Friday 24 October 2014

An Open Letter to the LGBT+ Community

I went to see Pride last week. Yeah, I know it was released a month earlier but my dad was in hospital at the time so I was mostly just seeing the A12 as I drove up and down it.

It was a period of British history that I know very little about: I was only 5 in 1984. I heard mumblings about miners; but what 5 year old actually pays attention to the news? And it was certainly a long, long, time before I realised I was gay.

I went to see the film after 3 nights of no sleep because of a shoulder injury. Due to the sleep deprivation I was just a tad over-emotional. I spent the whole film alternating between laughing and crying, and was in floods of happy tears at the end. The second the house lights came up I had to make a dash for the nearest toilet to hide until my red splotchy face looked less red and splotchy.

The miners were probably the hardest hit during that particular 4 year term of office. And it was deeply heartening to hear a story about another oppressed group the government loathed - the LGBT community - coming to the support of others in solidarity just because it was the right thing to do.

But after the film I couldn't shake the thought "where are the LGBT community now while disabled people are being kicked even harder than the miners were then?"

The Centre for Welfare Reform calculated that severely disabled people will be hit 19 times harder by the cuts than other people. So many cuts that even I probably can't remember to list them all. But here are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head:

  • The creation of Personal Independence Payment to replace Disability Living Allowance. The intention was to reduce the budget by 20% by making the criteria stricter. DLA is only paid to meet care needs and mobility needs. It's to be spent on things like wheelchairs and having someone help you out of bed in the morning. Not exactly luxuries that a disabled person can cut back on. Did you know that now if you can walk a mere 21 metres you probably won't get that help to put towards buying a wheelchair? With the DWP and the private firms hired to carry out the medical assessments unable to organise a proverbial in a brewery; people are waiting for up to a year for their application to be processed and there are 145,000 people waiting for support they need to function.
  • Employment and Support Allowance is the benefit for people too ill or impaired to work. There are 394,000 people waiting to have their application for that processed. 394,000 waiting to put food on the table. Such an appalling system that we regularly read about people who were so ill that they died of their condition while allegedly "fit for work". Larry Newman and Cecilia Burns are just 2 of those people. The company doing the fitness for work assessments got it so wrong so often that 40% of appeals against their decisions were successful.
  • Two thirds of households affected by the bedroom tax contain a disabled person.
  • In most parts of the country; working age benefit claimants have had their Council Tax Benefit cut by 10%.
  • At the moment there's something called the Severe Disability Premium. It's not a benefit in its own right; it's a top-up premium on top of ESA/Income Support. The clue as to who is eligible is in the name: Severely disabled people. The eligibility criteria are so complex that only 230,000 people in the whole country are eligible. Under Universal Credit; the SDP is being abolished completely. Not made a bit stricter: Abolished.
  • The Independent Living Fund, which allows 18,000 disabled people with the highest care needs to live in the community, is being closed next year.
  • Social care is being cut to the point that continent people are being told to use incontinence pads because they're no longer allowed help to go to the toilet. Once I caught the local news while at my dad's house. A representative of Norfolk Council actually went on TV and said "we're cutting things like adult social care in order to preserve popular services like libraries." Disabled people are so loathed that council officials can go on TV and say that with their head held high.
  • We're all aware how this government made it more expensive to get an education. Did you know that Disabled Students' Allowance, which pays for things like Deaf students to have a BSL interpreter, is being cut? They recently announced these cuts are being postponed. Not cancelled, just postponed.
  • Access to Work, a scheme which funds support to allow disabled people to function in the workplace, has been utterly screwed up. Jess and Julie have both written recently about how these cuts are jeopardising their jobs. They are far from alone.

And these are only the cuts so far. Recently we've heard how the Tories want to cut housing benefit for 18-21 year olds, freeze working age benefits (which will affect disability benefits, despite Osborne's claim at the Tory conference), and pay benefits by cards instead of cash. Then IDS wants to charge income tax on support to pay for wheelchairs and for someone to wipe your butt, despite the fact that many disabled people don't see penny of it because it's immediately deducted to pay for support services. And, of course, Freud let it slip that he wants to be able to pay disabled people only £2 an hour.

Do you remember last Wednesday? It was a great day. For one day the entire country cared about how this government wanted to undermine disabled people's right to the same minimum wage as everybody else. He was the top story for most news outlets, he trended on Twitter all day: And for just one day it felt like the entire nation cared about our equal rights.

Then everyone went to bed that night and by the following morning most people had forgotten about us again. This week disabled people have been in court again fighting the Independent Living Fund closure. Where was the outrage this week that the government want to withdraw the funding that pays for severely disabled people to have food put in their mouths and their butts lifted onto the toilet?

I kind of get it. I mean, in 1984 LGBT people were really oppressed. Relationships weren't legally recognised, the age of consent for gay men was 5 years older than for heterosexuals. AIDS was misunderstood, treatments hadn't been developed, and it was far more stigmatised than it is today. There were no anti-discrimination laws protecting us from being fired for being LGBT or protecting us from being discriminated against by B&B owners when we just want a break for a couple of days.

Now we can get married, the age of consent is equal, HIV is a controllable chronic condition. We do have the legal right to sue our employer if they fire us for coming out at work and we can sue B&B owners who refuse us a room.

In 1984 LGBTs could look at miners and see people who were equally oppressed. The same can't be said of LGBTs looking at disabled people today. Except for those of us who are both LGBT and disabled; most LGBTs have the freedom to have a proper meal every day. The same can't be said for disabled people who are physically unable to cook, can't get social care for someone to help them with that, and so end up eating mostly just crisps. Most LGBTs can have a shower every day. The same can't be said of disabled people who were forced out of their accessible home by the bedroom tax, no longer have an accessible shower, and can only get clean by wiping themselves down with a flannel.

You have to remember that the LGBT community and the disabled community have so much in common in so many ways. We both still experience discrimination, even though it's illegal and we have the law on our side. It's a fight we both face. Hate crime affects LGBT people just like it affects disabled people. Some people are even attacked for being both disabled and LGBT. Both disabled people and LGBT people are massively unpopular with the senior party in the coalition: Not only are the Tories stripping away all the support systems that allowed for the equality of disabled people, but more Tories voted against equal marriage than for it. The law only went through because of supporters in the other parties.

The main difference between the 2 communities I belong to, of course, is society's response. When lesbians were thrown out of Sainsbury's, protesters quickly responded. A few days later a blind woman was kicked out of Tesco. Protesters were nowhere to be seen. Disabled people are more likely to be mocked for going shopping than supported if we get discriminated against in store.

In Pride we see Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) helping to fund and distribute food parcels to the striking miners. Where were the food parcels for David Clapson or Mark Wood? I don't mean to suggest that the LGBT community is in any way responsible for such tragedies for not being more supportive: But the handing out of the food parcels had such a resonance with the issues of today.

The film depicts LGSM getting to work before consulting miners about what it is they actually need. If LGBTs started supporting disabled people (LGBTSDP?); I'd beg of you to ask us how you can help. Disabled people's lives have historically been dominated by non-disabled people thinking they know what's best for us. There's a common saying in the disabled community "nothing about us without us," and that applies as much now as ever. A couple of years ago UK Uncut organised a protest specifically about disability benefit cuts. But because they didn't consult with disabled people for the meet-up arrangements: They chose to meet at a tube station that has no access for mobility impaired people.

Disabled people have loads of ideas for creative ways of challenging the cuts; but we need help to pull them off. We've written films about the ILF closure that we can't find anyone to produce. We organise protests and sometimes only 10 people turn up. There are far more LGBT people with social influence than disabled people. When there's a story like this week's court case we need the help of people with prominence to amplify our message because our collective voice amounts to a mere whisper; where potential LGBT allies have the power to really shout about it. Bronski Beat supported the miners; who is going to support us?

Another very common saying in the disability community is "rights not charity". In Pride LGSM start out their work with the collecting buckets to raise money. At the moment the disabled community is in a paradoxical position: We need to raise money in order to fight for the rights which are being stripped away. Paypal is the 21st century collecting tin and Disabled People Against Cuts are currently asking people to donate 50p to carry on their excellent campaigning.

Pride was a beautifully told story of the LGBT community rushing to the support of those who really needed it. I can't wait for it to come out on DVD so I can watch it again. But ever since seeing it I haven't been able to shake the slight feeling of sadness. There have been so many wonderful changes in the last 30 years that have benefited both communities I belong to. As a disabled person I first had the Disability Discrimination Act, which then became subsumed by the Equality Act. As a gay person I also have protection under the Equality Act. I can even get married now!

But the passion LGSM had for supporting people whose lives were being utterly destroyed by the government: The film just made me acutely aware that disabled people doesn't have that same support. And as someone with a foot in each community, that awareness is slightly frying my brain.

So, LGBT community. Please help us. Our equality, our independence, our jobs, our education, and even our lives depend on winning this fight.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Not Worth It

You'd have to be away from all means of communication today to have not noticed that Lord Freud thinks that disabled people "aren't worth" the minimum wage. Surprisingly even the mainstream media are outraged; BBC News are leading with it.

I'm not going to go into depth about everything wrong with his initial remarks because it's already been covered extensively. If you're looking for comment pieces on his original remarks, I recommend this from Frances Ryan, or this from Richard Exell.

The only things I have to add on the subject of his initial statement are these:

  1. He's not the first Tory to say this during this term of government. Philip Davies said the same thing in 2011. Then there is Cllr David Scott who raised the idea of us being not "worth" it with Freud. It's starting to seem like a common thought in the Conservative party.
  2. Disabled people make more reliable employees than non-disabled people. A report by DePaul University in the US found that disabled people stay with an employer for longer, take less time off, and are "loyal, reliable, and hardworking.". That doesn't sound to me like people who are "not worth" even the minimum wage, does it?
  3. Disabled people currently in work are having their ability to do their job screwed about with by the hideous mess this coalition have made of Access to Work. Read Julie's and Jess's accounts. These are people worth more than the minimum wage, having their capability undermined by an incompetent government.
  4. Over 50,000 disabled people in work may be forced to quit their job by DLA cuts. Again, people who are perfectly good at their jobs being prevented from functioning by a government that aren't good at their jobs.

What interests me more is Freud's piss-take of an apology. He said:

I care passionately about disabled people. I am proud to have played a full part in a government that is fully committed to helping disabled people overcome the many barriers they face in finding employment. That is why through Universal Credit – which I referred to in my response – we have increased overall spending on disabled households by £250m, offered the most generous work allowance ever, and increased the disability addition to £360 per month.

From Spectator Coffeehouse.

We all know that he doesn't give a toss about disabled people. Increased spending on disabled households? Tell that to the 394,000 people waiting for their ESA claim to be processed so they can put food on the table. Or the 145,000 people waiting for their PIP claim to be processed so they can afford to pay for a wheelchair or for someone to get them out of bed in the morning. Or the bedroom tax victims: Three quarters of whom have a disabled person in the family. Or the people who currently get DLA because they're only capable of walking less than 50 metres, but will lose it under PIP because they can walk more than 20 metres. Or all the terminally ill people who've been deemed "fit for work" like Larry Newman or Cecilia Burns.

And as for Universal Credit increasing spending on disabled households: They're abolishing the Severe Disability Premium under UC. Not replacing it with something a bit stricter - like the move from DLA to PIP - they're just abolishing it. The country's 230,000 most severely disabled people will be significantly worse off under Universal Credit.

While it's great that the mainstream media are - for a change - coming to disabled people's defence over Freud's original remarks: Why are they accepting his apology without delving into the outright lies it contains?

Edit 16/10/14: Yet another Tory thinks the minimum wage is "A barrier to work". She too presumably was complicit in the DLA cuts which will force disabled people to quit work (the Tories were whipped to vote for cuts.)

Even Mr Money Saving Expert himself thinks disabled people should be exempt from the minimum wage:

Remember yesterday when people thought disabled people were worth it? What a great day. Shame it's "shit on those disableds" business as usual again today.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Taxing Disability

Not satisfied with canning the lowest rate of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) care, or reducing the distance one can walk from 50m to 20m in order to be able to qualify for its successor benefit Personal Independence Payment (PIP): Iain Duncan Smith now wants to tax DLA and PIP.

The Independent writes:

A government source said to the paper: “It cannot be right that those on the lowest incomes get the same disability benefits as those who are millionaires.

Which on the surface seems fair. I mean, the independently wealthy David Cameron didn't need DLA to buy the basics like wheelchairs for Ivan in the same way that my parents needed it to buy a wheelchair for me, right? He could afford them anyway, without needing extra money to cover the extra costs arising from being disabled.

But there are 4 fundamental problems with this plan. (Which the Indy does note IDS has spoken "on the issue but no official policy announcement has been made.")

1) This won't just apply to millionaires

Yes it is true that more disabled people live in poverty than non-disabled people. A great many disabled people are broke.

But just because someone's earning enough to pay income tax doesn't mean they can miraculously afford to cover all impairment-related costs. It's estimated that being disabled costs on average an extra £550 a month. It's only people on the highest rates of both care and mobility components of the benefit that get more than £550 a month in DLA/PIP (and they only get £2.20 more than that figure of £550). Most people on DLA/PIP are getting far less than £550 a month to cover their extra costs already; they simply can't afford to have money deducted from a benefit that's already not enough to meet their needs.

If you do get the highest rates of both components because you need assistance 24/7 (if you only need help during your waking hours the highest rate care DLA you're eligible for is the middle rate) that comes to £7,178.60 a year. Meaning that you can only earn £2,821.40 in wages before you have to start paying tax.

Even if you only get the lowest rate of £21.55 a week that comes to £1,120.6 a year; meaning that you have to start paying tax after earning £8,879.40.

In other words: Non-disabled people will have a personal tax allowance of £10,000. Disabled people will have a considerably lower allowance on what they're allowed to earn before tax gets deducted from their wages. Equal, huh?

Many disabled people don't even see a penny of their DLA. With the care component taken by the council to pay for someone to get them dressed in the morning, and the mobility component taken by Motability to pay for a mobility aid - whether that's a car, a scooter, or a wheelchair - we're going to see people taxed on money they're not receiving. They can't deduce the tax from the money they're getting in benefit because they're not getting a penny of it.

2) It will hit those on the lowest incomes too

Contributory Employment and Support Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, and JobSeeker's Allowance are all taxable. If the only taxable income you have in a year is cESA; your income will not be enough to pay tax on. At the moment pretty much the only time you'd be paying tax on ESA would be if you'd worked for the first half of the tax year and hit that taxable threshold, and then developed an illness like cancer and had to claim cESA for the second half of the year.

But if DLA/PIP become taxable income too; there's the chance that your combination of ESA and DLA will push you over the personal tax allowance. IDS is lying if he claims this is about making sure those on the lowest income get the most support.

3) Disabled people in work will be pushed out of work

The Disability Benefits Consortium found that over 50,000 disabled people currently in work would have to give up work if they lost their DLA. If DLA pays for someone to get you out of bed in the morning to go to work: You can't work if that DLA is stopped. If DLA pays for your wheelchair to get you to work: You can't get to work if your DLA is stopped.

While taxability is only going to equate to a maximum of 45p in every pound for the highest rate taxpayers; almost all disabled people in work will see bites taken out of their DLA because of the fact that they'll have a smaller personal allowance as I mentioned under point 1. For a lot of people it will be the difference between having help to get out of bed in the morning, and not having help to get out of bed in the morning. For some it will be the difference between having a wheelchair and not having a wheelchair.

The "senior government source" claimed that taxing DLA would raise "several billions". A not very clever senior government source who doesn't have the ability to realise the amount this policy is going to cost them in out-of-work benefits for all the disabled people forced to quit their jobs.

4) It undermines the universality of the welfare state

Yeah, some rich people partake of "legal tax avoidance schemes". But those that do pay their tax know that they're investing in their own future, not just benevolently giving to others. They know that when they reach 65, they'll be eligible for a state pension because it's universal. They know that if they develop cancer, or their heart starts to fail: They'll be eligible to claim contributory ESA because it's universal. They know that if they break their spine in a car accident; they'd be eligible for DLA/PIP to pay for a wheelchair, or for someone to wipe their butt if they have a high level injury and lose the use of their arms.

Yes, under this scheme they'll still be eligible for DLA/PIP; just less of it. It might be the difference between getting their whole £550 extra costs met, or only part of them.

DLA/PIP is fair because it says "we recognise that being disabled is expensive. It doesn't matter if you're comfortably off; we think those extra costs are unfair so we're levelling the playing field for all disabled people." DLA was fair to the Cameron family in meeting some of their extra costs. Extra costs introduced by a discriminatory society that places financial burdens on disabled people that just aren't placed on non-disabled people.

But the "government source" did have a point...

In addition to the universal DLA available to rich disabled people and poor disabled people alike; there currently is some extra financial help available to the poorest of disabled people called the Severe Disability Premium (SDP). SDP isn't a whole benefit on it's own; it's a top-up premium for those getting either Income Support or means-tested ESA. The SDP is being scrapped under Universal Credit.

Until Iain Duncan Smith came plundering along with his incompetency; it was never, ever, the case that disabled people on the lowest incomes got the same as disabled millionaires. It's only now that he's come along with no experience or insight that poor disabled people and rich disabled people will get the same because of his abolition of the SDP.

While I think it's fair that rich disabled people should get DLA because they're still hit with bills that their non-disabled peers don't; the reality is that families with fortunes like the Camerons aren't going to be affected by this cut at all. It's just a drop in the ocean to them. The people who are going to be hit hardest are the disabled people earning £4000 a year who'll suddenly be getting a tax bill because their DLA pushes them over the personal allowance. The people with cancer on DLA and ESA who'll find that those 2 benefits combined will push them over the personal allowance. The disabled people who have to quit the job they love because they can no longer afford to pay for someone to help them out of bed in the morning.

The rich disabled people will just indulge in schemes like those partaken of by people like Jimmy Carr and Gary Barlow. The people who'll really be hurt by these policies will be those who can afford it least. Remember that when the DWP insist that it's a tax only for rich disabled people.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Four things from the Conservative Party Conference #cpc14

1) Housing Benefit for 18-21 year olds

In general students are ineligible for housing benefit, but many disabled students are. Which considering that most non-disabled students are able to take a part-time job, but most disabled students aren't it's rather sensible. Because of my impaired mobility I certainly could never have done the bar work or waitressing that my classmates all did. This is a way of levelling the playing field and allowing disabled people to study like their non-disabled peers.

Cuts to Disabled Students' Allowance were announced earlier in the year, though they've recently been postponed.

But now the Tories are planning an extra cut which will hit young people if they win the next election: they're going to prevent 18-21 year olds from claiming housing benefit. Many young people are going to end up homeless; both disabled and non-disabled; and it's going to be horrific. But it's going to have an extra impact on disabled people in that it's going to be yet another barrier in accessing an education that won't hit non-disabled people in quite the same way.

2) Freeze on working age benefits for 2 years

In his speech; Osborne announced that if the Tories win next year, he'll freeze working age benefits for 2 years. He lied outright when he told the assembled crowd and adoring media that this wouldn't apply to disability benefits. Dr Campbell explained on her blog how it definitely will be hitting ESA claimants. Please spread her post far and wide for people who haven't read the fine print of Osborne's announcement and took him at his word when he said it wouldn't apply to "disability benefits".

3) Benefits cards instead of cash

Because IDS doesn't realise that Shameless was a piece of fiction, he's going to be trialling paying benefits by pre-paid cards instead of cash so that people can only spend them on items he deems acceptable; and at stores that have negotiated deals with the government.

So if you live in the village where I grew up, can't use the train station or the buses because they're not accessible, and you don't have a car: You're fucked. Because the chances that the one family-run tiny village shop have got in on the government scheme are slim.

There's a host of other problems too. Addiction isn't the only criteria you'd get put onto the cards for. Debt is another one. Scope estimate that being disabled costs you on average an extra £550 a month. When you've got those extra costs mounting it's very easy to rack up debt.

What happens when you then need to buy a piece of equipment like a walking stick or a chopping board adapted for one-handed use from a company that's not signed up to the government benefit card scheme and you don't have any cash?

What about the 58 year old woman who's paid her National Insurance premiums for 40 years? She's now developed cancer and had to claim ESA while undergoing treatment. Because being ill is expensive she ran up some debt during treatment and as such was shifted from cash payments to a pre-paid card. She's just been given that all clear by her doctor; but it'll be at least a month before the effects of the treatment have worn off enough for her to be well enough to go back to work. Should she really not be allowed to buy a bottle of champagne the day she gets her all clear? After 40 years of paying her NI contributions?

It's very easy for people with mental health problems to get into financial difficulty when they're especially unwell. I know a lot of people end up with some quite large debts. For me, personally, the most effective antidepressant is TV. It's easy to immerse yourself in a fictional world to forget - just temporarily - how terrible real life is. I spent much of Monday upset about how isolated and alone I am. Wanna know how I distracted myself from the thoughts that my life really isn't worth living? I watched TV.

So you're ill, you're in debt, you've been given a card and are only allowed to spend money on pre-approved items from pre-approved stores. Your TV breaks and you need to repair or replace it for the sake of your sanity; to give your brain some respite from how miserable your life is. You're not allowed to buy a TV because TVs aren't on the list of things you're allowed to have. Are you supposed to just wallow in your depression until you finally do end up causing yourself serious harm?

Or you're so physically impaired that you're unable to cook. Your council won't give you a care package because their budget's been cut by central government. The only way you can get some food is to order a takeaway. You've got yourself into debt because buying takeaway every day is expensive, but you've got no choice. You get transferred from cash payments to the cards because of your debt and takeaways are a prohibited item. What are you supposed to eat then?

Or a card-holder in the situation that I'm in now where they need to buy a new mattress but the only things they're allowed to buy with their card are food, toiletries and clothes? Or if they are allowed to buy a mattress, but only from a supplier that's got a deal with the DWP. And that supplier won't remove old mattresses for disposal and they can't get rid of a mattress themselves because they're too physically impaired?

Then there are people with addictions. People who aren't going to stop buying drugs or alcohol because of a switch from cash to pre-paid cards because they are addicted. Instead they'll sell their £30 card for £15 of cash. Or resort to crime to meet their physical need for the substance they're addicted to.

4) Acceleration of Universal Credit rollout

On Monday IDS announced that Universal Credit will be rolled out to all JobCentres from early next year. They say this is because of the "success of the policy so far". Such a "success" that they keep lowering the target... And still missing it. For now it'll only be for single people claiming JSA. But with an accelerated timetable it won't be long before people reporting a change of circumstances can kiss their Severe Disability Premium goodbye, and the rest of us will watch it gradually fade away.

And a bonus piece of news that's not from the conference but got published this weekend

The DWP don't collect information on people who've died as a result of having their income stopped. Read the article from the Disability News Service who submitted the FoI request.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Cuts to Disabled Students' Allowance Postponed

As David reported in April, Disabled Students' Allowance was recently targeted for some major cuts. There have been many of us very worried about this. But as the TES reports this week, the cuts to Disabled Students' Allowance have been postponed until academic year 2016/17.

But there has been no u-turn here, despite what the NUS is claiming - just a worry about timing. Ministers have said that they want to give universities more time to ensure that they can plug the gap left by Disabled Students' Allowance. (This probably has a lot to do with pressure from panicked university representatives, who've realised they can't afford that gap-plugging.) Government policy continues to be the same: move the responsibility for meeting disabled students' extra costs away from the government and onto the universities. As we've seen with the changes to the Access to Work fund, when you remove funding and expect employers/providers to plug the gap, it simply doesn't happen. The same thing will be true with DSA.

Will cuts to DSA keep disabled students out of university? Image: empty dining hall at Oxford University. Photo by David Illiff, Creative Commons.

Ultimately, how many universities are going to be willing to take on expensive students whose costs are no longer funded by the government? I forsee a lot of excuses along the lines of "We are not equipped to support you on your course." (I've already been threatened with that excuse myself in the past, though the threat didn't end up materialising - in part thanks to DSA.) Even more likely is an increase in general social inequality. How many prospective disabled students can afford to make their own courses accessible? Given how inaccessible they are now - not many.

Disabled people are excluded from educational opportunities, which contributes to the poverty, lack of qualifications and limited opportunities that we experience. A key reason is the inaccessibility of university courses. DSA goes some way towards helping to rebalance things, making university courses more accessible. These changes mean that many more disabled people will be unable to afford to do university courses. And this at a time when we're living under a regime that wants all disabled people to work. Ensuring that disabled people get equal access to degree courses would be one way to help with that. This is a short-sighted policy.

All that said, I remain encouraged by the support shown by NUS for disabled students on this issue. Let's hope we can keep their #degreesofdiscrimination campaign going, and change the government's mind on DSA for good.

As a disabled postgrad student, I've experienced some serious discrimination and access barriers. Without my DSA, I simply wouldn't have been able to continue with my course. In what ways have you been enabled to attend university by Disabled Students Allowance?

For more on the changes to DSA, and the consultation about it, follow the Disabled Students' Allowance Observatory blog.

Thursday 31 July 2014

Confirmed - The FULL Impact of Cuts Disabled People Fac

Since the coalition came to power, sick and disabled people have claimed we are being fundamentally harmed by the coalition welfare reforms. Not scroungers or skivers, but people living with long term serious illnesses like me, or who live with physical disabilities. Adults AND children. Young and old. People with terminal conditions, people with kidney or heart failure, people waiting for transplants and even people in comas. None have been spared. The government repeatedly assure you they have.

The government have of course denied that they are putting an unreasonable share of austerity cuts on us. Repeatedly and often aggressively. This is how they respond to the UN of all people :

Since 2011, almost every main voice involved in the services and systems that support sick and disabled people have argued that we must know how all of the changes TOGETHER have affected us so particularly.

Everything we rely on has been cut severely - in some cases by up to 40%. Disability benefits, sickness benefits, social care services, housing support, legal aid for tribunals, respite care, the independent living fund, council tax relief, higher education funding, everything.

It is very possible that if you were affected by one of the changes, you were affected by several or even all of them.

Whilst the government paid lip service to assessing what impact their reforms would have on sick and disabled people, they only did so one by one. They always claimed it was impossible to assess them all together and specifically, how they would affect disabled people when combined.

It has been a long and dishonest journey. As with so many things, the government have done everything in their power to keep the figures from the public.

They said that it wasn't possible despite a petition gathering over 100,000 signatures calling for what they called a "cumulative impact assessment" or CIA. (Scroll down for gov response)

The government treated the debate it generated in parliament - a debate sick and disabled people themselves worked so hard for - like a Punch and Judy show of partisan nonsense. You can watch it for yourself if you click on the following link :

They said it wasn't "robust" when both the very well respected Dr Simon Duffy from the Centre for Welfare Reform and the equally well respected think tank Demos produced models they believed were viable.

And finally, just 2 days ago, Lord Freud, the failed millionaire ex-banker who re-designed our entire welfare system in just 3 weeks, wrote an official response to the SSAC, the government's own Social Security Advisory Committee, who alsocalled for a CIA relating to disability, confirming yet again, that he believed it was impossible to assess all of the changes sick and disabled people have faced and claiming that the IFS, the all powerful Institute for Fiscal Studies, agreed with him.

This was yet another lie from Freud - there is no other word for it. As the IFS have confirmed

“We can’t find anything we have written down saying we can’t do a CIA....We do think it is possible to do a CIA of tax and benefit changes for the disabled population as a whole."

As it happens, they did one themselves for Wales

Today, at the request of the European Human Rights Commission, (EHRC) NIESR, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research have produced a definitive CIA and it is shocking 

"Figure 4.9 shows that households with disabled children lose out by more in cash terms than households with disabled adults, with households with disabled children and adults losing out by more than either group – around £1,500 per household per year on average.
"Households with no disabled adults or disabled children in the 7th and 8th deciles [wealthier households] actually gainslightly from the reform package, whereas households with disabled adults or children (or both) lose out. At the bottom of the distribution, households with no disabled people, or with disabled adults, do not lose as much on average as households with disabled children, or both disabled adults and children. In percentage terms the distributional effects are fairly regressive across all four groups, with households with disabled adults and children doing worst of all up to the top decile."
 As one of the authors, Jonathan Portes says in an article for the Guardian today

"Modelling the cumulative impact is feasible and practicable – at least by gender, age, disability and ethnicity. Our model isn’t perfect and could be improved, but it can be done.....Families that have a disabled adult or child lose perhaps five times as much proportionally as better-off able-bodied families."
There is now absolutely no doubt at all that sick and disabled people have been hit over and over again by a barrage of cuts and the more vulnerable the family; the more disabled people within it; the more they have lost.

The DWP, Iain Duncan-Smith, Lord Freud and many right wing media outlets have kept this information from the public through every possible means. They will probably do so again today.

But over 100,000 people signed the WOW petition.

Think tanks and charities and many journalists know that this is hugely significant. And as ever, we can and will make our own news.



We now know that this government have harmed the very people they promised us they would protect. They have harmed the very people that voters never wanted to be harmed. They have lied about the harm being done at every stage and have actively tried to keep it from both parliament and the media.

If ever a story needed to be seen and understood, it is this. If you never bothered to click on the links in an article for more information before, click on these. It is a shameful and repellant story and those responsible have no place whatsoever within 100 miles of Westminster. 

Tuesday 22 July 2014

PIP judicial review: Court rules against us but vindicates our case

We lost. The judge ruled that in the end the consultation process for PIP was not unfair.

However that is not the whole story. You see, the judge found that it was the second consultation that made things right. The first consultation, he had some harsher words for. Words such as:
"Unfortunately mind-bogglingly opaque." (Paragraph 105 part ii)
"At best ambivalent" (Paragraph 105 part vii)
"Convoluted, inherently unclear, ambiguous and confusing.  No construction allows for full coherence." (Paragraph 106)
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the way the government chose to do things, I think you'll agree.  The government's legal team also agreed, and in fact they have accepted that they must share a portion of the costs of this judicial review in the face of evidence that it was indeed justified.

Not only that, but the government made it perfectly clear that they know exactly how much their policies will hurt people but want to do it anyway.
“… [T]his was recognised from the outset.  In developing the PIP assessment we were aware that the vast majority of recipients of DLA were individuals with genuine health conditions and disabilities and genuine need, and that removing or reducing that benefit may affect their daily lives.  However, we believe that these impacts can be justified as being a logical result of distributing limited resources in a different and more sustainable way…”.
(Paragraph 80)
Let's see that again:
"we were aware that the vast majority of recipients of DLA were individuals with genuine health conditions and disabilities and genuine need, and that removing or reducing that benefit may affect their daily lives."
And again:
"genuine need"
So we have the government's lawyers arguing that the DWP and the government ministers know full well that they are removing vital support from hundreds of thousands of people who have few other options and who will suffer as a result. And they are doing it to save money.

The judge agreed with the DWP that taking money from physically disabled people to allocate to other PIP claimants achieves "substantive equality between physically and non-physically disabled." I argue that this has reduced the equality of physically disabled people compared to not-yet-disabled people, purely because of budget.

This is Lowest common denominator equality.

This is your government. This is what the society that we live in is prepared to accept.

The court's findings and what's next

The judge was persuaded by Dr Bolton's evidence that the government could have changed their decision had they decided to listen to the overwhelming opposition to the 20m rule in the second consultation, and so it was not unfair. My legal team and I disagree. We still argue that the decision had long since been made and that the secretary of state had a closed mind by this point, and so the second consultation was not at a formative stage.

Although the judgment went against us I feel that the judge's analysis of the first consultation is vindication for our bringing this case to court. Don't forget that the second consultation only came about after this case was given permission to proceed and the DWP realised that they could not get away with such a shambles.

I hope that the admission by the government that they know exactly what they are doing will make people wake up to what is happening. Meanwhile, this is not the end. The legal team and I are considering our options to appeal this result.

Press Release from Public Law Solicitors

PIP Consultation Judicial Review Press Release

This article is crossposted from

Thursday 17 July 2014

#DisabilityConfident - a Wasted Year

It's coming up on a year since DWP launched Disability Confident, their campaign to try and get more disabled people into work by not challenging workplace disablism (yes, you read that right), and DWP are trying to drum up attention for the anniversary by organising a Twitter Thunderclap, which shows every sign of being more a drizzle in a teacup than a thunderclap as a day before it executes it only has 245 supporters, about half of whom are individual DWP Job Centres or government ministries. Which if you think about it means they can't even get a significant fraction of the people who have been through Disability Confident events in this last year to voice their support for it.

I've talked about my problems with Disability Confident in earlier blogs, about its deeply offensive focus on inspiration-porn and how the 'It's about Ability, not Disability' tagline sends entirely the wrong message in 'So What's Wrong With Disability Confident?' and about its failure to address workplace disablism, the root of the problem, in 'Disability Confident and the Elephant in the Corner', so with a year gone, how has Disability Confident performed?

The answer isn't a good one. Make no mistake, I agree with the stated aims of Disability Confident, because the difference in the rates of non-disabled and disabled employment is a national disgrace, but I think they've picked a godawful way of approaching the problem, and that that is a deliberate decision, as demonstrated by then Minister for Disabled People Esther McVey's statement at the launch that she wasn't comfortable with telling people what to do - unfortunately when she said 'telling people what to do' she actually meant enforcing our employment rights under the Equality Act, 2010. Rather than take on the actual problem of workplace disablism, Disability Confident tries to pretend that the problem is just that employers might be a bit 'embarrassed and uncomfortable' with disabled people, and tries to challenge that by painting us as 'inspiring'. The 'embarrassed and uncomfortable' message was handled far better by Scope's #EndTheAwkward campaign, which achieved greater penetration in a week with its three ads than Disability Confident has achieved in an entire year of events; meanwhile people, including keynote speakers, are still coming out of Disability Confident events and tweeting about how inspiring we all are - so that's another generation of managers and recruiters taught to objectify disabled people rather than treat us as normal, which actually pushes the workplace equality cause backwards rather than forwards.

Nor have the online Disability Confident materials been much better, not only do they try to avoid emphasising our legal rights as job applicants and employees under the Equality Act, 2010, but one so-called 'resource' for employers trumpeted by the #DisabilityConfident tweet stream of @DWPGovUK managed to classify Autism, which is a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (i.e. a developmental disability with general effects), in with the Specific Learning Difficulties such as Dyspraxia and Dyslexia (i.e. developmental disabilities with localised effects), this is about as correct as classifying a potato as a flower.... That entire 'Hidden Disabilities Toolkit' website has currently been taken down for rework, and the notice for that claims that the SpLDs are part of the Autism Spectrum, completely reversing their prior statement, and still getting it utterly wrong!

I'm trying to think of something Disability Confident actually gets right, I really am, but I'm coming up blank. We are faced with a chronically discriminatory jobs market, which has been resisting legislation to fix it since at least the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 (which created the old Registered Disabled system and employment quotas), together with rampant workplace disablism, and DWP are trying to fix it by saying the problem is that people are a little embarrassed by disability. I've been through the workplace disablism wringer, and my manager's problem wasn't that he was 'embarrassed' by me, it was that he openly stated all disabled people should be forcibly retired, and set out to make sure precisely that happened to me.

The first year of Disability Confident hasn't been the success DWP are trying to paint it, if anything the inspiration-porn focus of the campaign has worked to entrench the problem of disabled workers being perceived as the other, and until we are seen as no different to any other worker we will not make progress on disability employment. Of course the fact that every other mention of disability by DWP is aimed at portraying us as lazy, frauds and scroungers doesn't exactly enshrine us as ideal workers in the eyes of recruiters and managers.

Disability Confident is meant to run for another year, the only way that it will make progress, and counter the damage it has already done, is to actually get out there and challenge workplace disablism. The message disabled people need Disability Confident pushing isn't 'We took on X as a token and they're sooo inspiring', it's 'Company Y refuses to employ disabled people and we are therefore taking them to court for breaching the Equality Act 2010', because when you have been trying softly-softly for 70 years without progress, its probably a sign that it's long past time to start kicking butt and naming names, pour encourager les autres.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

New Disability Minister, Same as the Old Disability Minister

In an utter farce during yesterday's Cabinet reshuffle, disabled people were left for several hours under the impression the post of Minister for Disabled People had been axed. Existing minister Mike Penning, no loss, had been moved off to become Minister for State for both Policing and Justice, the sort of authoritarian roles which will clearly suit him better, and the odious Esther 'they get better' McVey, his predecessor in the role before being promoted to Minister of State for Employment had had her government web page amended to say that, 'from July 2014' she was taking over the responsibilities for the Minister for Disabled People role. Then, much later, came the announcement, and via 'rumours from within DWP' to quote the Guardian's Politics Blog, rather than being announced via Cameron's twitter feed as with other appointments, that Mark Harper would be taking over as Minister for Disabled People. Clearly disabled people are beneath Cameron's dignity to address as he does for other ministerial posts.

So who is Mark Harper? Well, for a start he's the former Minister for Immigration who signed off on the 'Go Home' racist vans, and I say 'former Minister' because it then emerged he was employing an illegal immigrant as his cleaner and had to resign. But after a bare six months on the back benches his record has been washed clean and he's back in government. The question is whether he'll be any different to his three Tory predecessors: Miller, Miller, the Cripple Killer, the odious 'they get better' McVey, and Penning, all of whom have functioned more as Ministers against Disabled People than Ministers for Disabled People. Well the good news is he actually has some background with disability, having been Shadow Minister for Disabled People before he was elected, the bad news is that he has form for openly accusing disabled benefit claimants of being frauds and scroungers, and he did this while Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform in the Cabinet Office. Appearing on Any Questions on 10 September 2010, Harper stated: "There are definitely some people in our country, and everyone in every community knows who they are, who are able to work, and don't, and those people mustn't be given the option of staying on benefits when other people are going out and working incredibly hard to try and support their families" and then, when told by the original questioner that he should be condemned for his language: "I gave a very balanced answer, when I said there are some people, and it was very clear during the General Election campaign, because everybody sees them, able-bodied people who have no barriers to work who choose not to. And there's nothing that upsets people who work hard to take care of their families, who see other people living at least as good a life as they do, who don't work for a living. They find it outrageous and particularly when money is very tight, they want the government to do something about it." This is absolutely classic IDS-style demonization of disabled people with all the requisite buzz-words of 'hard-working people' and 'everybody sees them' to imply that the overwhelming majority of disabled people in receipt of disability benefits are frauds and scroungers, and that if you don't agree then you aren't one of the right-thinking people. Thrown into the middle of that there's also the gem of "the Work Programme... will be very personalized ... trying to fit the help that they get to the particular needs that they've got" - if anyone has come across the Work Programme doing that, let us know! You can listen to him saying all of this here, from 32:45.

So there we have it, the new Minister Against Disabled People, wielding the demonization brush with the best of them and clearly no more a friend and supporter of Disabled People than any of his predecessors.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

PIP consultation judicial review starts today

Today a judge will consider whether the Department of Work and Pensions carried out a fair consultation when it decided that only people who could walk less than 20 metres would get the full amount of help for mobility.

Where with Disability Living Allowance claimants had to be able to walk less than 50 metres to qualify for the higher rate, under Personal Independence Payments the cut-off will be just 20 metres. People who fall between those two distances will receive the lower rate of £21.55 a week instead of the higher rate of £56.75. As a result they will no longer qualify to lease a car from the Motability scheme and if they currently have one it will be taken away. Other things that may be affected can include automatic entitlement to bus passes and local taxi or dial-a-ride schemes. The lower rate of £21.55 won't stretch much beyond one taxi trip to see a doctor or hospital in many areas.

Although three people initially pursued a judicial review, two cases were put on hold and my case was continued as representative of the others. The judicial review will examine the consultation about PIP that took place in early 2012 and the second consultation that focused on just the mobility component which took place in late 2013.

The main case is that the first consultation did not address the change to 20 metres while, by the time it got to the second consultation it was too late because there was no realistic possibility of change. The rest of the scheme had already been put in place and so money had already been allocated elsewhere.

In response to the second consultation the DWP unexpectedly claimed that the budget that in the past helped people with physical disabilities to get out and mobile had been reallocated to help people with learning disabilities and mental health problems. This pitting of one impairment against another is fundamentally unfair.. Rather than address inequality by bringing everyone up to the same mobility level, they have chosen to help one group by seriously disadvantaging another. It would seem that the government has seen the word equality but has not understood what it really means. If they had told us what was in their minds when they were consulting we might have had a chance to put them right.

The judicial review will be heard at the Adminstrative Court in Bull Street, Birmingham starting at 13:00 today and all day tomorrow. We don't yet know when we will hear the results. There will be a vigil outside the courts in Bull Street, Birmingham today at 13:00 which supporters may wish to attend. Please spread the word and tell your friends to look out for this story in the news.

Related blog posts

PIP 20 metre rule consultation response: “We’re not listening.”
Victory! DWP to launch PIP mobility consultation
PIP Judicial Review given the go ahead
Announcement: legal action against the DWP over the #PIP consultation
Why I am suing the government
If you can only walk twenty metres you’ll get no help
Replacement of disability living allowance headline news for hours
Two weeks until PIP Judicial Review – 20 metre limit in the dock

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Atos Put the Boot Into Disabled People Yet Again

The appearance of Atos's senior vice president Lisa Coleman before the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee seems to have been the key for the reviled (and redundant) multinational to try and salvage some of its destroyed reputation, and yet again it has chosen to do this by attacking disabled people.

The full story can be read in this BBC report: "Atos was 'lightning rod' for anger over benefit changes" and here in the Guardian "Disability claims system needs to change, Atos tells MPs"

Sue Marsh has a slightly more positive interpretation on her blog, but I'm not so certain anything has changed at the heart of Atos (as bizarre as Atos having a heart may seem).

In parallel with Coleman's appearance before the Select Committee, which included the usual attempt to blame DWP decision makers for the failures, no matter that the decision makers have been shown repeatedly to go with the Atos report 9 times out of 10; the Atos propaganda machine, in the person of Helen Hall, the firm's 'head of communications and customer relations', was busy insisting to the media that fully 1 in 4 of their assessors had quit due to 'abuse' - by which I presume they mean having the reality of the impact on disabled people of the policies they were implementing pointed out to them by the disability movement as a whole. If pointing out the sheer, unbelievable stupidity of some of the Atos decisions ranks as 'abuse', then count me an abuser and proud of it!

Hall also declared "They are professional trained people," she said. "They care about the job they do. ... The level of intimidation, the level of negative coverage about professional people..." As it happens I'm a professional person too, the law of the land holds me to a higher level of competence and behaviour in the exercise of my professional abilities than it does the proverbial 'man on the Clapham Omnibus' (yes, case law really says that). In terms of professional behaviour the Atos staff I dealt with weren't even on the omnibus - they were the Keystone Kops chasing along in its wake! If I had behaved in a similar - openly abusive - manner towards a customer, or demonstrated similar incompetence, then I could reasonably have expected to be summarily dismissed for gross misconduct by my employer, and not dealing with me would have landed my employers in huge problems with the government agencies that license them to undertake safety-critical work. Yet, as we've seen for five years now, Atos has been in continuous denial that there was any problem whatsoever, because they knew that, no matter how many disabled people suffered under ludicrous decisions, they were doing what their regulator, the Department of Work and Pensions, really wanted.

Let's recall for a moment what these 'professional people' have accomplished. There was the Atos doctor who engaged in homophobic tirades, there was the Atos nurse-assessor caught vilely denigrating those she was supposed to be assessing on Facebook, there were the Atos doctors who fell ever so slightly short of having sufficient English skills to do the work, the Atos doctors who proclaimed life-long illnesses such as Cerebral Palsy would be cured in six months, and there were the Atos doctors by the score who reported facts that were dismissed at Tribunal as having not even tangential relationship to the assessments actually undertaken or the medical facts of the case in hand. Ultimately, every Atos doctor, nurse and physio who agreed to work in an Atos centre without sufficient attention paid to access needs (pretty much all of them), while carrying out a Work Capability Test that by design misleads and misdirects the patient, denying them the opportunity for informed consent required as part of their oath, was telling medical ethics to take a hike, because there was money in this. When the governing body of doctors found it necessary to issue a reminder to doctors conducting the WCA that basic honesty is a professional requirement, then maybe, just maybe the standards of professionalism at Atos needed a serious looking at. But again, that lack of professionalism was generating exactly the results that DWP wanted, and what DWP wanted, Atos management was on a crusade to deliver, even if it meant their staff lived in fear of assigning one person too many to WRAG or Support Group (and god forbid deciding someone had a long-term problem, because that would deny Atos the fees for the repeat assessments every six months).

Hall also stated that publicising the issues around Atos mean that people "might come into that assessment feeling that the assessor they are going to see is someone who will treat them with contempt, who can't be trusted, who isn't trained". Now given the number of people I've seen reporting that they had to explain to their assessor just what their disability actually involved, because the assessor had never heard of it, not to mention Professor Harrington's conclusions that there were major problems with Atos's assumption that physiotherapists were capable of assessing complex mental health issues, I think the inadequate training point was rather clearly proven. With regard to the being 'treated with contempt' and whether or not they can be trusted, I can testify to that one personally, with my assessment opening with a statement from the Atos quack that I shouldn't believe everything I had heard on the Net, rapidly followed by him showing that everything I'd heard on the Net was not only absolutely true, but possibly understated, and then reaching a high point of trust, or the lack of it, with him actively resisting recording a fact that qualified me for WRAG in its own right, never mind in conjunction with other factors.

She also complained "What we have seen quite often now is people coming in for an assessment and they are actually saying at the end of it 'you've just been recorded on my iPhone and I am going to expose you on the internet'." Possibly they wouldn't have faced that problem if the system put in place to allow recording of interviews had had slightly more than 20 recorders for the whole country, only a fraction of which ever worked, and if Atos assessments hadn't been found to be wildly variant from reality in quite so many Tribunal cases. I passed my WCA (probably because the doctor panicked on eventually realising just how much physical distress I was in - I think it was the moment I told him I had to either stand-up, or throw-up), yet I was so traumatized by it I dropped my claim rather than go through it again. But if I ever do go through WCA again, then damn straight I would insist on recording it, because having to browbeat the assessor into recording the most fundamental facts of my disability tells me that the process cannot be trusted.

Yet again Atos have found themselves faced by a moral choice - admit that the implementation of the WCA is impossibly flawed and align themselves with its victims, or attack those victims - and have chosen to try and portray themselves as the victims and the victims as the abusers. It's classic bullying behaviour, straight out of the Bullying for Dummies playbook, and tells us that everything we believe of Atos is absolutely true.

Monday 2 June 2014

He Who Must Not Be Named and National Insurance

Concerned that they hadn't put him on our screens for more than 30 minutes; the BBC decided it was vital that they put He Who Must Not Be Named on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday.

I'm calling him that because clearly the constant attention he's getting is giving his party a huge boost in the polls, despite most of the press about it being negative. You can point out that they're homophobic, racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, and all the other -isms and -phobics. Not to mention elephant-haters. But He manages to brush it all aside with a photo call in a pub. They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, and it's clearly true. The more racism and homophobia allegations arose; the higher their poll ratings went.

He's previously distanced himself from the party's 2010 manifesto. A manifesto which said they wanted to drop the rate of Incapacity Benefit/ESA to the same rate as JobSeekers Allowance, and claimed that Disability Living Allowance was an out-of-work benefit for people too ill to work.

But yesterday He defended one point in the manifesto (though admitted it was badly explained 4 years ago): He said that they still want to abolish the National Insurance scheme.

I think all disabled people have had incidents in recent years where we've been on the receiving end of hate crime - or at least harassment - for being "scroungers". Like Pippa's experience of being targeted in the street for walking with a crutch.

National Insurance is the one reason I can look harassers in the eye and confidently say "when I could work I paid my National Insurance premiums. I paid into an insurance scheme so I would be protected if I ever became too ill to work."

National Insurance was a bloody brilliant idea. And it's such a simple plan. You pay into the scheme straight out of your wages so you're looked after both in your old age, and during your working life if you ever become unemployed or too ill to work.

National Insurance gives me a bit of dignity. When other people call me "a burden on the taxpayer," or my inner monologue tells me that I'm "a waste of taxpayers' money" (though it's not just my inner monologue that's called me that); I can tell them (or myself) "I paid into an insurance scheme and now I'm claiming back. It's how insurance works." When Radio 5Live put me up against that rentagob Hopkins who was banging on about how people should use private insurance schemes rather than scrounging taxpayers' money, I could screech over her "I paid for insurance! It's called 'National Insurance' for a reason!"

Now The Party Which Must Not Be Named wants to take that last shred of dignity from me. The party which got the most votes in the election a week and a half ago.

And it really is my last shred of dignity. I'm constantly ashamed of not being able to work. I can't even go to the emergency dentist to get a broken filling fixed without the humiliation of having to say "nothing" in response to the question "what do you do for a living?"

It's not just a matter of pride or shame. There's the practicalities too. What's going to happen to contributory ESA and JSA? Will they only offer means tested benefits for the ill and out-of-work? What about those who've worked and saved for thirty years when they get diagnosed with cancer? Will they no longer be eligible for ESA because they've got too much money for the means test?

Given that they've gotten more promotion than all the other parties combined for the pending Newark by-election; I wouldn't be at all surprised if they've got their first seat in the House of Commons in a couple of weeks. And given how popular they were on May 22nd; I wouldn't be at all surprised if they've got enough seats this time next year to forge a coalition with the Tories. (Because, let's face it, the Lib Dems will be lucky if they've got 10 MPs left. They won't be the Kingmakers next time if it's a hung Parliament.)

I really didn't think it would be possible to be any crueller than the Tories and be popular enough to win elections. Looks like I was wrong.

Monday 19 May 2014

Labour Attack UKIP - For Not Being Tough Enough on Benefit Claimants

Labour just don't seem to be able to drag themselves away from taking a pop at benefit claimants every time the subject comes up. Every time they try to say something about the economy they have to prefix it with 'hard working taxpayer' or 'hard working families' or 'hard day's work', as though those of us unable to work don't deserve a mention (mind you they have yet to go as far as UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, who proposed removing the franchise from benefit recipients). The feeling of being kicked in the teeth by the party that's supposed to represent us is getting annoyingly repetitive.

First of all today we had Ed himself:
As a basic principle we should aspire to a situation where if you do a hard day’s work you shouldn’t find yourself in poverty. - Ed

After the general *headdesk* moment, our own Latent Existence replied:
.@Ed_Miliband You shouldn't find yourself in poverty even if you can't do or find a hard day's work!

You wouldn't think you needed to tell the Labour Party Leader this, but there you go...

Then later on someone pointed out this gem of a party election leaflet from South West Labour:

Labour election leaflet, picture of a young woman on a mobile. Text on roaming charges and various attacks on UKIP policy - see below for further details

Notice first off that the obligatory 'hard working families' reference is there in the left-hand column, though in a particular unusual form as it relates it to mobile roaming charges (*headdesk*, *headdesk*, just what were you thinking, Labour? That mobile roaming charges are a major source of anxiety in the homes of the South West?) But the main focus of the page is attacking UKIP, and there's some perfectly fair criticism of UKIP in there, my major quibble being that it weasels out of actually calling them Racist, but then there's that last criticism:

'Ending the requirement for people on benefits to look for work'.

Now this is problematical on multiple levels. Most benefits (Old Age Pension, Child Allowance, DLA/PIP, Tax Credits and so on), aren't Out-of-Work benefits. Even ESA can't compel you to look for work, it can only force disabled people into 'Work Focused Activity', which isn't quite the same thing; only Job Seekers Allowance that I'm aware of actually includes the 'required to look for work' element. Attempts to conflate non-Out-of-Work benefits with Out-of-Work benefits are something we have seen repeatedly from the Tories as a prelude to cuts, so seeing Labour doing it isn't guaranteed to make anyone feel comfortable with where their policy is likely to turn.

And then there's the morality of the statement. I don't know what particular aspect of UKIP policy that line is targetting as UKIP are even better than Labour at hiding what they actually stand for. We're talking about UKIP of course, so it probably isn't pleasant - at one point it was UKIP policy to replace all Out-of-Work benefits with a flat rate equivalent to that paid to under-25s, about £56 a week - even for people in the ESA Support Group. But here is Labour, challenging UKIP on benefits policy, and they are doing that by saying UKIP aren't being hard enough.

Let me repeat that. Labour, challenging the ultra-right UKIP, say that their benefits policy isn't harsh enough. The party that's supposed to stand up for our rights think UKIP are too soft on us.

*headdesk*, *headdesk*, *headdesk* Are you people serious?

There's a reason UKIP are doing so well in the polls. Labour has deliberately created a four year policy gap where they avoided stating the principles they stood for or detailing their policies. Because that way no one, in particular no Mail reader, could take against them. It's the political equivalent of Saddam Hussein's air force deciding the best way to 'win' Operation Desert Storm was to huddle in their bunkers rather than any of that nasty getting out and challenging people stuff (and it worked so well for Saddam). When Labour have been forced into policy declarations, they are so terrified of the Mail vote the only option they can see is to try and be as harsh as the other parties. But of course when faced with a choice between Tory, and faux-Tory Labour, people just pick the real Tories, or worse, UKIP.

Time to wake up and remember what you stand for, Labour.


Before it's too late.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Pontius Pilate Found Alive and Well and Editing the Mail on Sunday

I keep thinking the Mail must have reached the absolute limit on hateful bile, only for it to plunge effortlessly to new depths of hate, but today's report in the Mail on Sunday on the foodbank charity The Trussell Trust is going to take some beating. For those who haven't read it, a MoS 'investigative reporter' went to CAB claiming to be unemployed and in need of food, and was referred to a foodbank, which fed him, and apparently this is evidence that there really isn't a foodbank crisis.

That's right, the Mail condemned a charity, for feeding a hungry man, on Easter Sunday.

Beyond the horror that they did this to a charity, we need to be very aware of exactly what was done here, and it is a far murkier story than many will realise. The Trussell Trust has been flagging up the massive growth in people seeking their help for the last year or more, and this is not a narrative that the government is happy with, in particular it seems to be driving Iain Duncan Smith towards apoplexy, and this week saw the launch of a coordinated attack on the Trussell Trust in the pages of, surprise, surprise, The Daily Mail with the claim that "Food bank charity 'is misleading the public': Claim that 1m need food parcels 'just self promotion'" and 'DWP sources' (presumably code for IDS's Special Advisors) alleging the charity was engaged in "misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking". There is something deeply ironic that IDS, who brandishes his Catholicism at every opportunity, should choose Easter Week to launch a coordinated attack on a charity dedicated to feeding those in need.

This MoS story is actually a very carefully calculated piece of political propaganda designed to allow IDS and the Tory party to deny the reality of the foodbank crisis. Tory DWP minister and IDS-mouthpiece Lord Freud has repeatedly tried to claim that people go to foodbanks not because they are in need, but because it is free food; that strategy hasn't been working because no one believes him. The MoS story clearly sets out with the intent of proving that Freud's position is true, by inventing a story that makes it true. It then further twists the narrative by alleging that many of the people receiving food parcels were asylum-seekers, linking the foodbank issue to the xenophobic fears of the Mail's Little Englander readership, and seeks to undermine the Trussell Trust figures by implying that there is massive fraud across the entire foodbank system. The next time that foodbanks are in the news, watch out for IDS and Freud and the Tory hordes to come out waving the MoS story and claiming they knew all along that the figures were lies.

When Ministers and Fleet Street editors set out to make their spin true by creating a story from whole cloth, how can we trust either ever to tell us the truth?

(Updated title to use the religous allusion I actually meant to use, though Herod worked in its own way. Guess I'm even more lapsed than I thought)

Friday 18 April 2014

Labour's New WCA Policy, Damned with Faint Praise

Labour's team of Rachel Reeves (shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) and Kate Green (shadow Minister for Disabled People) had an article in the Independent on Wednesday How Labour would reform the Work Capability Assessment and the reaction from disabled people has been underwhelming.

Labour propose:
  • That the WCA will be changed to be more relevant to work, with the disabled person to get a copy of the assessor's report, detailing how their disability is expected to affect their ability to work, together with information on locally available support.
  • That they would introduce an independent group of disabled people to work with the independent reviewer in producing ongoing annual reviews of the WCA.
  • That the firm(s) contracted to conduct the assessments would be held to tighter standards.

Now any improvement in WCA is clearly better than none, but these proposals aren't exactly earth-shattering. Holding the Atos replacement to tighter standards is already ConDem policy, involving disabled people in the annual review is clearly better on the Nothing For Us, Without Us front, but the ConDems have shown how easy it is to work around the review while making the WCA worse, and promises to change the test to make it more relevant to work don't necessarily mean making it any more honest in the way it proceeds.

Disabled bloggers and campaign groups have already responded, and the response has been lukewarm at best. Sue Marsh in the Guardian is perhaps least negative and even she declares herself 'tremendously disappointed', noting that, as ever, Labour seem scared of providing any detail to a policy in case it might scare off the middle ground (I think that's Labour code for Mail readers), I'm not as convinced as Sue is that all the points made are necessarily positive, more of that below, but as she notes, it's a step on from the shirkers they've called us in the past. Mason Dixon is less positive in his assessment, noting that we have no guarantee that Labour are on our side given those same very negative attitudes towards disabled people and benefits expressed in the not-so-distant past by very senior Labour figures (Miliband, Byrne, and Reeves herself). Disabled People Against The Cuts meanwhile have no problem presenting a detailed assessment of where the proposals fall short in their response and in detailing how getting disabled people into work needs a system-wide approach stretching far beyond the bounds of WCA and including reversing cuts to DSA, ILF and PIP, while extending AtW, the accessibility of public transport,  reversing changes to the law on unfair dismissal and enforcing laws against disability discrimination in employment, while also recognising that many disabled people simply cannot be expected to work. These are all issues that do indeed need addressing if disabled people are to be able to compete in the labour market as anything closer to true equals - unfortunately I think they also represent a far wider debate than Labour is prepared to address at the moment, which is another point where Labour is falling short of our needs.

Beyond the issues raised by Sue Marsh, Mason Dixon and DPAC, I spotted some fairly major problems of my own. Nowhere in the Reeves/Green article is DWP itself addressed, and there are few disabled people left with any doubts that DWP is a major part of the problem, not the solution. We have seen openly disablist attitudes from the bottom of DWP to the top: from front line clerks who continually try to undermine disability related provisions in Job Seekers Agreements; through Disability Equality Advisors who believe disabled people should only expect to compete for jobs at the minimum wage; through people sanctioned at the drop of a hat; even when the issue is something like a learning disabled person unable to respond to a written letter, or a blind person DWP consistently fail to write to in braille; through the issues with the Work Programme and its utter failure towards disabled people; and that its DWP overseers allow rampant 'parking' of disabled people; through WCA decision makers who rarely question even the most absurd Atos assessments; on up to the highest levels of the department with their reports saying '75% are faking' and the under-the-counter briefing of the tabloids of the frothing right. Even if much of the higher level issues have originated with IDS, his coterie of junior ministers, and their Special Advisors; the senior civil servants of DWP have a professional responsibility to enforce both the Civil Service and Ministerial Codes in order to stop these abuses, and it is clear that they have not been prepared to do that. It is unfortunately clear that disabled people will not be able to trust DWP until there is a root and branch clear-out of staff with disablist attitudes, and a thorough retraining of every single member of the department in the principles of disability equality, with any who are unable to reform their attitudes transferred out of the department. Issues of staff attitudes also carry through into training providers - anyone willing to 'park' a disabled person is clearly not fit for their role, and to the staff of whichever companies end up conducting the revised WCA. Atos clearly had no shortage of staff who fell far short of the standard of behaviour that would be expected of medical personnel conducting a medical assessment and there was plentiful evidence of worse problems in the highest levels of the organisation.

Equally the subject of the BioPsychoSocial Model of Disability never arises. It is this model, avidly adopted by Labour and the highest levels of DWP from US insurer Unum (they of the 'disability denial mills') which shaped the evolution of WCA into a punitive system which envisages disabled people as being inherently involved in a conspiracy to defraud the government by petulantly refusing to get better (I wish I was joking, but you really couldn't make this stuff up). The BioPsychoSocial Model is used by DWP as an excuse to say 'Why yes, we are listening to the poor cripples and their Social Model', but the truth is that it is a model shaped to avoid any possible aspect of the Social Model infiltrating its way into WCA or any other part of DWP policy, and to maintain WCA as a punitive system to drive down ESA eligibility, rather than an enabling system which ensures all disabled people receive all of the support they need. Until and unless Labour say that the BioPsychoSocial Model is gone, and that it was a fundamental mistake ever to adopt it, then we simply can have no trust that they, DWP, and the WCA are acting in our interests, rather than against them.

Nor, returning to the WCA itself, do we see any promise to address the problems with the various disabilities whose needs and issues WCA has systematically failed to address, and remember, issues with WCA failing to address variable disabilities and mental health were identified all the way back in the first Harrington report. Nor is there a promise to do away with the 'imaginary wheelchair' method of assessment, in fact the proposal to have the assessor detail how they envisage the disabled person's disability affecting their ability to work potentially enshrines the 'imaginary wheelchair' in Labour's proposals. Nor is there any promise to do away with the ruling that no symptom can possibly have both physical and psychological effects, no matter that it flies in the face of medical science. Labour will probably argue that these are concerns about the details, but for disabled people, these details are vital in knowing whether we can support the policy, or whether we must oppose it.

Overall: C-, must try harder to address the entire problem.