Tag Archives: responsible reform

Welfare reform: will the Lords hold their nerve?

Today (February 14), the House of Lords will be debating the Welfare Reform Bill from 2.30pm. This is the Bill they sent back to the Commons with seven amendments, which MPs reversed out of hand. The government went on to state it would us ‘financial privilege’ rules to push the legislation through Parliament in its original form – an entirely undemocratic move that has led many to question the legality of the government’s tactics, and some to call for the Queen to deny Royal Assent to the Bill, on the grounds that it will not have been passed “in good faith”.

I think we all know by now that the aim of this Bill is to harm disabled people. The government has tried to create a myth about them being “benefit scroungers”, sponging off the State, but that has not succeeded with anyone other than readers of the Daily Mail. Ministers just want to take money away from those who are least able to defend themselves. Shame on them.

The question now is whether the Lords are prepared to stand up to the Coalition. Will they oppose the derisory attitude of their counterparts in the Commons, or will they just roll over and let democracy die out? How do they feel about the fact that their amendments were overturned? What do they think about the ‘financial privilege’ furore?

I suppose we’ll find out this afternoon, starting at 2.30pm.

For those of you with a deeper interest in the issues, I urge you to read Sue Marsh’s Diary of a Benefits Scrounger, but I will leave you with a quotation from today’s column: “At some point we must say “enough”. At some point, we have to accept that we have a broken system, broken procedures and that “majority rule” is not enough. If we have no checks and balances, no way to influence outcomes or mitigate harm, then the Commons is effectively a dictatorship – once elected free to wreak havoc wherever they see fit. Nothing in a manifesto, no hint of things to come, just a majority, cobbled together to deny process.”

I warned last week that we are seeing the signs of a dictatorship here. Do you really want to live under tyranny?

Welfare Reform Bill: a request for information

In April last year I wrote to my MP, Roger Williams (Liberal Democrat) regarding the Welfare Reform Bill and changes to Disability Living Allowance. He had sent me a letter from Maria Miller (a DWP minister, I believe), claiming that it should reassure me. It didn’t.

Now, as the government is ramrodding this vile Bill through Parliament using a procedure that is not valid (as far as any of us can tell), I’d like to resurrect some of the issues I raised with him then, and ask whether any of them have changed in the 10 months since.

If any readers have answers for me, or stories about their own experiences, please send them to me via the ‘Comments’ box at the bottom of the page.

‘According to the letter,’ I wrote, ‘there will be an “objective assessment of an individual’s need”, developed alongside “a group of independent specialists in disability, social care and health, which includes disabled people”. Who are these independent specialists? To which organisations do they belong? Are any of them members of groups which have previously criticised the assessment of Incapacity Benefit claimants, on which the DLA assessment will be based? This letter does not provide that information.’

Does anyone know, today, who these people might be?

‘The letter states: “I can assure you that it (the allegedly-objective assessment of an individual’s need) will not only take into account physical impairments, but also mental, intellectual, sensory and cognitive ones. We also recognise the importance of ensuring that it effectively takes account of variable and fluctuating impairments.”

‘Before continuing, I would like to point out that taking information into account is not the same as making a decision based on it, and this comment cannot, therefore, be taken as an assurance of fairness.

‘As I understand it, the assessment will be carried out with the help of a computer, as has been the case with Incapacity Benefit since the new assessment for that benefit was introduced. Is this really the best way of analysing a person’s fitness for work? I don’t think so, and neither do charities working with the disabled, who have described it as a “blunt and unsophisticated tool”.

‘Let’s stay with the Incapacity assessment for a while. I think it is useful to use it as a way of gauging how the new DLA assessment will work because the latter will be based on the former. Since its preliminary rollout in 2008, we have all heard how people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work. In addition, people with mental health problems have complained their condition has not been taken seriously, and people with complex illnesses report that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems. “Ensuring that it effectively takes account of variable and fluctuating impairments”? It doesn’t seem likely, in my opinion. Certainly not “effectively”.

‘A revised, even more stringent version of the assessment means blind claimants who can get around safely with a guide dog will be forced onto jobseekers allowance, as will deaf claimants who can read and write. Taking into account sensory impairments? Do you think this claim is justified?’

Is this still true?

‘To continue receiving benefit, a person must score 15 points. However:

‘*Claimants who can’t walk but who can use a manual wheelchair will no longer score points;’

Still accurate?

‘*References to hands have been removed from the picking up activity specifically in order to make it harder for amputees to score points;’

Is this still the case?

‘and *Some activities have simply been cut from the test altogether. For example, the activity of ‘Bending and kneeling’, for which 30 points are currently available, is to be completely removed for ‘health and safety reasons’ as people should not ‘bend forward when lifting’.’

Is this still the case? It seems strange to cut something from a test for health and safety reasons when at-work threats to a person’s health and safety are precisely the reason they are taking the test!

‘Half of all the scoring descriptors for mental health and learning difficulties have also been axed, making it much harder to get benefit for people with conditions such as depression or anxiety.’

Still true?

‘At the end of each session, the computer program generates a 25-page report summarising the person’s general state of health, and fitness for work. People with severe health problems who have been given zero points say that they have told their assessors what was wrong with them, and been met with a “computer-says-no” response.’

Still true?

‘Receipt of DLA means many claimants can also get free improvements to their homes from Social Services,’ I wrote. ‘How are disabled people supposed to get these improvements if they are downgraded to Jobseeker’s Allowance, which provides a lower amount that will be entirely spent on subsistence?’

I added that there is a level of vindictiveness in the assessment system, also.

‘The Guardian has reported on one man who was given only nine points in his first WCA, but went to tribunal, where the judge found him eligible for the higher level of benefit. Shortly after the tribunal he was called for another assessment, and this time was awarded zero points. At the time the article was printed, he was waiting to appeal a second time.

‘Part of the assessment has assessors extracting information sideways from claimants. People are asked: ‘Do you watch EastEnders or Coronation Street?’ If they say yes, then that’s interpreted as meaning they can sit in a chair for 30 minutes, and that they can concentrate for 30 minutes, and the assessor can then put this on their profile as indicating they are able to work. Ability to watch a TV show does not equal ability to work.

‘Assessors observe the claimants’ demeanour during the test. One report, explaining why a woman with mental health problems had been found ineligible for the benefit, states as justification that she “did not appear to be trembling . . . sweating . . . or make rocking movements”. The DWP manual states “rocking may indicate anxiety”. It may indeed, but this is not – and should not be interpreted as – the only possible indication of anxiety.

‘Let’s get back to the letter,’ I wrote. ‘It states: “Currently there are 11 possible different rates at which DLA can be paid, which makes it complex to administer. We are proposing two rates of benefit payable for each component. This will simplify the overall structure and make it easier to understand.” Hold on a moment! So what this means is the current system involves a bit of thought on the part of administrators that, reading between the lines, the current government is not prepared to support. Simplifying the structure would mean fewer different rates of payment – so there’s a saving to be made there – and also there will be a need for fewer people to administrate the system – so there’s another saving to be made.

‘This is all about money, isn’t it? Mr Grayling can carry on that there are no targets until he’s blue in the face, but the facts are telling a different story.’

I’m willing to bet that none of the above has changed, but I’d like to read comments from people who are more familiar with the system than I am.

I’d like to leave you with this thought: In 1930s Germany, the Nazis had the Jews. In today’s UK, the Coalition has the disabled. How long will it be before someone dies?

Or has that happened already?

Plus Ca Change (or: The More Times Change, The More Tories Stay The Same)

I’ve just found the following fascinating snippet in a recording of the BBC’s News Quiz, c 1993. It’s a reference to a cock-up by then Social Security secretary Peter Lilley, that was revealed right around the time of the Conservative Party Conference that year.

“Peter Lilley had a very successful Blackshirt Rally- Blackpool Rally – in which he made one of those caring, sensitive speeches about how the loss of money and the budget deficit was all the fault of three single mothers in Cardiff,” said Private Eye editor Ian Hislop.

“But then it transpired rather amusingly that his own department had managed to lose, entirely by incompetence, about £331 million, which is more money than all his stupid measures would have saved anyway.”

The legendary Barry Took, chairing the show, explained: “It is Peter Lilley and his team at the DSS. They’ve managed to overspend a massive sum from the welfare benefits, so would the person who received the Giro for £331 million and 48p please send it back to Mr Lilley or to any of his immediate staff: Eva, Unity or Benito.

“It was of course Mr Lilley who attacked scroungers of all sorts, and especially the growth in claims from single mothers, so any young woman thinking of getting into that condition should think again, and stay away from cabinet ministers.”

Now we have Chris Grayling at the Department for Work and Pensions – a man dubbed ‘Goebbels’ by the media, after Nazi Germany’s propoganda minister, in an apt (and entirely coincidental) follow-up to the News Quiz reference to Hitler (Barry Took’s comment namechecked Hitler’s wife Eva Braun, along with Unity Mitford and Benito Mussolini; and Ian Hislop’s reference to Blackshirts was a comparison with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists before World war Two).

Grayling’s department awarded a contract to Atos Origin that was worth £801 million over a 10-year period, to carry out ‘work capability assessments’ on claimants of sickness and disability benefits, at which people with terminal illnesses or severe medical conditions have been declared fit for work and had their benefits cut.

The cost of appeals against Atos decisions is running at £50 million per year, and the number of successful appeals is currently around 40 per cent, according to The Guardian.

So, this time, we’re already up to nearly £1 billion (£801 million plus around two years of appeals against decisions) wasted on the latest attempt to demonise “scroungers”.  The language is exactly the same as in 1993, although it is now being used to attack the sick and disabled, rather than single mums.

And the situation is exactly the same. The Coalition wants to cut £9.2 billion from sickness and disability payments but is already on course to spend far more in the attempt, due to – in my opinion, and I’m sure I’m not alone – incompetence.

The more times change, the more Tories stay the same. It would be pathetic if it wasn’t so dangerous.

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Standing up for the powerless – the real strength of the press

“Basically, newspapers are not run by a bunch of nice people. The journalists themselves are a special breed. I often say that, in many cases, they are pathetic people who love the power of the pen. They are spiteful individuals whose mentality is to pry and dig and give people grief. They’ve never achieved anything themselves, but they can’t wait to attack someone who is trying to achieve something. That’s why you very rarely see any positive stories in the newspapers.

“Whenever I see something negative written about me in a newspaper, I will go on Twitter and slag off the journalist in question. This results in a load of followers agreeing with me and slagging off the journalist even more – which I’d imagine is the first time that one of these pathetic cretins has ever had any criticism voiced against them. And when they see it, they don’t like it, so I’ve found that it does shut them up.”

– Alan Sugar, The Way I See It.

I’m a newspaper reporter by trade. I’m also, by all accounts, a nice person. I know that is quite a dangerous assertion to make, but if you ask people who know me, I’m optimistic that they’ll confirm what I’ve just stated.

Because I am a newspaper reporter, though, I have come in for an amount of unjustified criticism that I doubt anyone else in other professions would tolerate.

Let me give you an example. I moved to Mid Wales to start a new job in August 1997, and was just starting to become known in the community when the news broke that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed in a car crash in France – while being pursued by paparazzi (that particularly odious breed of newspaper photographers). That evening I went to my local pub for a pint of bitter and was bombarded with acid instead. “It’s you newspaper scum who killed her!” “You bloody paparazzi can’t leave anyone alone!” “What lies were you going to print about her this time?”

I put up with this for a little while, then turned on them: “Yes. It was me. After I left here at closing time last night I travelled straight to the airport, got on a plane for Paris, hired a car and started following her, hanging out the window with a Nikon perched on my nose.” That shut them up for a moment so I pursued my advantage: “Don’t be so bloody stupid. we’re not all out to dig up the dirt on every single human being around us. You only believe that because you’ve been told it by someone else – who probably did so in the newspapers or on television! How gullible can you be?”

Nevertheless, once you’ve admitted you’re a reporter, the stigma stays with you. One lady refused to speak to me at all for a long time because she was convinced I would seize any tiny detail of her conversation and make some column inches out of it. What would be the good of that?

In the quote I’ve used above, it’s Lord Sugar making the tired old accusation. He doesn’t actually clarify it in the book, but he’s referring to journalists working for national tabloid newspapers, who really are a breed apart, and about whom I tend to agree with him.

But because he doesn’t clarify, we all get tarred with the same brush, right down to lowly local reporters like myself. So he’s utterly mistaken where he doubts that any journalist has ever had criticism voiced against them. It happens all the time, and is most commonly undeserved.

At local level, we provide a valuable service to readers. We tell them what’s going on around them – both recent history and upcoming events. We warn them when political changes are coming up that might damage their way of life. we campaign for them against plans – whether by the government (local or national), developers or private companies – that might blight them. We work to ensure that they enjoy a certain quality of life.

Perhaps the most extreme example of that, in my case, was back in the 1990s when a gentleman contacted me to say he had been on a waiting list for a vital heart operation for 11 months; it had been put back and back and back again. This was back in the days of the last Conservative government, when I think we can all agree the NHS was neglected badly. I campaigned to get him his operation and we won. Afterwards, he sent me a letter claiming I had saved his life!

So we don’t deal entirely in bad news – in fact, the front page lead on one of my locals this week states ‘Campaigner up for Nobel Prize’, referring to a dedicated lady who has spent her life working for peace.

But the doom and gloom does tend to overshadow much of what goes on – because it’s what readers need to know.

Today I read a perfect example of the good service newspapers provide – in, of all places, the Daily Mail. Now, if ever there was a paper that deserved the brunt of Lord Sugar’s bile, it’s the ‘Wail’, with its biased, vindictive, right-wing reporting and cavalier attitude to accuracy. This is the home of Quentin Letts and Jan Moir – both of whom rightly get lambasted in Lord Sugar’s book.

But today, the Mail featured possibly the best article yet, vilifying the government – the government which this newspaper has supported and promoted for more than 20 months – for hushing up the overwhelming tide of opposition to its Welfare Reform Bill.

Under the headline “We’re all desperate for welfare reform, Mr. Cameron, but hiding the truth is not the way to achieve it“, writer Sonia Poulton states: “They are more mean-spirited than ever – proving that when it comes to politics, David Cameron’s Conservatives retain their place as ‘the nasty party’.

“Despite conducting a public consultation, the Department for Work and Pensions – whose arm DLA falls under – have chosen to blanket ignore the opinions of their respondents.”

She writes: “The upshot is that 3.2 million people will be transferred to a system that will include yet more assessments and a cutting of existing claims by 20 per cent.

“Even more savage are those disability cuts that will result in as much as 50 per cent of weekly benefit deducted. When you are receiving little more than seventy pound, as it is, then reducing the income by half is a frightening and shocking amount. People are already dying through lack of food and heat and it will surely only increase.  Remind me. We are living in a privileged country in 2011, yes?”

“This Coalition love to talk about our ‘shameless’ generation but we are led by a shameless government.  One that runs regular ‘Sweetheart Deals’ with multi-nationals and allow them to get away without paying billions – yes, that’s right billions – of pounds in taxes and yet turn on the very people we need to protect.

“Like their fatcat mates in The City – who they protected again last week when David Cameron vetoed a financial transaction tax for business – this Coalition is symbolic of the ‘me, first’ era.

“That’s not a country that represents me or, indeed, any of the decent and fair-minded people of my acquaintance… When it comes to your proposed welfare cuts, the ones you seek to change but by giving us only half the story in which to make up our minds, I say this: not in my name.”

Bravo, Daily Mail. Bravo, Sonia Poulton. Bravo, journalists – standing up for the people.

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Another thought about Boris and DLA

I’ve had another thought about Boris Johnson’s brave stand for disabled people.

Hopefully you’ve read yesterday’s blog, in which I professed my amazement that Boris and I appear to be on the same side, opposing the government’s proposed change of Disability Living Allowance to – what is it? – the Personal Independence Payment? They wanted to give disabled people the PIP and that’s exactly what’s happened!

Well, last night, this occurred to me:

Suppose you’re the Mayor of London, and are up for re-election this year, but you belong to a political party that has become unpopular with large swathes of your electorate, for… I don’t know… putting VAT up so everything costs more, or trying to cut Housing Benefit (this was defeated in December last year but they’ll probably have another go at it later), or making it harder for disabled people to get extra money to help with the extra expenses their disabilities incur.

You’ve got no influence over any of these policies. The decisions won’t be made by you, and you won’t even get to vote on them.

In that position, wouldn’t you speak out against one of those things – to claw back a bit of credibility with Joe Public?

You’d never have to do anything about it.

Politicians have ‘form’ when it comes to this behaviour. In his book, The Way I See It, Lord Sugar refers to a “classic piece of window-dressing” by “that other brain surgeon George Osborne”.

He writes: “If you’re a politician, you know it will go down well if you say, ‘We are going to look after the poor and hit the rich.’ And one of his little ideas was that he was going to tax private aeroplanes. I say it was window-dressing because there were no details whatsoever on how he was actually going to do it, which clearly demonstrates to me that they hadn’t thought it through, but decided it was a wonderful PR stunt to get the ordinary man on their side…

“As yet there are no details of how this new tax is going to be implemented, and I would guess that it will get brushed under the carpet as a PR stunt that had its use and is now over.”

It occurs to me that “a PR stunt” is exactly the way to describe Boris’s position on DLA.

Just a thought.

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Battling the government’s benefits lies – with Boris!

I never thought I would agree with anything Boris Johnson said. We truly live in interesting times.

Boris has put his weight – and let’s be honest, he’s not exactly slimline – behind a report published today (January 9), finding that the government misled MPs and Peers over the hostility to disability benefit reform. It finds that Parliament has been given only a partial view of the overwhelming opposition to the Coalition’s planned reforms of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and – crucially – that this opposition was previously not released to public scrutiny by the government.

The report, Responsible Reform, is based on the responses to the government’s own consultation on its planned DLA reforms, which were only made public once disabled people requested them under the Freedom of Information Act. It was compiled, as I understand it, by disability blogger Sue Marsh and Dr Sarah J Campbell. According to the report:

98 per cent of respondents objected to the qualifying period for benefits being raised from 3 months to 6 months;

99 per cent of respondents objected to Disability Living Allowance no longer being used as a qualification for other benefits;

92 per cent opposed removing the lowest rate of support for disabled people.

In all three cases, as well as many others, London’s Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson also objected to the proposed changes.

Other findings were as follows:

There was overwhelming opposition in the consultation responses to nearly all of the government’s proposals for DLA reform;

The government has consistently used inaccurate figures to exaggerate the rise in DLA claimants;

The report shows that nearly all of the recent increase in working-age claimants of DLA has been associated with mental health conditions and

learning difficulties. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties remained remarkably stable;

98 per cent of those who responded opposed plans to change the qualifying period for PIP from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months;

90 per cent opposed plans for a new assessment, which disabled people fear will be far too similar to the much-criticised work capability assessment used by ATOS to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA); and

Respondents to the consultation repeatedly warned that the government’s plans could breach the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Boris called for the Government to retain the three-month qualifying period, saying the increase to six months will mean that people with fluctuating conditions would have increased difficulty in qualifying.

“People with fluctuating conditions face the same barriers that all disabled face in relation to higher costs of living and DLA is essential to maintain a decent quality of life,” he said.

I agree. I have a person very close to me who is now on DLA, but had to fight for years to get it. She became disabled due, she thinks, to poor working conditions in the factory where she was employed. This created a physical condition which put her in pain all the time. She tried to soldier on but in the end had to take so much time on sickness that the company sacked her. It has never accepted any responsibility, on health and safety grounds for her disability and it is impossible to prove.

There then followed years of trying to prove that she was entitled to DLA. The DWP adamantly refused to accept the claim she made herself, and it was only with the help of the Citizens Advice Bureau – after several years of trying – that my friend’s claim was accepted on an indefinite basis. In the meantime, she had been sliding into debt because Boris was right, she could not meet the cost of living.

Now she is able to make ends meet – just about – but her condition fluctuates. Some days she is able to go about her business (by which I mean normal housekeeping work, cooking, washing… you get the idea) without any help; other days she can’t move for the pain.

I can picture DWP employees salivating at the thought of getting their hands on her again, and revoking her ‘indefinite’ claim. That would be the end of her.

The thought of telling this woman that the government has lied to the public in order to push through this reform, quite frankly, terrifies me. The situation has been aggravating her increasingly since it first came to light that the government wanted to cut back on DLA and I don’t know what it would do to her mental health, which is also fragile.

How long do we tolerate a government that lies to the electorate in order to push through injustices?

I’ll leave you with a comment I wrote to the Guardian, at the beginning of 2011, which I think still describes the situation very well:

“When I came downstairs today to make some lunch for my friend (who is disabled) I found her in tears. It seems today’s frosty weather has aggravated the chronic pain she suffers every day in her back and shoulders, that was brought on many years ago by poor health and safety conditions in the factory where she worked. The situation had been overlooked many times by inspectors – who made appointments to visit the factory, in order to ensure that the managers had plenty of time to make sure all was in order when they turned up. After they left, the usual poor conditions were reimposed (as I understand it).

“While she was sitting there sobbing, my friend was asking why she had to suffer this. She was pleading with me, begging for me to tell her why she has to suffer so badly. She didn’t ask for it, and if this is what she has to look forward to – for the rest of her life – it won’t be worth living, she said. She’s probably still in tears as I type this.

“I didn’t have an answer for her. How could I? I’m just as powerless as she is. The truth is, her condition was caused by ‘light touch’ health and safety enforcement on the part of the last government, and it seems her meagre benefits are now in danger due to the callous inhumanity of the current administration.

“She’d work if she possibly could but she can’t. Her condition is not her fault – ultimately the fault rests with decision-makers in Westminster. Will anyone in Parliament accept responsibility for her situation?

“Somehow I doubt it.”

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