Sue Marsh and myself spent a day spent carefully planning what to say and what we might be able to acheive from this conversation; the pressure was on. We knew that at most the conversation would be scheduled for around 10 minutes and that there was a huge expectation for answers from sick and/or disabled people. We needed two clear objectives we thought we might be able to suceed with in that space of time so we decided to concentrate on the way sick and/or disabled people are being spoken about by politicians and the consequences this has for our lives. We also decided to focus on the particular issues with the Work Capability Assessment as that is affecting so many people already. It was difficult to narrow it down to just two issues but we wanted to be able to acheive measurable results from this phone call and decided these were the initial priority in getting Labour to listen to us.
The first thing Ed had to say when he phoned was an apology for calling me Harriet in the conference hall. Then he said he was ready to listen and to his credit, listen is exactly what he did. I must have done 90% of the talking, with Ed asking questions to clarify. We talked in some depth about the damage the scrounger rhetoric, used by New Labour as well as the Coalition government, is doing to sick and/or disabled people. I was able to explain that disability hate crime has risen sharply and that as sick or disabled people we see a direct correlation between that and the scrounger label. Ed explained that he has concerns around worklessness and disincentives in the benefits system but that he understands now the need to separate out sick or disabled people from discussions about worklessness and welfare dependency.
We also talked about some of the problems with the Work Capability Assessment, acknowledging that the original idea to support disabled people into work was well intentioned but not working in practice. Ed asked for clarification about what was happening, and what we thought the most pressing issues were. I was able to explain that although there are all sorts of issues surrounding the competence of Atos who carry out the assessments, the real problems are being caused by the change in the descriptors intended to ensure less people qualify for the benefits. We discussed how inappropriate it is for sanctions or conditionality to be used against people in the Work Related Activity Group, all of whom have been recognised to be sick or disabled and I was able to explain to Ed how impossible it is, particularly for people with fluctuating conditions to engage with the work programmes as they are currently set up. We also covered the problem of people with long term health conditions being found 'fit for work' and put onto Job Seekers Allowance where they are not able to access the more specialist work support intended for them via the Work Related Activity Group.
We also talked about how for sick and/or disabled people it feels like we are round pegs being forced into square holes, and that for as long as that continues to happen we will fall straight through the holes in the system. I emphasised that sick and disabled people need unconditional support when we can work and for those of us who feel able to participate it isn't that we don't want to work or contribute, but unless we are able to do so on our terms we won't be able to acheive that. For many people contributing to the world of work financially simply isn't possible, but that does not mean they are not contributing to society. We talked about how inaccessible the country still is to us, despite laws surrounding access and that not being able to get onto public transport or into businesses means yet another barrier for people who might want to work. I was able to explain that unless the world of business is ready to offer more flexible working options, part time, from home, small amounts of hours etc any of these work programmes will fail, not because disabled people are lazy or work shy, but because we have to do things in a different way to the 'normal' working week and world.
Ed promised to set up a meeting between Broken of Britain activists and the new shadow minister for disability Anne McGuire. He also promised that he and Liam Byrne will meet with us all after intial meetings with Anne. We would like to thank Ed Miliband for honouring his promise to speak to us in more depth about these issues, for listening to our views and for making a committment to improving the way Labour speak about sick people, disabled people and worklessness to be clear that we are NOT scroungers.
We could possibly speculate as to the connection between this conversation and the press release late yesterday evening from Anne McGuire, but we welcome this as a hugely positive first step on the long road to improving the Labour party's perception and treatment of people who are sick and/or disabled.
Thanks also to John Pring of the invaluable Disability News Service who provided us with the press release from Anne McGuire. John is the only full time investigative journalist working on disability issues and without his fantastic service all those involved in grassroots activism would find it much more difficult to source the information we require.