Friday, 14 October 2011

The Call From Ed Miliband

After a question about the treatment of disabled people feisty enough to bring a wry smile to the face of seasoned political commentator Peter Snow at the recent Labour conference, yesterday, the Labour leader Ed Miliband honoured his public promise to discuss the issues facing sick and disabled people further.

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. 

“I’m delighted to have been appointed as Shadow Minister for Disabled People. There is a responsibility on all of us to care for those in need. However many disabled people feel that they are unfairly being portrayed as scroungers and are feeling very vulnerable"
“Labour will be the voice for those in genuine need, who need extra help live a full life. The introduction of the Universal Credit will see support for disabled children halved, while the Severe Disability Premium is to be scrapped with nothing appropriate put in its place. We believe there can be reforms made to the system, but this is the wrong way to do it, and we will do all we can to stop these changes.”

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.


Beth - fibrogirl said...

Despite my career working with people on the margins of society - in particular regeneration and poverty my knowledge of the difficulties faced day in day our bt the sick and disabled was limited. I had a basic awreness but no real experience. In my various roles working within skills and employment the focus was about those with low skills and qualifications being a long way from the labour market.

My point, it wasnt until I had a car accident in 2008, suffered mental health issues and finally being diagnosed with a fluctuating condition, experiencing the system on the inside that i finally understood it all.

the work you and other campaigners have done and continue to do is educate and explain because no matter how much empathy, care or concern of someone who has the free choice of being well and ablebodied they simply will not think about life in the same way.

for instance when i expalin the spoon theory to some who asks you can see them thinking "really" but i just get up etc all on automatic pilot unquestioned because its habbit.

Thge fact the Ed paused and listened, and acted because you elquantly made a point he could understand and appreciate - made not in a poor me way, but thrtough research, coherant logical arument will break down barriers.

Those in power have relied on being able to dismiss pressure groups as uneducated and uniformed - the tide is turning albeit slowly.

OneVoice said...

I was going to say one small step for the disabled, but actually it might prove to have been one massive step.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that nice of him (bless) he should have done more before the conference unless its part of his big plan. not a lot he can do though not in power you see plus cons have the libs as back ups for their long term plans

Adrian said...

Thankyou for your efforts,I happen not have a disability or illness.All decent thinking people are repelled by the portrayal of people with disabilities/illnessess by the vast majority of the media and the Government's "welfare reforms".I was very disappointed in Labour in this regard and can only hope that this is at least a move towards a more civilised discussion.

Anonymous said...

Very well done!

Anonymous said...

Please don't let Labour forget the plan to time limit ESA.

Robert said...

And yet to day labour are saying? the Labour party are seen as the party of benefit scroungers, immigrants and the poor, which they do not like....

I think it shows labours nothing left to offer people as it searches for the middle England vote.