“e-petitions are an easy, personal way for you to influence government and Parliament in the UK. You can create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in the House of Commons. You can find more information about how the House of Commons deals with e-petitions on the Backbench Business Committee website “
That was a lie, wasn’t it?
How many e-petitions have been created since the site went up on August 4, 2011? How many of those have actually resulted in a House of Commons debate, let alone a change of government policy? Barring the WOW Petition debate, it’s hard to think of any. The debate on WOW’s forerunner, Pat’s Petition, only took place because Labour used one of its Opposition Day debates to get the issue aired.
According to this Guardian report, there were more than 1,000 visits a minute on the day the site went up – equivalent to more than 1.5 million visits a day. The site overloaded and went down in a matter of hours.
Would you like to know how many visits it gets now? At the time of writing, the top 12 petitions had received 189 signatures in the previous hour. The lowest-performing of those had just eight.
If those were the only petitions receiving signatures, then the average has dropped from 1,000 per minute to just three. Let’s be charitable and assume some other petitions have been signed. Let’s put it at five.
Why the tail-off?
Well, it’s hard to believe the spiel about influencing government and Parliament when a petition gathers enough signatures, wins a debate in the House of Commons, the vote goes the way the petitioners wanted… and then nothing happens. Nothing at all.
That’s what happened at the WOW debate. Vox Political ran a live blog on the day so you can read what happened for yourself. The motion was for a cumulative impact assessment into the effects on claimants of the Coalition government’s benefit ‘reforms’, and it was carried. Experts have explained to the government that such an assessment is well within their capabilities, but the government has denied these claims, despite producing no evidence itself.
Is it any wonder that people have lost faith in this system?
E-petitions were supposed to be a way for the public to influence Parliament.
Instead, it seems, they are a way for the government to sideline anyone who has a legitimate complaint about political decisions.
Alternatively, you might think this view is mistaken – so guess what? We’ll have another poll.
Today’s the day: The WoW Petition is being debated in Parliament today, having won the support from MPs necessary to trigger a debate.
That concludes today’s live blog. Thanks to everybody who visited and pressed ‘F5’ to keep up with events.
2.38pm The motion for the government to commission a cumulative impact assessment has been passed – resoundingly – after the debate. Admittedly very few people attended but the result was what the 104,000 people who signed the ‘WoW’ petition wanted.
However, there now arises the question of what the government will do. As was noted in the debate, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition has been defeated three times in succession over social security benefits – and has done absolutely nothing about the motions that have been passed.
Those who believed Labour would abstain have been proved wrong by today’s result; we must now judge the government by its actions in response.
The public wants action on this matter, and it has been supported by a House of Commons vote.
This is not just a test of Parliamentary democracy but also one of the e-petition system by which the debate was secured in the first place. Does David Cameron intend to ignore the will of the people that has been revealed by this new method which he is said to support?
2.30pm Speaker John Bercow has turned up to take the vote – and the ‘Ayes’ have it.
2.30pm Mr McDonnell says if the government thinks a cumulative assessment is too complicated, why not bring in the independent organisations who say they can do it, and fund them to do it?
2.28pm John McDonnell is winding up after an inadequate response from Mr Penning. “I’ve heard nothing here today that will alleviate that suffering [of disabled people because of the cuts]. If an impact assessment was published, people would be up in arms.”
2.23pm Rather than discuss the policies behind the WCA, Penning agrees that assessments are taking too long.
2.22pm Penning is departing from the usual Tory stance by admitting that problems have arisen since the Coalition took over in government. He says taxpayers’ money should not be paid to Atos to exit its contract.
2.21pm Fears of a Labour abstention are causing a great deal of distress among the general public watching the debate. Ghost Whistler comments: “If Labour are going to abstain, what’s the point of all this?”
2.19pm Already Penning is saying a cumulative impact assessment cannot be carried out accurately. Other organisations have managed it – why not HM Government?
2.17pm Mike Penning is on his feet. Prepare for a rehash of the government stance (at length).
1.14pm WoWCampaign on Twitter is unhappy: “Kate Green departs from motion over scrapping of #WCA This is an integral part of WOW petition.”
2.13pm Jaypot2012 has read my correction and writes: “My apologies – but I do stand by my comment that if they abstain from this vote then they deserve to lose the next election.”
2.11pm Jason Sheffield on Twitter, apparently responding to Grahame Morris, states: “It is obvious from the empty benches in HoC that UK political parties no longer protect the interests of the poor & vulnerable.”
2.08pm Kate Green tells us Labour wholeheartedly supports the call for a cumulative impact assessment outlined by the petition and in the motion. So Caroline Lucas was wrong whether her abstention rumour, then?
2.07pm Jaypot2012 is on a roll: “These MP’s, MEP’s, etc. forget their places – they are civil servants who are paid by US, the taxpayer. It’s about time someone reminded them of this, and it’s also time that the people of this country were reminded as well.”
2.05pm Commenter Jaypot2012 again: “If Labour abstain from this vote then they deserve to lose the next election. They have been far too pally with the Tories, they are in talks with the Lib Dems, and throughout this coalition “stint in office”, they have backed them, instead of being an opposition party!
“I know that I will NOT vote for labour if they abstain, I will vote for the greens instead!”
In fairness, Labour has not backed the Coalition. This is a falsehood that has been put about often but is not supported by voting records.
2pm On Twitter, #WOWFeb27 is trending above #Merkel. An indication that the majority of MPs got their priorities wrong?
1.58pm Commenter Jaypot2012 writes: “How about all the money that has been wasted and thrown away on IDS schemes? How much has been lost with the IT schemes? He says he’ll just write it off. Does he realise that money belongs to us and could have been used to pay people their ESA whilst they appealed against their decisions? Now we have people who are starving, who are ill and have no money because IDS thinks the money is monopoly money and he can waste it and throw it away!”
1.57pm WoWCampaign tweets: “Is it not time the whole House faces the horror of what is being done? History will judge, if not before.”
1.55pm “It is not a lack of interest; it is not a lack of understanding that means so few people are here today – it’s a lack of time,” says Madeleine Moon in defence of the low attendance at the debate.
1.53pm “We weren’t elected to this house to fight for the interests of the powerful and privileged,” says Mr Morris.
1.50pm Cuts are being targeted on just two areas, with 50 per cent aimed at benefits and local government, and the sick and disabled being affected disproportionately, says Mr Morris.
1.48pm Grahame Morris: “The sick, vulnerable and disabled weren’t responsible for the economic crash, but they are bearing the burden.” He says, “If these cuts had been made fairly, they would have fallen on the better-off.”
1.46pm The problem with WCA assessments is not with Atos but with the policy it is pursuing, as Capita is experiencing the same issues, says Sheila Gilmore.
1.44pm The claim that DLA was going to too many people and hardly anyone was ever reassessed was a “straw man”, leading to flawed proposals for reform, says Sheila Gilmore.
1.40pm Sheila Gilmore to the hardly-represented government: “I didn’t know why it is so difficult – why it is so hard to work out the impact of your policies!”
1.35pm Commenter Barry Davies: “Kudos to Dennis Skinner, well stated argument, and the sort of passion we need to get our case over.”
1.34pm Caroline Lucas reckons Labour will abstain when this debate comes to the vote. What do readers think about that?
1.33pm Upbraided by Labour on her claim that Rachel Reeves said Labour would be tougher on welfare (“Labour will be tougher on welfare spending”), Caroline Lucas said spending should be based on need, not targets.
1.32pm Caroline Lucas has also updated us on the number of people on the government benches. They now number three.
1.31pm Caroline Lucas pays tribute to Francesca Martinez, who “did so much” to publicise the WoW Petition.
1.30pm The worst is yet to come, according to Mark Lazarowicz, as the consequences of the government’s cuts mount up. “We’ve had chaos, misery, the bureaucratic nightmare, the waste of money that is the bedroom tax.”
1.29pm The Benefit Claimant on Twitter: “@David_Cameron Most important debate in politics is going on in the house. You’re at home. We’ll need to sanction you.”
1.28pm Caroline Lucas MP on Twitter: “Grand total on Govt benches: 2 #shameful”
1.27pm Mark Lazarowicz is quoting organisations in his constituency who say the main problems they are facing include long delays in processing. This echoes the findings of the National Audit Office, released today.
1.25pm “This government cannot be trusted to reform welfare in a fair way,” says Mr Danczuk. “While people… will be able to get rid of this government next May, the damage it is doing will last for decades.”
1.24pm ‘Kathrine’ on Twitter makes a very pertinent point about the attendance at this debate: “Thanks to all those MPs who turned up to #WOWFeb27, the rest of them are callous, cowardly, and f***ing WORK-SHY.”
1.23pm Simon Danczuk is telling us about a constituent who received a glowing letter from the DWP stating how much closer she was to getting work as a result of government efforts. This constituent was in a coma at the time.
1.21pm “It’s an absolute nonsense and the way that we are treating these people is an absolute disgrace,” says Ian Lavery. “It’s an absolute outrage. People are dying as a result of the Welfare Reform Act 2012… Is this really the sort of country we want to leave to the next generation. This is IDS’ UK.” A passionate speech to match that of Dennis Skinner.
1.19pm Universal Credit is “an absolute car crash” but “it’s not the DWP who are suffering,” says Ian Lavery.
1.18pm “I’ve got someone who was sanctioned by the DWP because he was in hospital with a severe heart condition,” says Ian Lavery. “Is this a way to treat human beings?”
1.16pm Mr Lavery says people taking the Atos assessments are facing a “Little Britain” scenario where “the computer says no” and the assessor is not medically qualified.
1.16pm “We shouldn’t be making decisions to hammer the disabled and the vulnerable because we could be next,” says Ian Lavery.
1.14pm Ian Lavery says many disabled people have given up. One asked him if he understands what it’s like to feel “trapped like an animal”.
1.13pm Katy Clark says one in five people who have been sanctioned while on JSA were disabled.
1.08pm If this motion is passed, it will be the third time this year that the government has been defeated on a motion relating to benefits. On both previous occasions the result was ignored. Maybe it will be third time lucky, says Eilidh Whiteford.
1.06pm Disabled people have been “vilified” and “stigmatised” in a way that is “shameful”, says Eilidh Whiteford.
1.05pm Eilidh Whiteford says the challenge is finding employers who are willing to take on disabled people.
1.02pm Eilidh Whiteford: “To get it so very wrong, so many thousands of times, just beggars belief. The government needs to get its head out of the sand.”
1.01pm Sheridan says if only a fraction of the resources used chasing down benefit claimants were used to tackle tax evasion, it would make a big difference #WOWFeb27
12.58pm James Thurston on Twitter: “It hasnt been mentioned in the #WOWFeb27 yet but negative rhetoric generated by DWP Ministers results hinders not helps disabled get work.”
12.57pm Jim Sheridan tells us people claiming benefits are “demonised” and no consideration is given to the circumstances in which they are claiming. It is a tactic to divert attention “from the gross abuse of power” in this country.
12.55pm Jim Sheridan tells us this should be about treating people with dignity. He says he was out of work for three years, blacklisted due to trade union activity, but “I was not a shirker as some of those opposite might treat me”.
12.53pm Comment from Jaypot2012: “I am hopping mad here – I so wish I was there, and that I could speak for the disabled and long term sick. As for the conservatives and lib/dems – they have no idea! They sit there with their smug faces when really they are thinking that the disabled should be culled!!!!!!!!”
12.50pm Steve Turner on Twitter: “It’s not a question of ‘accuracy’ in WCA’s for #atos. They are doing what they have been told to do by #dwp. Get ppl off benefits #WOWFeb27”
12.42pm Action for M.E. on Twitter: “Dennis Skinner slams Atos as a “lousy, rotten firm” and says “it’s high time we got rid of this mess”. #WOWFeb27”
12.40pm “The reason they’re on demonstrations like they never did before is because they are desperate, desperate people waiting for us to do something to help them.” Powerful speech by Dennis Skinner.
12.39pm “We’re having hundreds and thousands of people being turned down.” He refers to a constituent who waited month for an appeal while he had cancer, and died before it was heard.
12.38pm “I wish [David Cameron] would say money is no object for disabled people – it really is a scandal.”
12.38pm “There were people telling me they had been for the WCA and turned down, and they couldn’t rise from their wheelchair.”
12.37pm “There were blind people telling me what was about to happen and I didn’t believe them.”
12.36pm Dennis Skinner refers to a historical debate with Sir Keith Joseph. “Even in the Keith Joseph era, the welfare state was a status quo, by and large. Even in the Thatcher years, this chaos did not happen! We never had capability assessments. We never had a march by 3,000 blind and disabled people which heralded the beginning of this coalition.”
12.34pm Steve Turner on Twitter: “I’m not ‘trapped’ on benefits, I am ILL.
I just want to be left alone to get well, not made to jump thru hoops every other week. #WOWFeb27”
12.33pm Chris Bracken on Twitter: “If you are a sick or disabled constituent of Guto Bebb, you have my sympathy. #wowfeb27#wowdebate”
12.32pm Bebb says we should have WCAs, and they should take on advice from medical experts – failing to accept that the expertise of these people is in question and the rationale behind the tests has been discredited.
12.31pm Bebb is harking back to the Harrington reviews, which we know have not been implemented, even though he says they have been accepted.
12.30pm “We had a failing welfare system,” claims Guto Bebb. He says it trapped people in a way which was unproductive and unfair.
12.29pm Guto Bebb (Con) defends government policy saying the NAO report is about implementation, not policy.
12.28pm CAB Sleaford on Twitter: “#WOWFeb27 Mark Durkan: “Fixing a number and squeezing more people off benefit to reach it” .. is what we can expect in the future.”
12.27pm “Those who are terminally ill, those who have a total life expectancy of six months, are having to wait 28 days [for a PIP decision] – one-sixth of their total lifespan in the bureaucratic morass.”
12.26pm PIP – “They started with a number and framed their policy around it,” says Anne McGuire.
12.25pm Anne McGuire says disabled people are not against welfare reform – just the changes of the last three years which disproportionately affect disabled people.
12.24pm Anne McGuire reminds us that David Cameron promised in 2010 that his government would look after the sick, disabled and old.
12.23pm Anne McGuire MP says a cumulative impact assessment is something the government should have brought in when it introduced its benefit changes. She berates Graham Evans for conflating fraud and error, which are two different things.
12.21pm James Thurston on Twitter: “Its a great shame that Graham Evans MP (Con) Weaver Vale is reading his speech verbatim. Does he know what he’s talking about? #WOWFeb27”
12.19pm Commenter LeonC: @GHollingbery those results are in the minority a test that just helps the few is not good enough one death too many #WOWdebate #WOWFeb27
12.18pm He’s quoting financial statistics. That won’t get him very far. We spend less than our OECD partners on disability benefits.
12.17pm Graham Evans (Con) says the government’s reforms offer protection for those who need it the most, and support to help people back into work.
12.15pm Was that Grahame Morris commenting on the fact that the WCA is based on a discredited model pushed by a criminal US insurance company?
12.14pm I just caught a reference to calls for information being described as “vexatious” but I was trying to update this page and it was glitching. If it was a reference to my request for an update on mortality statistics, he’s absolutely right.
12.11pm He says those with the most severe disabilities – two per cent of society – are suffering 15 per cent of the cuts.
12.10pm Ian Mearns: The fact that this is being considered by Parliament is an indictment of our political system. “We don’t need an independent assessment to know what is going wrong. [It is] causing immeasurable suffering. We know what the effects are. We support this motion merely as a way of exposing the truth… [measures] attacking the poorest and most vulnerable in society.”
12.08pm “The system is fine in theory and the government has made improvements, but Atos has failed completely.” Blame-shifting from Alan Reid. A Labour member asks: “Does the hon member take any responsibility for the government in which he sits?”
12.06pm Michelle Maher on Twitter has this chap pegged: “Alan Reid LibDem saying more improvements must be made but shifting balme to ATOS and Labour #wowdebate#wowfeb27”
12.04pm Mr Reid is also referring to the Harrington reviews of the WCA system. He says the Coalition has improved the WCA.
12.03pm Mr Reid wants to know the official Labour line on this, as Labour does not intend to spend any more on benefits than the Coalition. It’s a fair point!
12.02pm Liberal Democrat Alan Reid supports the government, saying disabled people are moving into jobs at the rate of 100 per day. Is this the bogus figure for people who are being urged to claim they are self-employed?
12.00 Dame Anne Begg: Changes to housing benefit, local housing allowance, the bedroom tax, council tax relief have hit disabled people the hardest. The benefit cap might not have hit the disabled but it has hit carers. Social care cuts, meaning local authorities cannot provide care, again hits disabled people. Universal Credit will affect the disabled. “It’s because all of these are affecting their lives that there is an absolute need for a cumulative impact assessment. No-one knows the full force of everything that is falling on households. Unless we do that, we will never know.”
11.57am Caroline Lucas: In Brighton and Hove, of 60 clients only three – five per cent – have been assessed for PIP.
11.57am Dame Anne Begg: “The government says it isn’t picking on disabled people… Every single one of (the main) benefits is undergoing enormous reforms… and we know that they are not going well at all. Atos wants out of its contract. Face-to-Face WCAs in the home are taking up to six months to arrange. Those in the work-related activity group only get their benefit for a year. They have paid into the benefits schemes all their lives. People who thought they had done the right thing (are suffering under this government).”
11.54am “The evidence I see… is that many people have been given a new lease of life by the government’s approach to welfare,” according to Mr Hollingbery.
11.53am Hollingbery is quoting positive results for a few people in his constituency. Anecdotal. The motion here is for an independent assessment of the cumulative impact – across the board.
11.50am A Labour interjection requests Mr Hollingbery looks at John McArdle’s site to see some of the human stories of people affected by the WCA. Hollingbery is trying to brush it off.
11.49am Hollingberry is saying the WCA isn’t perfect but it is subject to continual improvement.
11.47am George Hollingberry (Conservative) is trotting out the claim that recommendations following reviews of the WCA have been implemented. Independent studies have revealed that they have not.
11.44am The WoW petitioners want the truth revealed, because they believe no civilised society would allow people to be treated in this way, Mr McDonnell concludes.
11.43am The result: Poverty for many. Inability to heat homes. Difficulty feeding the household. Humiliation. Suicide. Disabled people feel hounded by the media, politicians and the government, just for being disabled.
11.43am Demos/Scope study concludes that disabled people will lose more than £28 billion and will bear 13 per cent of the cuts.
11.42am “Disabled people are disproportionately hit by the bedroom tax with 72 per cent of affected households containing a disabled person. Local authorities have rejected applications from disabled people in adapted houses who are unable to downsize.” On a personal level, I know this to be true because I know a person in my home town who is affected in this way.
11.40am Backlogs have developed at each stage of the claimant process for the new Personal Independence Payment. The assessment provider? Atos, along with Capita. See today’s NAO report on the rollout of PIP.
11.38am Disabled people are put on the work programme with only a 5.3 per cent success rate. Forced closure of Remploy factories has removed the opportunity of sheltered work for them.
11.37am The government is reneging on a promise to conduct an independent review on the abuse of sanctions.
11.36am There has been a huge increase in the number of sanctions against people on ESA and JSA. One in five of those sanctioned were disabled.
11.35am The British Medical Association has called for the end of the WCA with immediate effect, to be replaced by a safe system – McDonnell.
11.34am Mr McDonnell acknowledges that the work capability assessment is based on the biopsychosocial model promoted by the Unum insurance company – and condemns the fact.
11.33am In theory, the introduction of the work capability assessment administered by Atos (by the last Labour government) was a good idea; in practice it has caused suffering, humiliation, stress, and at times absolute despair – McDonnell.
11.31am Looking at the number of people present on both sides of the house, does anyone else get the impression Angela Merkel’s visit was timed to sabotage this debate?
11.30am Jenny Gulliford on Twitter: 30,000 reduction in no. of people with mental health conditions recieving social support according to McDonnel #WOWFeb27
11.29am Many local authorities have changed eligibility criteria to those with only the most substantial needs. This is a false economy as the cost to society becomes greater (according to another backbencher).
11.27am 2.7 million disabled people live in poverty, and it is this group the cuts are hitting the most, says Mr McDonnell. He says we were told the cuts were intended to be fair – “Well, the reverse is the case.” He says the burden could be affecting people with disabilities up to 20 times more than the average, because of the cumulative effect of multiple ‘reforms’.
11.25am “We feel that many of us simply won’t survive these cuts,” says Mr McDonnell, quoting campaigners.
11.24am “Maybe naively, they believe that if MPs and ministers really knew what disability was like, they would not stand by and let disabled people be treated in this way.”
11.22am The debate is on. John McDonnell is on his feet, saying “We’re making history today.” He pays tribute to all of us ‘WoW’ campaigners who worked so hard for a year to get the signatures to secure the debate, working despite their disabilities. “MPs may speak in this debate, but it is the voice of the ‘WoW’ campaigners that will be heard.”
11.21am Don’t forget you can make your own feelings known by commenting on this article; I’ll include your comments in the text as long as they don’t contain libellous comments or swearing!
11.14am Kirsty Bentham on Twitter makes an excellent point: “Spoken to many clients contemplating taking their own life solely as a result of ESA and PIP delays #WOWFeb27” The fact is that we don’t know how many people have died as a result of the assessment regime imposed by the current government (they’ll say it was Labour, but the current criteria were imposed by the Coalition). Michael Meacher tabled a Parliamentary question to have mortality statistics published as the last figures date from November 2011, and there has been no response so far. There’s also the tribunal hearing that I have demanded in order to force the Information Commission and the DWP to release the figures.
11.10am ‘Neverender’ has proposed a drinking game: “It’s the #WOWFeb27 game; every time ‘the previous government’ is mentioned. Take a shot. We’ll all be ratted a half hour in.” It’s a little swipe at the Coalition habit of blaming everything on Labour.
11.03am ‘Emsy’ on Twitter injects a note of cynicism before the debate has even begun: “Ok, when do we start taking bets on how many Tories will turn up to #WOWFeb27? Anyone going into double figures?”
10.46am The WoW Petition was sponsored by comedian Francesca Martinez. The Guardian has published a piece about her involvement here.
10.40 am The motion for the debate is slightly different from the text of the petition, and runs as follows:
“That this House calls on the Government to commission an independent cumulative assessment of the impact of changes in the welfare system on sick and disabled people, their families and carers, drawing upon the expertise of the Work and Pensions Select Committee; requests that this impact assessment examine care home admissions, access to day care centres, access to education for people with learning difficulties, provision of universal mental health treatments, closures of Remploy factories, the Government’s contract with Atos Healthcare, IT implementation of universal credit, human rights abuses against disabled people, excess deaths of welfare claimants and the disregard of medical evidence in decision-making by Atos, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Tribunals Service; urges the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Education jointly to launch a consultation on improving support into work for sick and disabled people; and further calls on the Government to end with immediate effect the work capability assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association, to discontinue forced work under the threat of sanctions for people on disability benefits and to bring forward legislative proposals to allow a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act 2012.”
10.36am You can follow the debate on Twitter with the hashtag #WOWFeb27
Welcome to the live blog covering the Parliamentary debate on the effects of ‘welfare reform’ on disabled people.
The debate was triggered by the Commons Backbench Business Committee, after an e-petition calling for it won support from more than 100,000 people. It was known as the ‘WoW’ petition, because the organisers said it represented their fight against the government’s ‘War on Welfare’.
The debate will be opened by Labour MP John McDonnell.
The petition calls for:
“A Cumulative Impact Assessment of all cuts and changes affecting sick & disabled people, their families and carers, and a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act.
“An immediate end to the Work Capability Assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association.
“Consultation between the Departments of Health and Education to improve support into work for sick and disabled people, and an end to forced work under threat of sanctions for people on disability benefits.
“An Independent, Committee-Based Inquiry into Welfare Reform, covering but not limited to: (1) Care home admission rises, daycare centres, access to education for people with learning difficulties, universal mental health treatments, Remploy closures; (2) DWP media links, the ATOS contract, IT implementation of Universal Credit; (3) Human rights abuses against disabled people, excess claimant deaths & the disregard of medical evidence in decision making by ATOS, DWP & the Tribunal Service.”
This blog will follow developments in the debate as they happen, taking information from the debate itself, from comments on Twitter, and from comments made directly to this page by readers; this is your chance to get involved with events as they happen.
The article will NOT be self-refreshing. Readers will have to refresh this page themselves at regular intervals – the easiest way is by pressing the F5 button on your keyboard.
The debate starts at 11.15am today (Thursday, February 27).
Vox Political is an independent political blog.
We don’t receive any funding other than contributions from readers. Vox Political cannot continue without YOUR help. You can make a one-off donation here:
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The not-so-great dictator: It seems David Cameron’s government is now ignoring all attempts to hold it to account.
Ladies and gentlemen of the United Kingdom, your plight is worsening: The government now no longer pays any attention to the decisions of your Parliamentarians.
You’ll remember that a debate was held on Monday, in which MPs called for an inquiry into the effect of changes to the benefit system – introduced by the Conservative-led Coalition government – on the incidence of poverty in this country; the question was whether poverty was increasing as a result of the so-called reforms.
Parliament voted massively in favour of the inquiry (125 votes for; two against), as reported here.
We considered it a great victory at the time, and looked forward to the commissioning of the inquiry and its eventual report.
Now that dream is in tatters as Michael Meacher, the MP who brought the motion to Parliament, has reported that nothing is to happen and the government is ignoring the vote.
It seems he is blaming this partly on the media because “it wasn’t reported” – and he has a point; only 2,500 people have so far read the article on Vox Political, and that’s not nearly enough interest to worry David Cameron and his unelected cadre.
This turn of events raises serious questions about the role of Parliament in holding the government of the day to account, influencing legislation and taking effective initiative of its own.
Perhaps we should be glad that this has happened, because the illusion that we have any kind of democracy at all has been, finally, stripped away.
(On a personal note, this saddens me greatly as it confirms the belief of a very rude Twitter user who accosted me on that site earlier the week to inform me that democracy died many years ago, and I was deluded in trying to save it now. What a shame that such a person has been proved correct.)
Here are the facts, according to Mr Meacher – and they make bitter reading: “The chances of influencing … legislation are negligible because the government commands a whipped majority at every stage of a bill’s passage through the commons.
“Parliament can make its voice heard, but it can hardly change anything that the government has decided to do.
“The only rare exception is when there is a revolt on the government benches which is backed by the opposition, and even then when the government lost a vote on that basis last year on the EU budget, it still ostentatiously dismissed the vote as merely ‘advisory’.
“Nor, it seems from Monday’s vote, can parliament take any effective initiative of its own either.”
He said newly-instituted systems that followed the expenses scandal are already disappearing:
“The backbench business committee, which for the first time gives parliamentarians some control over what is debated in the house, is being sidelined and decisions on its motions ignored.
“The promised house business committee, which would share negotiations between government and parliament over the passage of all business put before the house, has been quietly dropped.
“Only the election of members of select committees by the house, not by the whips, has so far survived, but one cannot help wondering if that too will be taken back by the party establishments over time.”
This is, as Mr Meacher states, a major constitutional issue – especially as our current government was not elected by the people but created in a dirty backroom deal, and its actions have no democratic mandate at all; nobody voted for the programme of legislation that we have had forced – forced – upon us.
Did you vote for the privatisation of the National Health Service? I didn’t.
Did you vote for the privatisation of the Royal Mail? I didn’t.
Did you vote for the increase in student fees? I didn’t.
Did you vote to protect the bankers who caused the financial crisis from having to deliver compensation to us? I didn’t.
Did you vote to protect tax avoidance schemes? I didn’t.
There are many more examples I could list.
Mr Meacher suggests possible ways to reassert the authority of Parliament, but none of them will have any immediate effect – or possibly any effect at all.
He ends his piece by saying “the most effective way of making progress is greater awareness among the electorate of how Parliament actually performs, or fails to perform. If the public understood more transparently how the corrupting influence of patronage actually works, how the power system turns everything to its own advantage, and how the genuine objectives of democratic elections are so readily thwarted, a lot of these unedifying practices would have to be curbed.”
Considering Cameron’s attitude to the will of the people so far, this seems unlikely.
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We’re on our way: The WoW Petition is on its way to Parliament, having hit the 100,000 signature mark necessary to trigger consideration for a televised debate. [Image: WoW Petition website wowpetition.blogspot.com]
What a great result for the WoW Petition – it has reached its target of 100,000 signatures with time to spare!
The petition calls for a cumulative impact assessment of welfare reform and a new deal for sick and disabled people based on their needs, abilities and ambitions – rather than the political aims of the current Westminster administration or any motive to cut welfare budgets.
WoW (it stands for resistance to the ‘War on Welfare’) demands an immediate end to the humiliating work capability assessment and a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act, along with an independent, committee-based inquiry into welfare reform. And it wants an end to forced work under threat of sanctions for people on disability benefits, along with other demands.
Passing the magic 100,000-signature mark does not mean the petition has automatically won a chance to be debated in Parliament; the Backbench Business Committee has to agree to put it forward first.
It is fortunate, then, that the petition has won the endorsement of celebrities including Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, Yoko Ono and Bianca Jagger (according to the Daily Mirror).
“This is a hugely important issue because many disabled and sick people cannot go out and protest against these devastating policies,” said comedian Francesca Martinez, who launched the petition in December last year.
“It is vital that those of us who can, join together to ensure these basic rights aren’t eroded away. With 83 per cent of disabilities acquired [rather than congenital], anyone can find themselves with an impairment, or [living] as a carer, and we must make sure that people are adequately supported when in challenging times.
“This is what a civilised society does. Instead of demonising those on welfare, we should be proud to create a society that provides for everyone regardless of health or ability. We will never forget the many tragic deaths already caused by this government and we will continue to fight in the hope that we can protect those in need from despair, poverty and death.”
One death that we can commemorate is that of WoW Petition co-founder John Dyer, who sadly passed away in November. Fellow co-originator Rick B said: “We are resolute to take this democratic mandate and pursue the cause of making justice for sick and disabled people, and carers, a reality.”
Rick said that he himself almost died in July 2012 because of government ill-treatment.
Let’s all agree that we’re a far cry from where we were in October, when the petition had just 62,792 signatures, didn’t look like it was going to make it, and I wrote: “Are we all so apathetic that we are happy to sit around, eating our horseburgers and gossiping about whether the stars of our favourite soap operas are sex fiends… that we can’t be bothered to spare a thought for people – perhaps people we know – who are suffering for no reason other than that the government we didn’t even elect demands it?”
We’re not – and what a great feeling it is to be able to say that!
But my gut instinct tells me that we should not sit back and expect others to finish the job – not yet. It’s great that the petition will be considered in Parliament, but let’s make sure that our MPs know how strongly we feel about this.
What I’d like to suggest – and this is just a thought that has come to me as I was writing this – is that those of you who have taken part in the Twitter campaign might like to post another tweet saying something like “I want a Parliamentary debate for the WoW Petition bit.ly/XFS5Ur“.
If you’re emailing someone, you could add that line after your signature – and this could be especially effective if you are sending a letter to the press – newspaper, magazine or online media.
And you could also add it to any messages you put on Facebook or similar social media.
We’ve got public attention now – let’s make it all worthwhile.
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No horses were harmed in the making of this article. But at least one ESA claimant died while it was being prepared. [Picture: Eater.com]
Here we are again.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote what in Vox Political terms was a blistering indictment, in which I tore metaphorical strips off of any reader who had failed to sign the government e-petition then known as Pat’s Petition.
This document, calling on the government to “stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families” had secured around 60,000 signatures but had less than a day left to run when the article was written.
It would be nice to think that the piece acted as a prompt for at least some of the 3,000 people who signed in those last few hours – but this was not enough to save the petition, which failed to reach the 100,000 signatures needed for Parliament’s backbench business committee to consider taking its demands further.
Now we are in a similar position with the successor to Pat’s Petition – the WoW Petition. It just happens that Yr Obdt Srvt had a hand in writing this one, along with a few others, and a lot of work was done to make it media-attractive and a magnet for signatures.
It was launched by the comedian Francesca Martinez, who is disabled, and the organisers went out of their way to find ways of publicising it throughout the year it was to be available for signing – for example, with ‘mass tweets’ on Twitter to attract tweeple who had not noticed it previously.
At the time of writing it has two months (and a few hours) left to run, and has just reached approximately the same number of signatures as Pat’s Petition. Unless around 1,000 people start signing every day, this one might fail as well.
Now, I’m not going to shout at you (not this time, anyway). There have been several developments which have affected my own thinking about government e-petitions, meaning my own position towards them has cooled considerably.
For starters, ask yourself: When was the last time the government changed its policy – significantly – in response to a successful e-petition on its website? Has it ever happened? I can’t think of one instance. But that is what this petition demands.
The simple fact seems to be that the e-petition site is a sop for people who want to effect change. They think it is a tool for them to improve the country when in fact it is a tool for keeping them under control; if you are spending a year promoting an e-petition, you won’t be undermining the regime in other ways.
My problem with this – if it is true, and not just a product of my own paranoia – is that, according to government figures that are now long out-of-date, 73 people are dying every week and nothing is being done about it.
Look at the government’s own response, published after the WoW petitionreceived more than 10,000 signatures. It’s on the petition page and concentrates on the call for a cumulative impact assessment, claiming (wrongly) that such an endeavour is practically impossible. It isn’t. There’s no interest in the other demands at all.
Next point: If the 73-a-week figure is accurate – and more so if it is now a grave underestimation (which is my belief) – then the 62,792 signatures achieved at the time of writing is a horrifying indictment of Britain and its citizens. Are we all so apathetic that we are happy to sit around, eating our horseburgers and gossiping about whether the stars of our favourite soap operas are sex fiends (two of the year’s more popular scandals) that we can’t be bothered to spare a thought for people – perhaps people we know – who are suffering for no reason other than that the government we didn’t even elect demands it?
The horsemeat in our beefburgers received far more coverage than the fact that 73 people every week have been dying, even though (as far as I am aware) nobody has suffered fatal injuries from chomping on a bit of thoroughbred. What does that tell you about your fellow Brits? What does it tell you about yourself?
Moving on: Other petitions, on other sites, have attracted more attention (and many more signatories) – especially those with a topical theme that is embarrassing for the government on a personal level. When Iain Duncan Smith said he could live on the amount people receive on Jobseekers’ Allowance, a petition – calling his bluff by demanding that he actually do so – attracted something like half a million signatures within a few days.
On a more serious level, after Smith and Grant Shapps decided it would be fun to distort the truth about the number of people moving into work to avoid the benefit cap, a petition demanding that they make apologies and reparations for their claims also attracted more than 100,000 signatures within a very short period of time – and is to be handed in to Parliament very soon.
These considerations lead us to some uncomfortable conclusions.
First, it is unlikely that a petition focusing only on the plight of those in danger of joining the 73-a-week death toll will ever reach its target – and even if it did, it is unlikely to gain traction among MPs.
Oh, you think I’m wrong? Have you signed the petition? No? Then get across and sign it now – put your name where it will do some good! Yes? Have you told all your friends about it and pestered them until they’ve signed it too? No? Then do that. If you’ve already done both and you still think I’m wrong, go out and accost strangers in the street to do it. That’s how you get it to its target!
Second, any mass media campaign needs a convenient – and probably banal – hook to hang itself on, in order to make the lackadaisical public look up from their fish and chips and take notice.
So any future campaign needs to be timed to correspond with an embarrassing slip-up by a DWP minister. This should not be a problem.
Third, any future campaign should not bother with the government e-petitions website but should take advantage of other petitioning organisations in order to make a more immediate impact.
Got that? Good.
None of these conclusions is an excuse not to sign the petition that is currently running. If you have signed it, make your friends do so. If you’ve made your friends do it, make strangers do it too.
More than 10 people are dying every day, because of this government’s policy – and more will do so, as long as that policy remains in effect. In the time it has taken me to write this, one more will have passed away. Add those numbers up and they are far, far too many.
There has been news this week that the British Army’s final tour of duty in Afghanistan has begun – a country where almost 450 British Armed Forces personnel have died since hostilities began 11 years ago. That’s about as many as are dying here at home, because of government policy, every six weeks.
And the figures we use to calculate the death toll are nearly two years out of date.
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