Last month, while I was in the US for 12 days to campaign for the closure of Guantánamoon the 10th anniversary of the prison’s opening, I was actually pleased to be away from the UK, not because I wanted to be away from my family, or my friends, but because I needed a break from the relentless anger that anyone with a heart must feel when confronted by the Tory-led coalition government’s cuts programme, and the British public’s widespread acceptance of it.
I have written about various aspects of the austerity programme over the last 16 months, including the assault on university education, the plans to savage the NHS, and the unprecedented cuts to the welfare state, but it was my anger about these latter two topics — focused on the Health and Social Care Bill (for the stealth privatisation of the NHS) and the Welfare Reform Bill (comprehensively attacking the poor, the unemployed and the disabled) — that I was glad to escape temporarily.
Of course, for those most fundamentally affected — disabled people terrorised by their own government, the tens of thousands of poor families wondering if they will be made homeless by a welfare cap — there is no respite, and I cannot even begin to feel what they must be feeling, but I identify strongly with their plight, as I believe it is fundamentally unforgivable for the government of one of the wealthiest nations on earth — and one whose leaders espouse Christian values — to be targeting the most vulnerable people in society.
This is a government that has been talking openly about the “undeserving poor,” with a minister in charge of reform (Iain Duncan Smith) who openly believes that dysfunction creates poverty and not the other way round, and with other ministers (from David Cameron downwards) stirring up hatred against the disabled as “workshy” and “scroungers,” while working out how to deprive them of state support that might make their lives slightly more bearable than otherwise.
This has led to some very disturbing outcomes — a disability review process designed to find deeply disabled people fit for work, which involves an almost constant review process that causes widespread despair and has also led to suicides, and a deliberately manipulated coarsening of public attitudes to disability that has started to lead to the physical and verbal abuse of disabled people on Britain’s streets. The tabloid newspapers have been horribly complicit in this process — and much of the supposedly respectable media has not done enough to oppose it. Rubbing salt into the wounds, Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, said last week that she blamed unemployed people for “a lack of an appetite for some of jobs that are available,” even though, as the Guardian (whose coverage has been excellent) explained:
Her comments [were] likely to provoke anger among those desperately seeking work with little success. The latest official count of unemployed people stands at 2.68 million, while the number of new workers being sought by employers in the last quarter of 2011 was 463,000. This is equivalent to about six people for every vacancy in the country.
In addition, this is a government that seeks to impose an ill-conceived cap on housing benefit, with David Cameron openly asking why anyone unemployed should live somewhere that working people cannot afford, without ever mentioning that most of the money paid goes not to those living in these homes, but to their landlords, because of greed, an overheated housing market, or a shortage of social housing that began when Margaret Thatcher started selling off council houses in the 1980s, and refused to let councils use any of the revenue to build new houses — a prohibition that has never been lifted.
Today (Tuesday February 14), the government’s disgusting Welfare Reform Bill returns to the House of Lords, where, just two weeks ago, the Lords passed seven key amendments, only to have them overturned by the government in the House of Commons, “deploying a rarely used parliamentary device,” and “asserting that only the Commons had the right to make decisions on bills that have large financial implications,” as the Guardian described it.
As the Welfare Reform Bill returns to the Lords, there will be a vigil and lobby of Parliament today from 1-3pm at Old Palace Yard on Abingdon St, London SW1, hosted by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and another tomorrow (Wednesday February 15), at the same time, when the bill returns to the House of Commons.
For those interested in mounting further resistance to the Welfare Reform Bill, please sign the e-petition urging the government to “Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families,” which currently has nearly 30,000 signatures, and will be discussed in parliament if it reaches 100,000 signatures.
The petition states:
The government were embarking on wholesale reform of the benefit system when the economic crisis struck. These welfare reforms had not been piloted and the plan was to monitor and assess the impact of the new untried approach as it was introduced in a buoyant economy. Unfortunately since then the economy has gone into crisis and the government has simultaneously embarked on a massive programme of cuts. This has created a perfect storm and left disabled people/those with ill health, and their carers reeling, confused and afraid.
We ask the government to stop this massive programme of piecemeal change until they can review the impact of all these changes, taken together, on disabled people and their carers. We ask the government to stand by its duty of care to disabled people and their carers. At the moment the covenant seems to be broken and they do not feel safe. Illness or disability could affect any one of us at any time, while many more of us are potential carers.
And for a powerful analysis of what the cuts mean for disabled people, I’m cross-posting below an extraordinary article by “BendyGirl,” on her website, Benefit Scrounging Scum, which was written the day after the government overruled the Lords’ amendments. “BendyGirl” describes herself as follows: “Life in a broken bureaucracy with a bendy & borked body. BendyGirl has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and blogs about the highs & lows of life lived with joints that dislocate as frequently as the British weather changes.”
If this doesn’t make you take to the streets in support of the disabled people of Britain — and against the callous politicians with their cruelty and their cynicism — then you are, I fear, beyond hope. Below this, I’m also cross-posting another blog post that I found insightful — explaining the broad scope of this hateful bill, and what it means — written by Ness the Hat for the Hull RePublic collective, which was published last week on the Huffington Post UK. For further insights, see this post by Darkest Angel, providing even more detail about the bill, and also see the We are Spartacus website, which features disabled people’s views on welfare reform.
The Death of Decency
By BendyGirl, Benefit Scrounging Scum, February 2, 2012
It’s been a long, hard eighteen months. Harder and tougher than I could ever communicate to you. I could try and tell you of the times Sue and I spent hours fevered, medicated and desperately unwell just trying to string together a few coherent sentences. The times we tried frantically to finish articles for newspapers interrupted by journalists, politicians or charities wanting us to help with research about issues they didn’t really understand, or the times we took turns to cry with despair about what was happening to our country which no-one but a handful of seriously ill people seemed to care about.
I could tell you of how receiving messages from people so terrorised they wanted to tell us their lives were no longer worth living became routine. Of sleepless nights fearing that the person had gone ahead with their plans, or even of the devastating night when despite the online community rapidly rallying help we heard that the prompt police response was too late and another person was found dead.
I could tell you that we always knew this to be an unwinnable battle. That very early on we decided that whatever dirty tricks politicians pulled we would not sink to that level. That we would always act with honesty, ensuring our facts were double and triple checked, that we would counter lies with integrity and truth. That the more justice appeared to be absenting herself from this process, the more we were determined to ensure her voice remained.
I could tell you all those things and more, but never would you be able to truly understand how much this battle has cost those who had least to give. We have lobbied, debated and pleaded, often ignoring issues which would affect us personally as we decided on principle that we would act for the the best interests of all our community, even if that was to the detriment of our own personal lives, financial situations and our long term health.
I could, but that’s not the most important thing to say.
The most important issue of all is the message sent by a British government to the British people. That disabled children who aren’t the most disabled of all will have their support cut to ‘justify’ increasing the support to the most severely disabled children by less than £2 a week. That newly disabled or seriously ill adults living alone will lose the money previously deemed vital to pay someone to provide care. That children with serious illnesses and disabilities will have their entitlement to National Insurance contributions removed. An entitlement previously supported by politicians of all parties as sending a crucial message of the inherent value of life. That people with serious illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis, early onset Alzheimers or cancer will, after 12 months, no longer be entitled to the financial support they spent their working lives paying National Insurance for if their partner earns more than £7500 per year.
I could tell you of how this was sold to the British public. A people with ‘it’s just not cricket’ hardwired into our DNA. Of how carefully, deliberately, knowingly successive governments moved from all agreeing that it was inhuman to demonise the sick or disabled to carefully, deliberately, knowingly, drip feeding a complicit media into a propoganda exercise stunning in its success, to label these very same people as unworthy of empathy, compassion or support. Of how calculated this rebranding exercise was to ensure the public believed the empty promises of ‘always supporting the most vulnerable’ because, after all, these people are mostly faking fraudsters anyway. Doesn’t it say so in the papers, on the news, even on the BBC?
I could try and explain to you that this isn’t about eliminating fraud, that this will affect you or your family when inevitably accident, sickness or ageing moves you from being ‘not yet disabled’ to ‘one of us’. I could try, but that’s the nightmare of 4am no-one wants to remember when they awake. I could tell you that understanding, that empathy, that sense of life altering devastation is an insight that will only come to you when it’s too late.
I can, with pride, tell you of a demonised community who have found strength in each other. I can tell you of how inspiring it is to feel the love and support of these people, and the awesome sense of privilege in witnessing the broken come together. I can tell you of the values we all grew up with, principles our ancestors fought for, our playground guilt as we were chastisted for hitting the bespectacled child.
I could tell you of how bewildered we have been to witness a British government act in a manner more befitting China. I could tell you how each deliberate lie, each serpent tongued statement and guarantee of consultation rankled and oozed. I could tell you that something fundamental in us was mortally wounded when finally we produced cold, hard evidence to prove the government were saying one thing and doing quite the other, to then witness the government’s nose grow proportionately only to its falsehoods.
I could tell you that actually, this is not about the money. That the financial cuts will be detrimental to lives, but that the message the government have sent to the British people, that the weakest, the frailest, the most vulnerable are no longer worthy of collective support will be rejected once that same public understand that message.
I could tell you all of that, but over the next few years you will discover this for yourselves. So all I will tell you is this:
Something fundamentally British died yesterday. If you thought it was already dead, think again.
Soundbites, Spin and Spartacus
By Ness the Hat for Hull RePublic, Huffington Post UK, February 7, 2012
The problem with the truth is that it’s complicated. Lies are simple, they can be altered to fit any audience, they can be sensational without any boring honest bits to dilute the story. Honesty doesn’t make headlines. That’s the problem with the Welfare Reform Bill; not the only problem, obviously, but the reason that there won’t be a huge public outcry until its too late.
For over a year now disability campaigners have been opposing the Welfare Reform Bill, countering the tabloids’ lies and the government’s spin with detailed research and clear logic. Most of the proposals sound great in principle but if you take a closer look and work out the implications a completely different story unfolds.
Take Disability Living Allowance, the non means tested benefit paid to disabled and ill people to help with the additional cost of daily living and getting around. The proposal is to scrap DLA and replace it with Personal Independence Payment (PIP) cutting the caseload by around 20%. As the present fraud rate is 0.5% it’s clear that many genuine claimants will no longer qualify. DLA has been very successful in enabling disabled people to live independently and in many cases to stay in employment but the government believes it is ‘outdated’. The DWP says ‘most people receive DLA for life after just filling in a form’. That’s a great soundbite. The truth is that many people with permanent disabilities or degenerative conditions can receive a lifetime award after filling out a very detailed and intrusive 50 page document AND submitting evidence from their GP, hospital consultant etc. That’s not so good a soundbite.
The DWP states that everyone will undergo a face to face medical assessment on a regular basis. This sounds very reasonable at first glance and another great soundbite. The problem is that the medical assessment will be modeled on the Work Capability Assessment used for determining qualification for Employment Support Allowance. These assessments are universally accepted as flawed and have generated an unmanageable caseload for the Appeals Tribunal Service which overturns 40% of decisions at huge cost to the taxpayer. Continually reassessing claimants sounds good but as a large percentage of claimants have permanent disabilities, checking to see if amputated limbs have re-grown or if MS has gone away is a waste of everyone’s time and money.
Frustrated by being told by the DWP that disabled people were in favour of the planned changes to DLA, a group of disabled activists researched, funded and published a report called ‘Responsible Reform‘. The document, known as the Spartacus Report because a huge number of individuals were involved, explains how the Government ran a flawed consultation process and then published misleading statements about the level of approval for the proposed changes. The Spartacus report is supported by almost all of the major charities representing ill and disabled people, healthcare professionals, carers and pretty much everyone else who reads it. Sadly, a factual document will never catch the eye like a dramatic soundbite.
The Spartacus report did help to influence the House of Lords. After receiving unprecedented numbers of letters and emails from disabled people, concerned individuals and organisations, many Lords considered our views and debated the Welfare Reform Bill thoroughly, making several amendments. Although the amendments don’t make the bill perfect, or even good, they do mitigate some of the most damaging aspects.
Last Wednesday the House of Commons debated the amendments proposed by the House of Lords. I followed the debate on Twitter as I usually do, holding ‘virtual’ hands with the other Spartacus supporters; we watched in horror and despair as one by one each hard won amendment was overturned after cursory and mostly ill informed debate (one MP even claimed that disability benefits had become a lifestyle choice). The Commons then invoked parliamentary ‘Financial Privilege’ to shut down further debate.
As I watched the distraught reactions of my friends, I noticed several people celebrating the result of the votes. I normally ignore such people but I was angry and upset so I challenged some of them. It was a chilling reminder of the power of spin and the soundbite over truth and reason.
Every one of them was celebrating the benefit cap. For them it was all the Welfare Reform Bill consisted of, they were pleased that ‘work-shy scroungers’ would no longer be allowed to get more in benefits than they earned by working. I can understand this, it’s what the government and most of the media have concentrated on to whip up public support and distract attention for the other elements of the bill.
When I explained what the Commons had actually voted on they were surprised, when I told them about the disabled children getting less money, the cancer patients being forced to look for work, the people who have paid NI all their lives only being able to claim benefit for one year whether they’re well enough to work or not, the disabled children who will never enjoy financial independence as adults and the people being forced to leave their homes because they have a spare room, they were shocked.
The people I spoke to believed that everyone who could work should work, that working was better than idleness and should be encouraged. They were appalled when I told them about Universal Credit and ‘in work conditionality’. They didn’t realise that people who didn’t earn enough not to need Tax Credits or Housing Benefit would be expected to earn more or face financial sanctions; suddenly the Welfare Reform Bill didn’t seem so worthy of celebration. This is typical of the response of most ordinary people when I explain what welfare reform will actually mean to them.
This bill is an eye-wateringly huge piece of legislation, its scope is vast. Everyone of working age who claims any type of ‘in work’ or ‘out of work’ benefit will be affected, many of the people affected don’t even know yet. It’s not just a benefit cap and its not just about disabled kids and cancer patients, it’s about nearly all of us, either now or in the future. No amount of soundbite or spin will change the fact that many of us will be affected badly.
Disabled people are not fighting this bill because we are ‘work-shy scroungers’, we’re fighting it because it is an ill conceived and damaging piece of legislation and the rhetoric which surrounds it is dangerous. ‘Disabled person’ is now synonymous with scrounger and disability hate crime is increasing. If welfare reform did what it promised to do we would support it wholeheartedly; we would love a system that was simple to understand, supported us into work (where appropriate) and deterred benefit cheats. This bill will not do that, it will leave all but the most severely disabled with less support, it will break up families and force many disabled people and carers to give up work and claim more benefits, nor will not deter benefit cheats. Where there is money there will be cheats — just look at the tax system.
I’m proud that we fought an honest campaign, we looked at the facts and we told the truth. We wrote articles and gave interviews, we protested on the streets, we wrote to MPs and Peers of the Realm, we signed petitions and we published a ground breaking report. We gave our time and our health. People who were already struggling with illness and disability gave all they could, the effort of campaigning put some of our friends in hospital. The government had all the resources and all of the power, they fought a campaign Machiavelli would have been proud of. All we had was our fear, our anger and each other. This was not a battle we wanted to fight, but we had no choice because these decisions affect our lives.
The Welfare Reform Bill has been described as a ‘slow motion car crash’. Those of us who have been watching the process closely for months can relate to this idea. Just like a car crash, when you feel the impact it’s too late to shout STOP.