-winner, almost as good as a little girl in a wheelchair with a puppy, but he’s less keen on the rest of us who are too disabled to work, we aren’t such good headline fodder, we aren't so photogenic, many of us have disabilities that the Daily Mail readers don’t believe in. And he’s not so keen on giving you the full picture either. Cameron wants time-limiting of ESA at 12 months, Ed wants it at 24. We don’t have Ed’s luxury of being able to ignore our personal realities, we know that a disability is for life, not just for Christmas, but Ed doesn’t want to acknowledge that, because then people might start wondering if cutting 700,000 disabled people who aren’t fit for work adrift without any welfare support after 2 years is really a policy Labour should be advocating.

It’s the couple who have put money aside and saved, but now lose their tax credits
And it is the single mum working as a dinner lady who loses help with her childcare.

But apparently it’s not the disabled person who will be forced to sacrifice their savings and their pension just to survive when ESA is time-limited, nor the disabled person who will be forced out of work because DLA will no longer admit that needing a wheelchair is a serious mobility impairment.

And while those who do the right thing are hit hard, the demands on those who don’t work aren’t tough enough.

He’ll swear this isn’t aimed at disabled people, but is that the message the Daily Mail readers will take away?

I believe in a benefits system with values.
And I believe in the value of work.

All through the speech the emphasis is that not working is somehow socially deviant, there is no simply no room in Ed’s mindset to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of disabled people are unable to work, that it will take massive societal change to get any significant percentage of them into work, and that many of them will never be able to work, but that they must still be valued equally for society to have any claim to be equal and fair. It seems that James Purnell and the pernicious disability-denial message of Unum Provident and their Cardiff ‘think tank’ are still defining Labour’s welfare policy, and that is something that should scare us all.

The full speech can be read online here

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Terminally ill people told to go back to work

Not content with the current cuts to benefits, the Department of Work and Pensions has been sending worrying letters about the Welfare Reform Bill, which has yet to be passed.

Terminally ill people claiming Employment and Support Allowance have received letters telling them that as of April 2012, ESA will only be paid for a year to those in the Work-Related Activity group. However, this change is retrospective so people currently receiving ESA could lose it when the new rule comes in.

Understandably this news has been met with shock by disability groups. Neil Coyle of Disability Alliance told the Guardian: "The impact of cutting support will be devastating for people already told they only have a limited time left to live. Many will have worked for years and will feel they deserve a little support in return until they pass away.”

It is reported that the cost of sending these notification letters is £2.7m.

A DWP spokesman said “The process of working may be helpful in giving [terminally ill people] a sense of being useful and prolonging their lives.” But in a economic climate where it’s hard enough for an able-bodied person to find work, the challenge of finding work for someone with a life-limiting condition may be a step too far.

'never fall ill, never grow old, never become disabled', for if you do, not even Labour will speak up for you.'

To all our members and supporters;

The Labour party conference starts in Liverpool on Saturday. As we all know, Labour were the architects of Employment Support Allowance and the ‘not fit for purpose’ Work Capability Assessment which is so stressful and traumatic it was linked to the suicide of claimants whilst Labour were still in power. The Labour party are the official party of opposition, but they are not opposing the Welfare Reform Bill as they should be and seem to have forgotten that the 10 million sick and or disabled people plus carers, friends and family in the UK have the power to vote. It is time for us to remind Labour that they will not get any of our votes if they do not start to oppose the parts of the Welfare Reform Bill set to return sick people, disabled people and carers to a life of desperation, dependency, despair and charity.

We are asking you to help with a mass email to the Labour party to remind them of our voting power. Please include the following details in your email and send it to Ed Miliband, Margaret Curran (shadow minister for disability) and Liam Byrne (shadow minister for DWP). If you have time please also email it to any Labour MP and particularly any members of the shadow cabinet. We have provided a list of email contacts below.

Please aim to send your email at 11am tomorrow (Thursday the 22nd September) If you can’t send the email at 11am, don’t worry, just please try to send it at any time between then and the end of Labour party conference on Wednesday 29th September.

The email subject  should read “Your Silence Is Deafening”

We suggest embedding a link to this youtube video “The Sound of Silence” To embed the video into your email just copy and paste the link below.

Then please copy the following text into your email;

Dear (insert name here)

'The 10 million disabled people in this country plus their carers, relatives and friends are watching what your party do in relation to disability issues and wondering why you seem disinterested in trying to get their votes by opposing the savage attacks against disabled people being made by the Coalition government. During conference season we wish to remind you, the architects of Employment and Support Allowance to 'never fall ill, never grow old, never become disabled', for if you do, as we have found, not even Labour will speak up for you.'

If you would like to add a short, personal message explaining to Labour how you feel about their lack of support for sick, disabled people and carers then please include it after the suggested text. You might also like to include a photo of yourself, or perhaps a photo of what disability, sickness or caring means to you. Don’t worry if you don’t want to personalise the email, sending the suggested text is fine.

Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Labour Party
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 4778
Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions
Liam Byrne
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 6953
Fax: 020 7219 1431

House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 8102
Fax: 020 7219 6656
Shadow Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities
Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP
Shadow Chief Secretary
Angela Eagle
Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills
John Denham
Cabinet Office and Minister for the Olympics
Tessa Jowell
Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Caroline Flint
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 4407
Fax: 020 7219 1277
Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport
Ivan Lewis
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 2609
Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 
Hilary Benn
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 5770
Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
Jim Murphy
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 4615
Fax: 020 7219 5657

Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mary Creagh
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 6984/020 7219 8766
Fax: 020 7219 4257

Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Election Coordinator
Andy Burnham
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 8250

Shadow Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice
Sadiq Khan
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 6967
Fax: 020 7219 6477

Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Meg Hillier
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 5325
Fax: 020 7219 8768

Shadow Secretary of State for Health
John Healey

House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 6359
Fax: 020 7219 2451

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Shaun Woodward

House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 2680

Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland
Ann McKechin
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 8239
Fax: 020 7219 1770

Shadow Secretary of State for Transport
Maria Eagle
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 4019
Fax: 020 7219 1157

Shadow Secretary of State for Wales
Peter Hain
House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA
Tel: 020 7219 3925
Fax: 020 7219 3816

Steven Timms MP

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Some good news on ESA and the Work Capability Assessment

Liberal Democrat conference voted on Saturday for a motion criticising employment support allowance and Atos work capability assessments. In addition they passed an amendment to the motion which contained much more interesting statements. Page 20 of Conference Extra [PDF] gives details of amendment one for motion F6.

This amendment means that LibDems oppose limiting ESA to one year for those that have made national insurance contributions, demand that people with "serious and uncontrollable life-threatening conditions" are given unconditional support instead of having to attend work-focussed interviews, and are in favour of giving legal help to those appealing against being declared fit to work. They also want Atos to be forced to improve their performance, and in future, for the role of assessing people as fit for work or not to be carried out by government or non-profit groups.

While this has come late in the day, the Welfare Reform Bill has not yet been passed by the House of Lords and so now that the LibDems have adopted this motion and amendment I am hopeful that LibDem peers might oppose aspects of the bill that conflict with it and either amend the bill or send it back to the house of commons to start again. I don't know how binding this motion is on the LibDem peers but their previous stance does not have the backing of the party. In fact, when this motion was voted on there were very few people that voted against it at all.

There were some excellent speeches in favour of this motion and amendment and I have uploaded some of the best to Youtube - see further down. The motion was originally written by George Potter who contacted a few different people for help. In his speech he used Sue Marsh of Diary of a Benefit Scrounger as his main example.

Videos from the Liberal Democrat Conference 2011

This article first appeared in a longer form on the author's own blog.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

What is a Grand Committee and what does it mean for Welfare Reform?

After all the fuss of the Welfare Reform Bill in the house of lords yesterday I wasn't expecting much for a couple of weeks when it will reach committee stage. However, I woke up today to find that the government had tabled a motion in the lords to send the bill to the grand committee, held in a side room.

This is in fact the normal procedure for legislation moving through parliament. The committee stage is where the bill is examined line-by-line and objections from the debate at the second reading turn into amendments to the bill before it goes back to the house for the report stage and the third reading. Parliament's own web page states:

Any Bill can be referred to a Committee of the whole House but the procedure is normally reserved for finance Bills and other important, controversial legislation.

So you can see, controversial bills are supposed to be debated by a "committee of the whole house" rather than a "grand committee." As one lord stated in the debate today, no one can argue that this legislation is not controversial. The peers have stated over and over again during debate that they have been inundated with letters, emails, and phone calls from people concerned about this bill. They show surprise at the scale of concern shown to them. Unfortunately, despite a heated debate this afternoon in the end the lords voted 263 to 211 to pass the motion and move the bill to the Grand Committee. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted for the motion, and Labour voted against it. Some of the reasons given were that it would block up the chamber and delay the passage of other bills, and that too many people would want to speak in the debate and it would take too long. (Yes, really! Democracy apparently takes too long.) One lady stated that several of the bills going through parliament are really three bills in one, and that of course it would take longer. (As an aside, I would urge you to look up Shock Doctrine for reasons as to why changes are being made so quickly.)

The difference between the two options for committee stage are quite important, I think. Here's the official description of the committee stage:

Line by line examination of the Bill

Detailed line by line examination of the separate parts (clauses and schedules) of the Bill takes place during committee stage. Any Member of the Lords can take part.

Committee stage can last for one or two days to eight or more. It usually starts no fewer than two weeks after the second reading.

Before committee stage takes place

The day before committee stage starts, amendments are published in a Marshalled List – in which all the amendments are placed in order.

Amendments on related subjects are grouped together and a list (“groupings of amendments”) is published on the day.

What happens at committee stage?

Every clause of the Bill has to be agreed to and votes on the amendments can take place.

All proposed amendments (proposals for change) can be discussed and there is no time limit – or guillotine - on discussion of amendments.

What happens after committee stage?

If the Bill has been amended it is reprinted with all the agreed amendments.

At the end of committee stage, the Bill moves to report stage for further examination.

Here is the critical part though:

Grand Committee

The proceedings are identical to those in a Committee of the Whole House except that no votes may take place.

As compared to:

Committee of the whole House

In the House of Lords the committee stage of a Bill usually takes place in the Lords Chamber and any Member can take part. The Committee may choose to vote on any amendment and all Members present can vote.

So you can see, apart from being in a less-accessible room, with space for far fewer peers to discuss the bill and no public gallery, sending a bill to the Grand Committee also means that the amendments cannot be voted on individually. I think, on the whole, this can be viewed as a bad thing. The worst part, though, is that because there is no voting on amendments, the committee must instead agree unanimously on an amendment which means that just one person siding with the government can block any attempt to fix this bill.

However, please keep sending your messages to peers. They have noticed our objections, and we can't let up now.Details are in my previous blog post.

This has been cross posted from the authors own blog.

#WRB Twitter Summary of Welfare Reform Bill in the Lords

House of Lords Chamber

As you may know from previous posts, the Welfare Reform Bill has been going through the House of Lords in the past two days. Yesterday's debate felt a lot more thorough, and our side was represented more strongly, than in the House of Commons, but today the discussion disappeared 'upstairs' and was not televised.

This was a widely criticised decision, as we can not see how the discussion is going, and the room is said to be inaccessible.

For people who want to catch up on some of the details of what we saw in the Lords yesterday, and the discussion around moving rooms today, a lot was posted in twitter on detail, via various accounts including Where's the Benefit?, Latent Existence, incurable hippie, disabled medic, The Broken of Britain, Creative Crip, and many more. I have created a document which summarises the discussions and main points made, which you can access here. You may notice that I wrongly named the document the 'Welfare Rights Bill'. If only! But it is reform, not rights, so apologies for that error.

The tweet summary document is available to be viewed here. You can use the tools at the bottom of the page to zoom in and out as necessary.

[The image is a photograph of the interior of the House of Lords. It was taken by UK Parliament and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]