Monday, 31 October 2011
“Warning over legal aid cuts for disabled people” the article leads. “Ministers are being urged not to restrict legal aid for disabled people wanting to challenge benefit decisions”.
News comes of yet another way that government is looking to save money – this time on a £2bn legal aid bill which it claims is “unaffordable” – money needed by disabled people to get legal assistance when benefit claims go against them.
This action is being questioned by a group of 23 charities including Scope, Mind, Mencap, RNIB and Leonard Cheshire.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice told the BBC that the review of legal aid meant that it would be “targeted at the most serious cases”.
I would argue that ANY situation where you could potentially lose your benefits is a “most serious case”. Indeed, given the comments on this blog and my own (FlashSays) it can at times be life and death.
Comments on my blog include Roger, who wrote “Since this all began [cuts to benefits for disabled people] I have began to feel totally paranoid and at times have given thought to killing myself mainly due to the daily pain I endure but also due to the uncaring way this government is treating us.”
James Gilbert simply said: “If my benefits are cut I don’t know what I would do”
You only have to read one article - Suicide is part of the disability debate – to know how important it is for disabled people to receive benefits. As well as keeping them alive (funding a roof over their heads, food, heat and light) it also validates that person. “Yes, we know you are disabled. We believe you.”
The nature of disability can be such that it makes it hard to complete benefit application forms. People can have memory problems or find it hard to concentrate. They may have physical problems with writing or typing, or they may not be able to construct clear sentences. I know that when I am struggling with pain I find it harder to think, and this affects my ability to write coherently – it is clear to see when I review letters I’ve written, I can easily tell which were done on a “good pain day” and which on a “bad pain day”. But some people don’t get good days, only bad ones – and yet through this they are expected to complete long booklets explaining why they are entitled to benefits.
Disabled people should of course be supported to appeal when a benefit decision goes against them. It’s already been proven that less than 0.5% of Disability Living Allowance applications are fraudulent, for example – these are the government’s own figures. Therefore, when claimants find a decision goes against them, and come forward asking for help to appeal, they are almost certainly going to be genuine, people who really do need help. Likewise with Employment and Support Allowance.
Commenters on my own blog and this one have said that the whole application process (including the fear of perhaps having to appeal) is so stressful that they have decided not to apply and to try to live in poverty without the benefit they are entitled to. Surely people should be given legal assistance to appeal, and feel supported by the government, rather than being forced to live in poverty because they feel beaten by the system?
It is critical that legal aid is available for those who need to challenge benefit decisions. A third of disabled people aged 25 to retirement live in a low-income household – and twice as many disabled people live in poverty compared to those who are able bodied. Without legal support when benefit decisions go against them, this shocking figure is surely set to grow.
Paul Reekie and Christelle Pardo have already killed themselves when their benefits were cut. How many will follow?
Providing this legal aid really could be a matter of life or death.
Campaigners urge last minute emails to MPs
A Liberal Democrat amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is being debated at Report Stage this Monday 31st October, would see legal help for people appealing or reviewing benefit decisions retained. Under current government plans all welfare benefits advice will be cut from legal aid, along with many other areas of law including much of employment, debt and housing advice. Charities like Citizens Advice, Law Centres, and advice agencies use legal aid to fund much of their work in this area.
Part of a motion on welfare reform passed at Liberal Democrat conference called on government to "reconsider the exclusion of welfare benefits casework such as this from the scope of legal aid." A group of Liberal Democrat backbenchers have put down the amendment, including Tom Brake MP, Co-Chair of the Home Affairs Parliamentary Party Committee. The other signatories are Stephen Lloyd MP, David Ward MP, and Mike Crockart MP.
Help with appeals is vitally important, particularly at a time when the benefits system is being radically changed. The introduction of Employment and Support Allowance has been beset with bad decision making - 40% of those appealing were successful. Yet in terms of the number of people affected, this will be dwarfed by the estimated 18 million people who will be caught up in the move to Universal Credit.
Campaign group Justice for All is urging people to email their MP urgently to ask them to speak during the debate and vote in favour of the motion. You can do this via their website at www.justice-for-all.org.uk
Justice for All have also produced a pair of videos, highlighting why help with appeals is so important. They feature three women who have had help from local advice agencies in appealing wrong decisions. They are available to embed herehttp://www.youtube.com/user/justice4allcampaign
The amendment is number 149, the full text is available herehttp://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2010-2012/0235/amend/pbc2352610a.3619-3625.html
Friday, 28 October 2011
Disabled New Yorkers have started going down to Occupy Wall Street on Sunday afternoons at midday for a few hours. https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=126877490750232 - a few hours on a Sunday is a very different proposition to camping full time.
Many non-disabled activists simply don't know or care how shafted disabled people are by issues like the welfare reform bill. Last week Where's the Benefit asked OccupyLSX for some solidarity and for them to support the Hardest Hit protests; they didn't.
So taking inspiration from New Yorkers I think we should join our local occupations for a couple of hours every Sunday afternoon. We need to go down to the occupations and tell them about the issues affecting us. We need to make sure the occupiers understand what we're facing and to get them to support us. Tell the crowd about the welfare reform bill and how you'll be affected. Tell them about how cuts to Access to Work mean that when your current equipment breaks (because wheelchairs, etc, don't last forever) that you might have to give up work. Tell them about how cuts to care packages will limit your independence. Hand out flyers for Where's the Benefit, DPAC, Broken of Britain, Black Triangle, CarerWatch or any of the other grassroots groups you feel do well at disseminating info about our issues.
Disabled people are around 18% of the population. The occupations claim to represent the 99% that didn't break the economy, but unless we participate the occupations are only really representing 81%.
The occupations in London have been the most newsworthy, but there are others around the country:
Cardiff: (in planning stages) https://www.facebook.com/occupycardiff
Like New Yorkers we will aim to participate for as long as the occupations are ongoing. And like New York we'll meet at midday on Sundays EXCEPT this weekend when we'll be following on from the DPAC conference in London by going down to the London occupation on Saturday 29th at 4:30pm instead of Sunday. Standard Sunday excursions will commence the following week.
Facebook event. The Twitter hashtag will be #DPoccupyUK
Thursday, 27 October 2011
The vigil was founded by 17-24-30 in 2009 following the homophobic murder of Ian Baynham in the square. Since then it has widened to remember/support victims of all hate crime; including disablist hate. Speakers this year include Beverley Smith from the Disability Hate Crime Network.
Disablist hate crime is on the up due in no small part to the rhetoric being peddled by the government and press in attempt to whip up support for welfare reform. People are getting called a "scrounging cunt" in the street or being followed down the road by someone shouting "fucking DLA stick" at them, making this vigil so relevant for us.
For more info see http://hatecrimevigils.wordpress.com/ or the Facebook event page.
It takes a lot to make the disabled community take to the streets, mainly because its so difficult for us. If you had eavesdropped my twitter feed last week you would have seen my conversations and musings dominated by The Hardest Hit as we all shared protest survival strategies. We knew there would be a price to pay in our health for attending but as one of my friends put it, "protesting will hurt me but not protesting will hurt me more".
For every one of us attending an event there were hundreds who were unable to go because they were too ill or disabled, too poor, too busy caring for someone or just couldn't use our inaccessible public transport. They sent messages of support, they were with us in spirit.
I'm not an activist or a disability campaigner, I'm just an ordinary person struggling with some pretty serious mental health problems. I am, like most other ill and disabled people, one of the hardest hit by the cuts.
I travelled to Leeds to join the Hardest Hit protest because this Government wants to stop my benefits, remove my services, call me a scrounger and force me from my home. For many of us this protest is personal, we're not just fighting for fairness - we're fighting for survival.
Over two hundred of us gathered in the sun in Leeds. We marched along The Headrow bringing the city centre to a standstill. Shoppers stood and watched as we marched with our wheelchairs, our Assistance Dogs, our mobility scooters, our carers, our children, our friends and our banners. Speeches were made by disability activists, charity sector workers, trade union members, NUS members, a local MP and ordinary people facing huge challenges. The message from all of them and the people listening was clear - these cuts are unfair, we are afraid and we are angry.
There is a 'perfect storm' facing ill and disabled people. We are already struggling to survive from day to day. Our NHS services are being cut and the voluntary sector agencies who would offer us support are losing their funding. The benefits of those of us who cannot work are being cut or removed and those of us who do work are losing the practical and financial support necessary to make working possible. The additional cuts proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill will leave us and our carers more impoverished, isolated and vulnerable. On top of this, ill and disabled people are being labelled as scroungers and benefit cheats, vilefied by the media and treated with suspicion by the public. Disability hate crime is increasing, people are facing abuse and harassment on a daily basis and many are afraid to leave their homes.
This Government has promised to support disabled people who are in genuine need - but only if THEY can define 'support', 'disabled', 'genuine' and 'need'. This is a cynical disability denying ploy to remove support from the people who need it. This Government is merely transferring funds from ill and disabled people and carers to private companies making millions from 'welfare reform'.
One of the most disturbing things is how badly informed most people still are about this. The public still think that disability benefits are a 'lifestyle choice' and believe we are all driving around in BMWs. Sadly many disabled people and their carers are still unaware of quite how badly the cuts will affect them. The media is not listening to the disabled community, some of the Hardest Hit events attracted over a thousand protesters but there was barely any BBC television or radio coverage. The future for society's most vulnerable is bleak. We are 'all in it together' its just that some of us are deeper in it than others.
Attending the protest left me with mixed feelings. I was proud to stand in solidarity with the hundreds on the streets of Leeds, the thousands in cities across the UK and the tens of thousands who were there in spirit.
Guest post by Vanessa Teal
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Thursday, 13 October 2011
1pm, Wed 19th October 2011 outside the annual Welfare to Work
Conference at the Business Design Centre, Upper Street, Islington, N1
This year’s Welfare to Work Conference will bring together
politicians and private companies making millions from the welfare to
work industry. The agenda reads like a who’s who of welfare abolition.
We’re not fooled by “Welfare to Work”: It means people forced to do
unpaid work for multi-million pound companies such as Asda and
Poundland. People risk losing the meagre £67 a week Jobseeker’s
Allowance if they do not work for such companies without pay.
Conference speakers will include James Purnell, who introduced the
idea of workfare under Labour, and the Tory peer Lord Freud, multi
millionaire ex-banker and self styled ‘welfare expert’. This is a
convention for those promoting the idea of an unpaid workforce, whilst
making millions from it.
Join us as we make sure the conference doesn’t go as smoothly as planned!
Thursday, 6 October 2011
So today, the Scottish parliament stood on what had been called potentially their finest hour. If in doubt, start posts with hyperbole. Nevertheless, it was an important moment, as Holyrood got ready to debate the infamous Welfare Reform Bill, proposals which have divided people, even from the same party.
Before the debate, there was a statement on the fuel poverty allowance, followed by queries from several MSPs including Patrick Harvie. The most interesting news to stem from that was the idea that the heating bill scheme was to be extended to that long misused service to society, carers. The feeling seemed to be, on the whole, we aim to keep our promises in this area, even if 'them down South' try to slash our budget.
Deputy SNP leader, and regular sight in Govan, Nicola Sturgeon opened the Welfare debate with as clear a statement on government policy as we shall hear for some time. "We want a welfare system which is fair to all." She followed up with an attack on a system which allowed genuine claimants to be found "capable of work". It was her conclusion that "We must recognise some people are unable to work and must be able to life comfortably on benefits." The Big Society was on the other channel, but Call Me Dave politics this was not.
Jackie Baillie opened the debate for the Labour party, who were mostly to agree with the SNP policies with a few tweaks. "Attacks on the welfare state is nothing less than an excuse to cut." She said, before turning to former Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie. In a pre-emptive strike, she warned him not to bring up the "13 years of Labour misrule" agenda once more, before throwing a dig in at the nearly entire missing Liberal Democrats: "Beveridge would be ashamed to see the Liberals cosy up to this".
Alongside Patrick Harvie's earlier assertions that he planned to argue against the WRB, so far the score suggested it was SNP / Labour / Green for, Tory against, and Lib Dems unaccounted for.
We now handed the debate over to Mary Scanlon of the Scottish Tories, one of that famous breed of formidable Sexagenarian / Septuagenarian Conservative women which populate parts of Scottish politics. At this point we got a lot of Labour mentions. Labour's legacy. Thirteen years. Unelected Prime Minister (though, the evidence that polling for Labour in 2005 rose after the "Vote Blair Get Brown" campaign suggests the general public didn't really disagree with that idea at the time). You know the jist. A lack of "the mess we inherited" in all but name. "39% claimants gave up claims as they didn't need it anymore." Other such familiar claims were made.
Liam McArthur of the Lib Dems, and the only Liberal Democrat available, had the floor now. "I do not accept the Welfare Reform Bill means the dismantling of the welfare state and benefits system" he started. Then he went into the usual Liberal defence of the Conservative policies. Nothing new to report there.
Bob Doris took the floor.
"We must speak out against the Bill, which is unfit for purpose, even if we can't prevent it."
"A savage attack on the most vulnerable groups in our society. [WRB] is cutting cash at any price. It is not a price worth paying."
A female MSP rose to speak next. The tag team of the washing machine and the sound problems on Holyrood.tv meant I never caught who it was, so anyone who knows, please let me know.
"Welfare state is a sign of compassion" she said, expressing that "Social ails" stemmed from the events of the 1980s. "We need safeguards for those who play by the rules and need nothing more than help from the state at their time of need."
Mark McDonald, SNP, was next to refute the claims that the SNP were sensibility and nae sense, as he noted that he had met "many voluntary groups and charities" who "have made sensible ideas for reform that wouldn't hurt the vulnerable."
"60% of genuine claimants rejected, being overturned on appeal suggests something wrong with the system."
"If it is your mistake, you'll be punished. If it is the UK governments mistake, you'll be punished."
He followed this remark up with a reference that 'Sir Humphrey Appleby' would be proud of this system, endearing himself to Nigel Hawthorne's legion of fans and politicos alike. His parting dig - "Now is the time and the hour for the Liberals to show their 'civilising' impact on the Tories" - was given with expert timing. McDonald is a new SNP MSP, elected in May during the landslide, who famously showed up at his count in jeans and T-shirt, so utterly unconvinced he was of his own victory. Here he made an impassioned speech.
Margaret Burgess, SNP, was swiftly to steal the show, however.
- The [WRB] "will have long term detrimental effect to Scotland."
- "I worked as an advisor. People want to work, not wanting to work is untrue, they are not getting the help they deserve."
- "20% less will get help even if they need it. That is wrong."
- The circle of ESA/JSA/ESA/bad decisions "badly effects mental health of the most vulnerable."
She spoke with the full authority of years of experience, and with the full passion of someone who had first hand seen the hopelessness and victimization of the vulnerable in the name of society.
For fear this is turning into the SNP propaganda society, up next was Siobhan McMahon, a young Labour MSP of whom I was unaware of. It is hard to argue that her opening gambit was not one of the most strongest in the debate. "I have (a form of) cerebal palsy. It is surprising how easy it is to forget how you can't do normal things." She added: "I am better off than many others though, and it is for them I am passionately opposed to the [WRB]." McMahon showed an effective and well honed use of the orators mantel, noting of those who screamed about 'unnecessary benefits' that "Benefits cheats in this suspicious society invade their dreams like so many sprites and goblins." A brilliant use of rhetoric. The SNP may have held the floor and had the most condemnations of the ConDemNation (sorry, couldn't resist), but this was the most flowery and brilliant Footian quote of the day. Siobhan McMahon went on to warn that Scotland will "suffer disproportional by this reform, due to our high level of disabled people", and that, as an example against those who say looking harder for work is the solution to all our welfare woes, "Only 12% of people with aspergers in this country are in employment."
Annabelle Ewing, SNP and Winnie's daughter, was up next. She had "Concerns about devolved areas - housing benefits, carers etc - to be adversely effected by this [WRB]." She said there was "New assessment tests" but "little optimism the flaws of the Work Capability tests will be learned." She reiterated that she was "infuriated that disabled and sick are 'made to feel like second class citizens'".
Kezia Dugdale (Labour) took charge next. Her key points:
- "If the Tory government is about the bigger picture, why does the [WRB] gain from broken marriages?"
- "One of the most abhorrent aspects of bill is changes to child maintenance proposals ie Lone parents needing to pay their own."
- "Child care costs, contrary to popular belief, does not pay to work."
Christine McKelvie (SNP) was up to reiterate the SNP policy that "UK benefits system is needlessly complex", and "doesn't ensure people better off in work". We need to " treat systems not causes." She was damning of the Tories: "Instead of lifting poverty, the Tories plan to plunge more poor families into it."
Our sole Lib Dem summed up. Liam McArthur (Lib): "No one can identify what welfare reform would look like in independent Scotland. Still need to reduce budget."
David McLetchie finished for the Conservatives, stating that "Responsibility should be at the heart of our benefits system. Tinkering the edges of broken system wont work.". He was also, sadly, the only man to bring immigration as a sniping point. I may be rather cruel as I suggested that his whole debate could be summed up as "I agree with the SNP, but...". Given he was odds to stress both his support of certain sections of the policy but also his full support of the Tory reform, it wasn't unfair though. Players of David McLetchie Bingo - "Labour inheritance", "SNP record", "problems of independence" - would have had a happy day at the office though.
Drew Smith, the rather nervous Labour MSP, summed up for his side: "We see merit in simplifying system for those who can't..." He then talked up Universal Credit. He seemed genuinely terrified of Mary Scanlon, staring a hole through him constantly and trying to interject.
Alex Neil, the Secretary for Capital Investment, summed up for the SNP. He blamed everyone - the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties - for slashing capital spending. He pointed out the sole Lib Dem in the Chamber, and stressed that "No one is opposed to welfare reform. Purpose in reform isn't to do down vulnerable society, it is to make a fairer society." He also got in a less than subtle dig at the Labour party: "When Labour are in government, they introduce Tory policies. When they are opposition, they oppose the policies they introduced".
All the amendments went to division (ie, no clear decision) in the Chamber, so were voted on. The amendments of Mary Scanlon and Liam McArthur for the Tory and Lib Dems were rejected, and the combined SNP/Labour/Green alliance saw through Nicola Sturgeon and Jackie Baillie's amendments, to be proposed for the Welfare Reform Bill. That being, that matters which effect Scottish people should be ratified by the Scottish parliament before coming into effect.
It was nice to see Labour and the SNP unite on a principle. This didn't stop them digging at each other in much a Tom and Jerry style, but like Tom and Jerry, they united when someone else threatened them. In this, it was the WRB.
So was it Holyrood's finest moment? Rome wasn't built in a day and it will be hard to tell for some time if it was the making of anything but futile gestures.
It was, however, a delight to see some genuine factual, passioned but mostly good spirited debate on a matter which effects so many people, not just in Scotland, but in the UK today.
Wednesday, 5 October 2011
"As you will see from yesterday we talked about the importance of language. So I'm thinking of challenging the title PIP. I think it should remain Disability Living Allowance, after all that's what it's about, disabled People's extra cost of living. It shouldn't not based on independence (defined by professionals) conditionality.
The condition that one should become "personally independent", which is likely to be defined in a medical model way, will not result in the independence disabled People have demanded over the years (i.e. independent living is about having choice and control over your life like that of non disabled people.
It includes all things in your life like work, education, raising your family, leisure, personal mobility etc) If the government want to continue encouraging us take responsibility over our lives, then they must give us the right to make our own decisions as to how DLA money should be spent.
It must not be measured by able-bodied people's assumptions as to what it is to be independent. Could you ask your networks what they think. I believe disabled people want to keep disability living allowance as a universal allowance.
We want to continue the principle that once you become eligible it is left up to you (personal responsibility) as to how you spend it to minimising the extra costs of being a disabled person, therefore we shouldn't be constantly reassessed as to how our so called independence is going. I'm thinking of demanding we keep the language that means disability living. And as we know, living must be defined by the person whose life it is. (Disabled people are the experts in their own situation)
I could put this down as an amendment, but I need support from the outside world, to make it important and powerful.
Tuesday, 4 October 2011
We understand that this is short notice and a big ask, but the more people who can attend, even if only for a short period of time, the better. We need to show the government that they cannot quietly slip this destructive bill through without disabled people, sick people and carers speaking out about what they are doing to us.
Sunday, 2 October 2011
When I contacted my Conservative MP a year ago to express my concern about government policy towards sick and disabled people, he told me that "I see something different, I see the vulnerable protected."
I still can't see that.
Your ministers and special advisers constantly give incorrect information to the press and in speeches. You give misleading statistics to the press, and you leak it in advance to press that are sympathetic to conservative policies. That leads to headlines that seriously harm those reliant on benefits. Your language is itself harmful. You talk of benefit cheats, and scroungers, and the benefit lifestyle, and yet you ignore your own official statistics which show how tiny the levels of fraud really are. You ignore the massive damage done to the vast majority of claimants by your portrayal of those forced to rely on benefits and your constant references to deserving and undeserving; genuine and fake. Rhetoric from conservatives and the press has led to an increase in hate crimes such as stoning of people in wheelchairs and verbal abuse against those who need to use crutches or walking sticks. That has directly led to many disabled people being terrified of leaving the house.
You legislate on the assumption that with mobility aids, disabled people are on an equal footing with everyone else when moving around. They aren't. Shops have steps in their doorways. Pavements lack dropped kerbs, leaving those who are on wheels or cannot manage a change in level to make extended detours. Cars and vans are routinely parked blocking ramps and dropped kerbs. Bus drivers refuse to lower their bus to allow wheelchair users on, or pretend not to see them. Trains and buses allow only one wheelchair on the whole vehicle. Those who need an electric wheelchair for use outdoors are denied one because they have no need to use one at home. Others wait months or even years to be supplied with one.
You continue the broken system of assessing people that was introduced by Labour. The concept of the Work Capability Assessment is broken in itself as the impact of most health problems cannot be assessed in 45 minutes by a health care professional who has no knowledge of the problems that the patient has. Atos continue to recommend that people go in the Work Related Activity Group and attend Work Focused Interviews at the Job Centre when they will be seriously harmed even by attending the Job Centre, IF they manage to do so, and never mind the fact that there are no available jobs that are suitable for them and competition for the unsuitable jobs is more than five to one and up against healthy people.
You are time-limiting contribution-based ESA with no regard for the actual length of time that a person will be sick for. The prospect of losing that income causes stress and seriously damages the mental and physical health of many of those people, leading to even longer recovery times.
You are introducing Personal Independence Payments to replace DLA, but apart from assessing people more often which is highly damaging to the health of those who are permanently sick or disabled, you are reducing the budget by 20%. The costs of being sick or disabled have NOT gone down by 20%!
Conservative cuts to council budgets have come directly out of budgets for personal care. People who can barely get out of bed have been left to shop and cook for themselves; others have been given incontinence pads and told to soil themselves rather than receive help to get to the toilet, and this despite having full control over their bowels but simply being unable to walk. Forcing people to lie in bed for hours in their own faeces and urine is now conservative policy.
You reassured me that the vulnerable would be protected. You were wrong. You are attacking the vulnerable. You are abandoning those in need. Your policies leave people more sick, more disabled, blamed for needing your help. You should be ashamed.