Sunday, 28 October 2012

What Labour Needs to do to Win the 'Disabled' Vote

Making rights a reality for disabled people


Labour should take some credit for extending the rights of disabled people during its thirteen year tenure of office. Let's take a quick look at some of the positives introduced by Labour in the period 1997-2010:

  • Labour legislated to protect people who may be unable to make decisions for themselves, through the Mental Capacity Act which provides safeguards to help people make their own decisions about their daily lives and to be supported to do so where they need that.
  • In 2004 Labour gave new rights to disabled people through the Disability Discrimination Act, and has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Removal of small employer exemption (for employers with less than 15 employees). One of the major changes was the removal of the small employer exemption which meant the DDA would apply to all employers irrespective of size including employment in private households.
  • Labour made families with disabled children a priority, with a total of £770 million in new funding for local authorities and primary care trusts to support disabled children and their families, to transform short break services, and to improve disabled children’s services and children’s palliative care.
  • Over the last decade the employment rate for working age disabled people has increased from 42 per cent to 47 per cent, with the gap between the rates for disabled people and the general working age population decreasing from 32 per cent to 26 per cent.
  • The Access to Work budget was increased from £15 million in 1994/95 to £69 million in 2008/09 and £81 million in 2009/10. Access to Work is likely to help around 35,000 disabled people take up or stay in work in 2009/10.
  • The introduction of free nationwide off-peak travel on local buses for the over-60s and eligible disabled people in England.
  • The establishment of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to act as a strong, independent champion to tackle discrimination and promote equality for all.

Without a doubt a good record. However, we know Labour could have done so much more during their three terms in government. Sadly, Labour become distracted; market forces and neo-liberal economics drove their political and then social agendas, allowing areas such as welfare to become soft targets for cuts. 

The Right to Work

By removing the small employer exemption, where employers of 15 or less employees could refuse to employ disabled people, Labour undoubtedly made it a bit easier for people with disabilities to gain employment. However, as the laws tightened so bosses, and human resource departments in larger concerns, conjured up more inventive ways of not employing disabled people.  

In March 2006 Bert Massie, the then Chair of the Disability Rights Commission, told a parliamentary inquiry into  Incapacity Benefit and the government’s Pathways to Work programme, that employers needed an 'attitude adjustment' towards recruiting disabled people. He went on to state that the green paper concentrated too heavily on the measures required to get disabled people back into work, without adequately addressing the responsibilities of employers to help bring that process about.
Tougher talking from Bert may have made more of an impression. Instead of adjusting the attitudes of employers who circumvent the law by not employing disabled people; why not toughen up the law, even making harsh examples of employers found guilty of discriminating against disabled job applicants.

Unless a future Labour government recognises that employers are discriminating against both disabled workers and job applicants, it will be business as usual.
Labour during its time in office wasted a small fortune on 'quick'-remedy, fast-track schemes for getting disabled people into work. For the most part these schemes were, and continue to be, a waste of money. They have proven to be expensive and open to corruption.

Instead of pouring millions into the bank accounts of private individuals, the government should use the resources that already exist. They are called Job Centre Plus. Given the right inward investment and support from the DWP JCP's can carry out the process of marrying-up job seekers with jobs.

Matching disabled people to suitable employers can offer greater challenges. Yet, the process is possible. JCP's will need to employ people who have both an understanding of disabled peoples' employment needs (which are as diverse as the group itself); and they would need to be able to empathise with disabled peoples' other, different, needs and capabilities. We cannot apply the one-size-fits-all attitude so commonplace amongst, especially, ministers from the DWP, past and most decidedly present.

Access to Work, regarded as the best kept secret in the DWP, is an invaluable resource that pays for itself, as for every £1 spent out on A2W somewhere in the region of £1.40 is recouped by the state - the gift that keeps on giving. And yet, in real terms this government is cutting back on Access to Work spending; that is the government is only reinvesting around 6% of the subsidy it will save from the Remploy closures and Residential Training Courses. It's like cooking the goose that lays the golden eggs...

Many within the disability movement agree that a scheme such as Access to Work is essential to offset those extra costs employing disabled workers may incur. Similarly, we also identify the extra costs incurred by disabled job seekers. Therefore, why not put in place an Access to Seeking Work scheme?

The idea that this government is making work worthwhile for disabled job seekers is simply a lie. Tax credits for low earning disable workers have been driven down in the past two years. For instance, the credit for those disabled people over 50 has been scrapped, so that some disabled people saw a £90-£100+ per week cut in their tax credits this year. Hardly an incentive for those to whom life is already a struggle.

Labour must do more for the disabled worker who, through no other reason than having a physical or mental impairment that limits their working week, is penalised. If, due to an impairment, someone cannot work fulltime they should not be financially worse off than their fulltime counterpart. Disabled people are faced with the same housing, travel, food, etc costs as other people; in fact, we usually face additional costs.

Of course Remploy was mismanaged. Just as British Rail endured decades of mismanagement and under resourcing, so it could be broken up and sold off; so Remploy experienced at least two decades of poor control and management from the board of directors to the highest reaches of senior management.

Sadly, Labour played a large part in the destruction of Remploy. For different reasons, I suspect to this government. Labour, rather than looking back to the very reasons for the creation of Remploy, and applying modern day approaches instead chose to listen to the politically correct brigade within the Party and indeed, on the Left.

For years the 'segregated employment' mantra played at conferences, at seminars, in papers, on blogs and at committees. The Left, adopting a Peter purist approach condemned 'sheltered' employment (they didn't have the decency to give Remploy and other subsidised schemes, there more accurate description of supported employment) as segregationist. Even sister trade unions, Unison, NUT and UCU, to name but a few, up until recently, chanted the segregationist mantra at Remploy.

Four-and-a-half years ago, the anti supported-employment wing of Labour and the Left got its way. In April 2008 thirty Remploy factories closed with the loss of some 2,500 disabled workers. Four-and-a-half years on, the Tory led coalition closed another twenty-seven. What made it easier was the fact that we had shown them the way a few years previously.

Will, on return to government in two-and-a-half years time, Labour reopen Remploy factories? I very much doubt they will. Such processes are rarely ever reversed. But, is there anything that Labour can do for the workers, betrayed in my view, by both governments?

The greatest thing Labour could do for ex-Remploy workers thrown onto the scrapheap, and for the countless other disabled people struggling to find work, is to ensure that the employment market is made completely accessible for people with disabilities. Labour should throw out the tried and failed job schemes, so identified by double counting jobs and the blatant fixing of success rates. In their place, within the safe and trusted Job Centres, train up adequate numbers of disability employment officers. While not an absolute prerequisite, perhaps look to take on and train people who have disabilities; people who have walked in our shoes, who understand the complexities of disabilities.

The Right to Live Independently

If Labour really believes that "...the government’s topdown cuts to disability benefits have been clumsy and badly thought through, with no account taken for how people actually live their lives.", then I fear they have learned nothing of the suffering disabled people are experiencing under this Tory-led regime.

Labour must either believe in the sanctity of the welfare state, and the right of disabled people to social security, or they will continue to be regarded as no better than the Tories by great swathes of disabled voters, their families and friends.

Yes, Labour did introduce ESA to replace Incapacity Benefit; and, Labour did roll out the, almost universally condemned, work capability assessment (WCA). These things Labour carried out in the face of massive opposition from disability groups and disabled people - those dependent on the benefit. Labour used experts such as David, now Lord, Freud to review welfare reform. This is a man so removed by privilege and wealth from the working classes that he joined the Tories in 2009, and now sits on their benches in the Lords. This man, Labour selected to look at a system that provides a safety net and security for ordinary people!

After more than two-and-a-half years in use the WCA has been condemned by the BMA (hardly a Leftist body) as 'callous' and causing 'distress'; calling for its ending “...with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause unavoidable harm to some of the weakest and vulnerable in society.”

Not before time, last month, Labour's Liam Byrne called for a review of WCA. While defending the decision to implement the assessment, Labour will nevertheless call for a "fast and fundamental" review of the test that determines who is eligible for ESA acknowledging that the policy the party introduced while in government is not working.

Come on Labour. The facts are staring you in the face. 32 deaths every week. £60 million per year wasted on appeals. Thousands of pages exist of testimony stressing the inherent unfairness of this flawed system. Condemn the WCA as a system not fit for purpose; and pledge its abolition when you return to power.

WCA must be replaced by a fairer and more transparent assessment. An assessment with realistic activity descriptors. The idea that if someone can press a button this somehow makes them 'fit' for work is both ridiculous, dangerous and downright  insulting. Disabled peoples' ability to work cannot be assessed by a one-size-fits-all computer programme operated by healthcare workers with an equally one-size-fit-all mentality to disability. No, a more sophisticated assessment that looks at the person in relation to their disabilities and the possibility of them working needs to be developed; and at some point in the process an adjudicator must have the authority to say, 'this person cannot reasonably expected to work'. 

Labour knows that often with disability come greater expenditure; for some as much as 24% on top of normal expenditure. Come winter and many of us are deciding can we afford to eat and heat our homes; it really can be that stark a choice. Disabled people are amongst the lowest earners in this country as well as being the poorest. Yet, when we shop we pay the same prices as everyone else - except when it comes to specialist items, which cost decidedly more.

There is no special queue at the petrol pump that gives preferential prices to disabled drivers; despite the fact we depend on our cars more than others. Our utility bills still need paying; and as some of us spend more time at home, these bills are greater than that of the average family. We also attract bills for things such as care and support, outlays not usually required by most other people.

This government knows we have these extra costs to meet. They also know the cost of rents, food and fuel are rising beyond the earnings and incomes of most disabled people. Armed with this knowledge they are still intent on introducing a new disability benefit, the Personal Independence Payment to replace DLA, that will take out 20% of recipients.

Changing from DLA to PIP is not as is claimed a fairer way to ascertain the validity of a person's claim for disability benefit. No, it is an ideologically motivated means to save money at the expense of those who can ill-afford the loss.

The people who gave us 'Reasonable Reform' (better known as the Spartacus Report) have put out another damning exposé which examines the costs to our economy over and above peoples' loss of benefit. 'Reversing from Recovery: The Hidden Economic Costs of Welfare Reform'. reports:

  • 280,000 Motability customers set to lose their vehicles by 2016
  • More than 3,500 jobs lost to the economy
  • More than 30,000 car sales lost annually
  • A loss of £342 million GDP annually
  • Almost £80 million in lost taxes

But it isn't only industry that will take the hit. Thousands receiving current High Rate Mobility Component of DLA, who depend on a Motability vehicle to get them to and from work, shopping, and everyday living will be hit. For many their specially adapted vehicles are the only means of transport they can use.

Disabled people stripped of the Care Component of DLA will not be able to function properly.  For scores of thousands personal support is necessary for the basics of day-to-day living such as getting out of bed, toileting, bathing, dressing and cooking meals. Without this support many will be unable to work, as Access to Work only operates from front door to workplace and workplace to front door.

Once again the lies and hypocrisy of this government are exposed. Taking away vital personal care support from a disabled worker is not the action of a government that is seriously concerned for the well-being of disabled people, or helping us into or remaining in work.

Currently disabled people undergo a spate assessments for ESA, DLA, social care provision, ILF and Access to Work; eligibility for free wheelchairs, accessible housing, Freedom Passes, TaxiCard and Blue Badges can also be a postcode lottery.

Instead of undergoing several assessments for these benefits and resources there should be a universal assessment that covers the applicant for all benefits and resources. Unlike the Universal Credit live Pathfinder scheme planned to start in March or April 2012, we need in place a scheme that is not punitive, but rather offers applicants real social security.

It is clear that social care is an area that requires great consideration. On average, we are living longer today. Which is of course as a direct consequence of our NHS. Thus, improvements in medicine and medical treatment free at the point of delivery have produced a population that, on average, live well into old age; and of course, with longevity come age-related infirmity, illnesses and disability, for which greater numbers need personal care and support.

Labour must address the 'crisis' in social care for elderly and disabled people. Rather than taking the Condem route of slashing £1.3 billion from older people's care; or resorting to massive hikes in personal charges for care; or simply taking people out of care provision by changing the eligibility criteria, Labour should fall back on its tried and trusted 'problem' solving, and create a National Care Service to be run on the same principles of the NHS, which is to provide care free at the point of delivery.

While Dilnott's proposals place the onus on individuals contributing towards their social care; this is no more than another tax on the poor, just as with taxes such as the congestion charge and VAT, those at the bottom are always hit hardest.

Working class people have already to find extra money to pay towards less generous money purchase pensions; higher costs of housing; fuel costs that are spiralling out of control; with unprecedented food rises; while undergoing wage freezes, for several years in many sectors. Can the state then seriously expect an underpaid, often debt-ridden, workforce to find more money to fund their care in old age!   

Care packages and disability benefits must be made more portable. People in receipt of care packages should not fear being reassessed downwards because they move from one geographical location to another.

Similarly, disabled people who move home or into the workplace should not have to undergo repeated reviews of DLA. Moving home or getting a job should not put disabled people under undue pressure wondering if doing the right thing is actually doing the right thing.

If cross party agreement isn't forthcoming on the future of social care, then we must make brave decisions, as our predecessors did in 1945, when against the will of the opposition parties and vested interest within the health profession they went ahead and started our NHS.

The Right to a Roof Over Your Head

Speaking to people who work in the advice sector, especially those who advise on benefit uptake, there is a real sense of foreboding with regards to the new Universal Credit, which will be piloted starting March or April 2013. I've been told by such experts in the field that we are sleepwalking into what could be the most socially damaging changes to the benefits system ever.

The rules will change, so that people of working age living in social rented properties will see housing benefit linked to the size of the property it is felt they need. Therefore, a couple living in a two bedroom flat could be penalised by £13 per week; and this 'room tax' would increase with the amount of 'extra' rooms in the property.

Disabled people will be hit by the new caps on housing benefit. As many as 11,000 young disabled people, those under 25, could be left homeless. Many people with disabilities will have to leave the areas in which they live; thus losing support networks made up of family and friends.

If forced to move long distances from their support networks, people will turn to social services in ever greater numbers seeking support and care. Those who aren't in a position to properly fend for themselves could end up in hospital, their conditions worsened due to a lack of decent care provision.

Some facts on disabled people and housing:

  • Disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to live in poor housing. There is a clear shortage of housing that is specifically designed to meet disabled people’s needs. 
  • Disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to be social housing tenants.
  • In 2007-08 over 6 million households contained at least one person with a disability or serious medical condition. Of those 6 million people, there were 1.5 million individuals in England who required specially adapted accommodation because of a ‘disability or medical condition’.
  • There are approximately 4.5 million households which include one or more people with a reported mobility problem. The majority of those people are aged 60 years and above.
  • Suitable accessible housing is required for people with mobility problems, who may find that their current accommodation limits their independence and social life as well as presenting increased safety hazards. 
  • 1 in 5 disabled people requiring adaptations to their home believe that their accommodation is not suitable. 
  • Although the gap in non-decent accommodation has narrowed over recent years, 1 in 3 households with a disabled person still live in non-decent accommodation.
  • Less than a third of people with a learning disability have some choice of who they live with, and less than half have some choice over where they live. 
  • At least half of all adults with a learning disability live in the family home - meaning that many don't get the same chances as other people to gain independence, learn key skills and make choices about their own lives. 
  • Around a third of all disabled adults aged 25 to retirement ago are living in low-income households. This is twice the rate of that for non-disabled adults.
  • Children and older people tend to be more at risk from poor housing conditions in terms of their health and safety.
  • 53% of disabled children under the age of 15 live in unsuitable accommodation.

These facts and figures demonstrate the very real need for a massive government investment in council, mixed social landlord and affordable 'to buy' housing across the country.

Back in 2007 Gordon Brown made a commitment to a £1.5 billion social housing, in order to provide housing for families on low incomes and on council housing lists. Labour will need to resurrect such a programme, but on a larger scale.

The Tories have recently 'relaxed' section 106 rules, thus giving house builders an 'affordable housing holiday'. Remember the 'pensions holidays' enjoyed by bosses in the 1990s that saw companies stopping their pension contributions to occupational schemes; and just how these have come back to haunt us? I predict similar disasters occurring in housing.

However, Labour can change this. It is imperative that Labour has a progressive social housing programme. No. Make that council housing policy to regenerate house building in the UK.

Meanwhile, Labour council authorities can alleviate the dire housing shortages experienced by disabled people. Currently too many councils and social landlords do not have up-to-date registers of their housing stock that identify mobility or wheelchair accessible properties. All too often when such properties become vacant the landlord's builders enter the premises and remove all access fixtures and facilities. Stair lifts are removed; wet rooms ripped out and replaced with, often, inaccessible baths or shower units. What a waste!

There is an urgent need for social landlords, including councils, to first identify properties that are mobility and wheelchair accessible; and second, to ring fence such housing for disabled tenants use only.

Finally, getting on to and negotiating council housing lists are becoming increasingly Byzantium and tortuous. A simplified and fairer scheme needs to be formulated and applied universally.

The Right to a Family Life

The concept of a universal credit is one that has been around a long time. Politicians, social commentators and people working in the benefits industry have all criticised our system as being unwieldy and over complicated. Each year billions of pounds in benefit goes unclaimed.

Of course, it took a Tory-led government to finally introduce a Universal Credit (benefits) scheme; but of course, it is a system that plays to the lowest common denominator. Rather than formulating a structure that would guide a claimant through a logical system whereby with a minimum of bureaucracy  they end up receiving their full and fair entitlement; this government has introduced a punitive credit system that penalises disabled people, children, job seekers as well as people in paid employment.

Aside from the rich and those in well paid jobs, almost all others will feel the pinch of Universal Benefits. So, a bus driver with a family, earning £27,000 per annum and living in privately rented house, subsidised by housing benefit, could be forced out of his home due to a cap on housing benefit.

The Condem's are aiming to slash by half, from £54 to £27 per week, the Child Tax Credit paid out to households with disabled children. Thus throwing scores of thousands of families into poverty; as well as forcing greater levels of social exclusion on disabled children.
We, that is the Labour Party, should have no difficulties in doing the right thing here. This policy must be amongst the first pieces of business that we engage in once back in control. A clear unambivalent commitment has to be made by us; that we will protect those most in need of social and financial security in our society.

A Universal Credit fit-for-purpose should be introduced. A system that eradicates the need to fill out reams of forms. A system that is understandable to the end user that logically links benefits together. A system that is designed to help claimants not in place as a punishment.

The Right to a Life Free of Fear

For thirteen years I witnessed a Labour government in power who pandered to the excesses of the scum press. Tony Blair's unholy pact with the Murdoch empire before and after his elevation to Number 10 is a mark of shame that will remain on the name of Labour for many years to come.

During those years the likes of Darling, Blunkett, Hain and Purnell while heading the DWP engaged in the vilification and demonization of disabled people. Often going to such extremes as feeding the right-wing press with propaganda which was then printed unfairly showing disabled benefits claimants as cheats and fraudsters.

There are thousands of disabled who today feel a deep antipathy to the Labour governments of 1997-2010, and by association to the Labour Party of today - especially when we Ed Balls gets up on a platform and tells us there are still hard cuts to be made; and welfare reform will take a massive hit when Labour return to government.

Unsurprisingly, when given the press received by disabled people disability hate crime has been on the increase in recent years. Disabled people report naked hostility directed at them in the streets, often in the form of verbal abuse, less so by physical violence - though this aspect of DHC is on the increase.

It is hardly surprising that we, disabled people, as a group within society are experiencing such anti-social and criminal behaviour given we have a government that allows its influential members to publicly blame disabled people for the fiscal deficit, brought about by casino banking practices encouraged by get-rich-quick neo-lib free market speculation. When ill-informed members of our society are spoon fed lies about disabled people receiving new cars; when ATOS carries out assessments on disabled benefits' claimants that are purposely skewed to throw up erroneous and misleading results; and, when the DWP takes this flawed data and offers it up to an overly compliant press as the truth; this further adds to the scapegoating of disabled people.

However, there are also other factors in play when it comes to DHC. One factor is better integration of disabled people into mainstream; whether this is through employment or the opening up of society, a greater understanding and acceptance by the general public on the whole. 

Greater exposure by disabled people to the wider society also leaves us more vulnerable to the less tolerant within our communities. The kind that will always endeavour to prey on those they perceive as weak and easy targets.

Much debate has been generated within the disabled community and amongst those in the police and crown prosecution service as to whether we are living through a period of exceptionally high crime against disabled people, or is it because the reporting mechanisms are easier to access. While there is, for instance, a greater incidence of reporting DHC in Leicestershire, than the Met in London experiences; it is widely recognised by all parties that that disabled people reporting harassment and bullying are beginning to be taken more seriously by the police - though some forces are more progressive than others.

Whether it is low level incidence of name calling or it is physical attacks on the disabled person, Labour must send out a message that DHC is unacceptable in any form. Labour, working with police forces up and down the country should ensure that proper procedures are in place for disabled people to easily access. Disabled people should feel safe in reporting incidents of DHC.

Labour in government cannot repeat the disgraceful behaviour of Iain Duncan Smith, nor indeed its own ministers such as Darling, Hain, Purnell and co, who are, and were, complicit in the demonization and vilification of disabled people to an extent that caused the rise in hate crimes against a group of people whose only crime is their inability to surmount barriers put in place by society.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Let's Rise Up Against Universal Credits

A friend of mine, and a disability campaigner of long standing, Bob Williams-Findlay, put the following question on Facebook today: "Do people really believe that the public will turn against the Government's introduction of PIP if we employ the same degrading language of our oppressors?"

PIP will not in itself drive the multitudes to mass protest. However, Universal Credits is quite another thing. We are already hearing about the early effects of this change in the way welfare benefits are to be administered. The plight of Counihan family in Brent is an early indication of how the housing benefit trap will impact on ordinary working people.
When people reach the cap ceiling of £500 per week (for families) and £350 for single people; when they are hit with bedroom taxes they cannot afford; and evictions begin on an industrial level will working people begin to stir.

A friend of mine likened what this government's policy of benefits' capping, especially in and around housing benefit, a modern day Highland clearance scheme. Pushing working class poor out of the centre and inner city areas to wherever rents are cheap enough for them to settle.

London could end up like Paris, with all the social housing on the periphery, probably outside the M25; and workers having to commute in and out to work every day. Of course, London is 5 times the size of Paris, so travelling will be a greater problem.

The only way we will punish this government is by creating our own Poll Tax moment. Universal Credits have the ingredients to build a massive campaign. As with most of what this government proposes and introduces, at the expense of the masses, this particular programme of misery reaches across far more different groupings of people.

Up to now the Tory attack dog press has happily propagated the lies and half-truths put out by the government. After all, many of the welfare cuts hit groups, such as disabled people and young unemployed, who had already been softened up by years of demonization; thus, we were fair game. The sooner the feckless fripples came off the gold plated benefits they'd grown so accustomed to, the better.

But now, the bite is going to be on working and non-working people alike. No matter how pious the Daily Hate and Sun are when castigating welfare scroungers; it will not be quite so easy to attack families the heads of which are working, but still depend on tax credits and housing benefit.

Come on, let's get Universal Credits working for us!