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.