Tag Archives: people’s assembly

Our sick and disabled are being stifled; we should give them space to breathe

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity will be holding a mass demonstration against the government’s austerity measures on Wednesday (July 8) – which is when George Osborne is set to deliver his benefits-bashing ’emergency’ budget.

They have invited Maggie Zolobajluk, who organised the petition in support of my bid to find out how many people have died while claiming sickness/disability benefits, to speak – but not me.

Maggie kindly asked me if I would be able to make it to London and speak instead of her – and I’d love to – but I don’t think it’s possible. The distance is too great, and I can’t justify being away from Mrs Mike – and also the blog, on a day that will affect the way the UK develops for the foreseeable future.

I started drafting out a few words for her to deliver on my behalf – but they turned into a full-blown speech instead. I ended up writing far too much – so, rather than ask her to say it, I’m publishing it here instead.

A previous demonstration, staged by the People's Assembly Against Austerity in 2014.

A previous demonstration, staged by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in 2014.

I am neither sick, nor disabled – but I choose to side with the sick and disabled against oppression.

It isn’t an entirely altruistic choice. Mrs Mike – as she is known on my blog, Vox Political – has been ill for many years, and we have fought battle after battle with the Department for Work and Pensions over the benefits to which she is entitled.

You’re probably sick of hearing the famous verse by Pastor Martin Niemoller, but he was right. Who’s going to stand up for me, if I don’t stand up for other people first?

Mrs Mike and I are used to winning those battles, and I wonder how much of that success is due to the fact that I am able-bodied. Think about it – if you are battling constant pain, or are a victim of depression, or your condition fluctuates so you simply don’t know if you’ll be able to get out of bed in the morning, or you have any number of the other maladies that may affect the sick or disabled – then the last thing you’ll want to do is argue over tiny details with a gang of suited pedants in Whitehall.

Additionally, these pedants have employed private contractors to make sure they judge the severity of a person’s sickness using information that is wrong.

If you’re sick, or disabled, the pressure can be too much to bear. And not every sick or disabled person has an able-bodied partner like me to take up the slack.

So, inevitably, the worst happens.

Only last weekend I learned about Graham Shawcross, of Manchester. Mr Shawcross had lived – and worked – with Addison’s Disease for 40 years before having to claim sickness benefit. It is a potentially fatal condition whose symptoms include exhaustion, muscle weakness, dizziness, fainting and cramps that can lead to adrenal crisis, which can be fatal. But that isn’t what killed him!

No – Mr Shawcross died of a heart attack in February, after being ruled “fit for work” by the DWP in November last year. He had been preparing to present an appeal against the decision – writing out the details several times a day, and talking about it constantly.

His widow said the stress of having to do this – stress that was created by, and only by, the DWP’s “fit for work” decision – was what killed him.

You should be aware that the DWP says it is “irresponsible to suggest a causal link between the death of an individual and their benefit claim”, and “mortality rates among people with serious health conditions are likely to be higher than those among the general population”. We’ve seen that comment in the newspapers very often over the last few weeks.

It’s a statement that falls flat when the DWP’s own position is that the individual was “fit for work” at the time of his death.

Months after Mr Shawcross passed away – and despite being told this had happened by his widow – the DWP initially invited him to an appeal hearing, and then admitted he was seriously ill and deserved Employment and Support Allowance.

It’s a bit late for that now!

How many other benefit denials have been reversed after the claimant has died?

We don’t know – but it’s the subject of my next Freedom of Information request!

The man responsible for this regime, Iain Duncan Smith, is said to be religious so he should understand me when I say people claiming benefit must feel as though they have been crucified by their physical or mental ill-health. Instead of offering relief, Mr Duncan Smith and his department complete the job with a ‘crown of forms’ that push them into an early grave.

One has to question the morality of a supposed Christian who approves of crucifixion!

But then, it seems even leading members of the Catholic Church to which he belongs have tried pleading with him to alter the fatal direction of his policies – there was an article to that effect in the most recent edition of Catholic newspaper The Tablet.

But government ministers say it is “irresponsible” to claim that the benefit assessment system had anything to do with the death.

I wonder if they’ll say that to Mrs Shawcross, who is adamant that the system is what killed her husband. That would be a conversation worth hearing!

I first became concerned about the number of people who were dying while claiming benefits when the DWP itself revealed that 10,600 deaths had occurred between January and November 2011. Note that the official figures did not include December, which is considered to be a season of increased suicides.

This concern became alarm after I learned that Freedom of Information requests by other individuals, calling for updated figures, had been refused for no reason other than that the 2011 statistics had been part of an ‘ad-hoc’, one-off, release.

So I sent off a request, and asked readers of the blog to support it with requests of their own – to show that it was a matter of wider public concern. Only 23 did, but that was enough for the DWP to refuse me on the grounds that I was being “vexatious” – trying to flood the Department with work.

I’m still not sure how that claim can be justified. It’s the same information – all they had to do was put it together and send it off to the people who wanted it. It seems that creating a mailing list of email addresses is too much for a government department with more than 100,000 employees.

The tribunal that turned down my appeal did express considerable sympathy for my position, and suggested that another FoI request should result in publication of the statistics. So I wrote another one.

I won’t go into the details – it’s enough for you to know that, after several months of fighting with the DWP, I won.

The DWP then chose to take the matter to a tribunal, employing an expensive Treasury barrister to make out the case. It seems that, while Freedom of Information requests cannot cost more than £600 – that’s the legal limit – the government can spend as much of your money as it likes, if it wants to withhold the facts.

That’s when Maggie Zolobajluk started her petition, calling on the tribunal to refuse the appeal.

Now, instead of 23 supporters, my request has 230,000.

So David Cameron told Parliament that the figures will be published. What he didn’t tell Parliament was that they would be homogenised, amortised, Age-Standardised Mortality Rates, that show the deaths as a ratio compared with the death rate amongst the wider population – and he certainly won’t tell anyone how many people have died while claiming sickness and disability benefits since November 2011.

And now the Justice Secretary is trying to make it harder for Freedom of Information requests to succeed. It seems the embarrassment they cause is just too much for the administration that once said it intended to be the most open government ever.

Michael Gove wants to include “thinking time” in the cost of handling FoI requests.

What does that even mean?

Parliament’s Justice Select Committee has already stated that including “thinking time” in FoI costs would introduce an unwelcome variable into the system, which relies on everyone having equal access to the facts. The cost of “thinking time” would depend on the abilities of the civil servant dealing with the request.

Not only that, but we should ask what “thinking” has to do with it in any case. When a request is made under the Freedom of Information Act, the only questions a public authority may ask are whether it has the information and can publish it within the £600 cost limit. Questions about – for example – the motives behind the request are immaterial.

What are we to conclude?

That we have a government that intentionally complicates benefit claims for the sick and disabled.

That people who might live decent and, in many ways, productive lives are having those lives cut short because of goverment policy.

That the government does not want the wider population of the UK to know the true number of deaths.

That the government wants to shut down the Freedom of Information system so inconvenient questions like this can no longer be asked.

In short, that the government wants to smother any attempt to question it.

Too many sick and disabled people have been smothered already.

They need space to breathe.

It is up to the rest of us to help them get it.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

Join the Vox Political Facebook page.

If you have enjoyed this article, don’t forget to share it using the buttons at the bottom of this page. Politics is about everybody – so let’s try to get everybody involved!

Vox Political needs your help!
If you want to support this site
(
but don’t want to give your money to advertisers)
you can make a one-off donation here:

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Buy Vox Political books so we can continue
fighting for the facts.

Health Warning: Government! is now available
in either print or eBook format here:

HWG PrintHWG eBook

The first collection, Strong Words and Hard Times,
is still available in either print or eBook format here:

SWAHTprint SWAHTeBook

The Coalition is hoodwinking us towards totalitarianism. Will the ‘People’s Assembly’ halt this?

Wise words: The 'People's Assembly' hopes to stir people out of their apathy and encourage them to oppose the right-wing, ideologically-driven and austerity-led destruction of British society. Are you interested, or is it too much like hard work?

Wise words: The ‘People’s Assembly’ hopes to stir people out of their apathy and encourage them to oppose the unelected and unmandated right-wing, ideologically-driven and austerity-led destruction of British society. Are you interested, or is it too much like hard work?

“The people are not ready to embrace Socialism and may never be ready.”

“What, a cobbled together bunch of leftie socialists?”

“It will take more than a few breakfast TV celebrity socialists turning up in community centres to shake people awake, and armchair socialism – like conservatism, capitalism, fascism, communism and any other political ism that involves a minority seeking to impose its will on the masses down at their local community hall – is the last thing that anyone needs.”

“It would just be a talking shop of unelected and ‘celebrity’ allegedly left-wingers, who like to hear the sound of their own voices. It does not have any democratic structure, and would just be a sort of an admiring glee club, that would allow its supporters to have the illusion that something is being done.”

“Even if you got five million people to march through London protesting over the austerity program, the Palace of Westminster wouldn’t hear it.”

These are just a few of the negative responses to a recent article by Owen Jones, on the forthcoming meeting of the ‘People’s Assembly’, organised by the new socialist organisation Left Unity. None of them are saying anything we haven’t heard before. It seems the constant refrain, to which the British people sing along, is “Don’t bother trying to change it; there’s nothing you can do”.

This is, of course, lazy nonsense. You hear it from people who genuinely can’t be bothered and, more perniciously, from supporters of the status quo (in this case, the Coalition or UKIP) who know that a discouraging word at the right moment can nip a potential rival organisation in the bud. It’s called conditioned helplessness, and I’ve discussed it before.

Remember, the ‘People’s Assembly’ has not had its first meeting yet. Already people are trying to tell us it is a failure, a “talking shop” for “armchair socialism” that would not be heard in the corridors of power.

I wish I could attend, but geographical issues and other responsibilities mean this is impossible (I live in Wales and have responsibilities as a carer).

One thing we should all remember is that this is a socialist movement, not the creation of a political party. We already have a democratic socialist political party, although our Labour members of Parliament seem to have forgotten that (here’s a clue, folks: Read the top line on the back of your membership cards). They appear to be taking the soft option and following the Coalition narrative. But that’s no reason to let them get on with it.

It seems to me that the ‘People’s Assembly’, like the Left Unity organisation that is staging the event, will work best putting pressure on systems that are already in place. Labour presents the best chance we have for ousting the Tories and their little yellow helpers, without putting something equally right-wing in their place. People of good faith just need to encourage the Party to do the right thing.

And that is: Ditch all the idiotic follow-my-Tory-leader austerity-driven policies announced in recent weeks. Austerity has failed as a way of balancing the books; it was never intended to do so in the first place. Ditch the divisive Tory-soundalike rhetoric that shows Labour also wants to blame the poor for problems that they never created. Clear private sector ‘advisors’ out of Labour Party meetings and thinktanks – corporate influence will only benefit corporations and their shareholders; they have the Conservatives for that.

Adopt the line taken by Michael Meacher MP: “We will end austerity”.

Devise new policies for health, workplace safety and social security that will aim to prevent not only workplace-related sickness and disability, but also congenital conditions that blight lives. That will bring down the bills for health and social security far more than misplaced attempts to punish those whose ill-health is already an unjust punishment, as they have not committed any crime.

Reconsider policies relating to business. Labour has long since admitted that nationalisation of all industry does not work, and it doesn’t. But there are some services that should be run – as a business, perhaps, but under the authority of the state – in the national interest. These are the public utilities – water, electricity, gas. Possibly rail transport as well, because the current privatised situation is costing the taxpayer far more than when the service was nationalised.

Encourage self-employment where practical. People can only be assured of the ability to sustain themselves if they own the means of production. The best way to do that is to work for themselves. For businesses involving more than a single trader, encourage mutualism or co-operatives. This is the best way to ensure that all workers get the most benefit from the products of their labours. With employees encouraged to put more effort into their trade by the promise of getting more out of it, progress towards meeting and exceeding the Living Wage seems more likely.

And support new technologies, especially those that are environmentally-friendly. This is where many of the new jobs will be generated and the UK has delayed its support of these advances for far too long.

I don’t think these are impossible ambitions.

They can be achieved if the progressive members of British society get their act together and stand up for them. And let’s all admit it, they would be much healthier than the cuts that have spawned a continuing storm of protest ever since the Coalition first inflicted them upon us, just because most of us are poorer than they are.

I can see a willingness to take part in this activity, all around. I recently commented on attempts to silence progressive thinking in the letters page of my local newspaper – that has only happened because people (not just me) were willing to put pen to paper and say they think the Coalition has got it wrong.

People are realising that they can’t expect their political representatives to do the right thing without being told what it is. What’s holding them back is the concern that this is a minority view. That is why they may welcome an umbrella organisation like Left Unity and the ‘People’s Assembly’, to show them they’re not alone.

I would like to say that in Central Hall, Westminster, on Saturday but I can’t be there.

Would anybody like to say it for me – or something better?

Or shall we all just sit back in our armchairs and mutter, while the country goes to hell in a handbasket?