Yesterday, I attended the TUC seminar on A positive agenda for disability and employment: A seminar on the Government’s Cuts and Reforms
Speakers included Prof Paul Gregg, Declan Gaffney, Kaliya Franklin (‘Bendy Girl’) and TUC economist Richard Exell, former member of the Disability Rights Commission. Unfortunately Sue Marsh (‘Diary of a Benefit Scrounger’) couldn’t attend due to illness. It was chaired by Nicola Smith Head of Economic and Social Affairs Department at the TUC.
The seminar was about the changing to the benefits system. The new Welfare Reform Bill is skyrocketing through the commons, fortunately the Lords has voted down certain elements of the draconian Bill. But this hasn’t stopped the ConDems who will continue their ideological onslaught on the poor. I attended the seminar mainly to listen to Kaliya (who I know mainly through her blog/Twitter account as “Bendy Girl”) especially as she was one of the authors, along with Sue Marsh and Declan Gaffney, of the “Spartacus Report”. I was also interested in what Paul Gregg to say bearing in mind his recommendations were included in the previous Welfare Reform Act under NL and James Purnell as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Declan Gaffney was not someone I had heard speak before but had read articles by him in the Guardian. And Richard Exell, I have heard on many occasions at these events before.
Paul Gregg (Labour market analysis) started his presentation with the statement that the cuts are falling on families and the disabled, who will also be experiencing the “sharp end of the stick” when it comes to the changes in the WRB. He’s right when he says that there’s this myth being peddled that the benefits system is “out of control”. It’s not. The problem I have with Gregg’s analysis (other than his part in the previous Welfare Reform Act) is that he states that during the recession of the late 1980s onwards, disabled people were pushed out of the workforce due to employers seeing them as “nonproductive”, which was undoubtedly true but there are also other explanations as to why sickness benefits rose, such as the actively seeking work rules come in. Until then someone could claim benefits for being unemployed without having to show they were looking for work. This meant that a lot of people with health problems could sign on. This coupled with the supplementary benefit rules for additional payments meant there was no reason for people to go onto the forerunner of Incapacity Benefit, Invalidity Benefit. Therefore people bumped off signing on and bumped out of their jobs claimed Invalidity Benefit and later Incapacity Benefit.
Gregg concluded that because disabled workers were pushed out, they stayed out. He believes that people should be moved back into work by support and engagement. Incapacity benefit to ESA (which he was involved in) was designed to get people back into the job market with “generous financial incentives for providers”. But, as I stated during the Q&A, that’s not what is happening in reality. Before Purnell and now IDS spout the language of “support” and “help” all fluffy and meaningful words yet the reality is coercion, sanctions and conditionality. Also, I stated, that the Work Capability Assessment was a travesty and a total mess. It’s trial by computer. These providers are not interested in need they see pound signs in their eyes. Profits to be made, gagging orders, and “parking and creaming”. I also argued that the private sector should be removed from the benefits system and that the state should run all of the functions. Yes, the state has problems but 1. it’s accountable and 2. nobody makes a profit. The continued privatisation of the benefits systems has made things utterly worse. Purnell, Gregg and Freud unleashed a Frankenstein monster with previous Welfare Reform legislation along culture of dependency and now the ConDems are continuing the trend.
Gregg presented Powerpoint presentations and statistics in a very anodyne manner but the reality is for blunter and brutal. Funny as well, Gregg never referred the intervention I made about the privatisation of the welfare system, incompetency of Atos nor the fact that conditionality and sanctions should be removed confined to the dustbin as they are an insult (to applause from the audience).
Kaliya Franklin argued that the changes to benefits will create perverse incentives. There is cross party consensus (Liam Byrne supports the cap on benefits). And in times of austerity, a powerless group in society is stigmatised, vilified and demonised. There has been shift in now in blaming the individual. During the past couple of years, benefits have been tightened and withdrawn altogether. Kaliya outlined some of these perverse and pernicious clauses:
Clause 51: Limit contributory ESA to 1 year.
At the moment if someone is on contributory ESA and they have a partner who works, the salary of the worker is not taken into account. BUT with this proposal, after one year, your partner’s salary will be taken into consideration and means tested.
Clause 52: Abolition of youth ESA for new claimants. Existing claimants at that date will be able to continue claiming, but entitlement will be limited to one year from the time entitlement began, disregarding time in the support group. Time spent on youth ESA prior to April 2012 will count towards the time limit.
This will affect young disabled people as it will take away independence.
She also spoke about Local Authority’s cutting social care, rationed or withdrawn completely (this began to happen under NL). Birmingham Council, for example, has changed the criteria for care as “super critical” it is nothing more than a cut cutting exercise that puts disabled people at risk. See this report about Elaine McDonald to illustrate the barbarity of these cuts.
The argument and justification by the ConDems for the replacement of DLA to PIP (Personal Independence Payment) is fraudulent claims, which is misleading. One of the reasons why the Responsible Report (Spartacus Report) was published to counteract these claims but to also show that the ConDems cherry picked responses and that they refused to publish all of the responses hence why the authors of the report put in Freedom of Information requests. Around half a million disabled people will lose access to DLA. This is where the “Big Society” is expected to paper over the cracks of cuts and replacing state support. With the attacks on benefits and also housing benefit many, including Kaliya, won’t be able to afford the rent where they live. Access to Work is being tightened, rules being changed and so on. It also means taking away independence. Along with the increased demonisation of people of benefits, there has been a 75% increase in hate crime towards disabled people within the 12 months. So much for a responsible media! The constant abuse will lead to do distress, despair and suicide. This is a perfect storm. Becoming more punitive and oppressive towards disabled people.
Richard Exell’s introduction included a history of the progress made in the past few years regards to changes with the DDA and Equality Act. Civil rights have progressed for disabled people but not economic equality. It has got worse for women and disabled people (especially with the onset of this recession and unemployment). NL foreshadowed the problems. He argues that there should be socially sanctioned income for people who can’t get work. Factors will include exhaustion, nausea, pain and so on. People experiencing these won’t be expected to work. Exell supports the idea of sanctioning people (he’s stated that before) even if it is with the best intentions you are still siding with an ideology that believes people can’t be trusted and punished. Even if you oppose the overall ideology of the right (which Exell claims he does) supporting sanctions still puts you on the side of the right. Sanctions (and conditionality) are wrong and don’t work!
Declan Gaffney started his intervention with the fact that the grievances the ConDems (and NL….Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne) have about “scroungers” is imaginary along with the deserving and undeserving poor as there’s no distinction nor any given basis. John Humphrys awful programme on the welfare state and benefits portrayed the unemployed as static, that things don’t change, immobile block. It’s creates two homogenous groups. Yet the reality is much more complex (mental health doesn’t get mentioned as much as it should). UK employment for disabled people is not exceptionally low when comparing with similar wealthy European economies but for those with “more severe work-limiting restrictions” is weak compared to some other countries. And for those with lower qualifications and more severe restrictions UK performs very badly!
One question from the audience was about Labour’s narrative. The panel had really nothing to say about Labour’s narrative because there isn’t one except to agree parrot fashion the ConDems. There’s no coherent alternative from Labour or opposition.