Category: Human Rights

No value in empty gestures: a retrospective analysis of Labour’s response to the the retrospective Sanctions Bill

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A few months ago, two young workers at Poundland appealed to the courts against being forced to work for no wages, or else forfeit all their benefits. A court ruling deemed the regulations governing Job Seekers Allowance related sanctions imposed on claimants Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson unlawful, and therefore opened up opportunities to claimants having repayment of lost benefits. There were around 230,000 people – other previously sanctioned jobseekers, which means a total of  around £130 million may have reclaimed.

The Tories quickly wrote an Emergency Bill to retrospectively make those same regulations lawful. This was a shocking and tyrannical move that certainly contravenes human rights, and needs to be challenged under EU Human Rights legislation, and hopefully this will come to pass when Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson take their case further, to the Supreme Court.

However many people have criticised the Labour Party for its decision of abstaining from the vote on the Emergency Bill. It’s worth noting here that such a move is not the same thing as “supporting” the Tories regarding the Emergency Bill – as the Guardian misreported. Had the Labour Party supported the move by Ian Duncan Smith, they would have voted for the Bill. However, they did not.

Crucially, this two-clause Bill outlined that the same rules would apply as before, as if the case made by the two Poundland workers had never been brought forward.

This is of course objectionable on several grounds. It was retrospective in application, which as always been a cardinal principle of English law should be avoided. It set an appalling precedent that when the courts had struck down a law or regulation as having failed in due process, it could simply be overturned by Government without any proper regard being given to the court’s reasoning or argument for reform.

However, “A leaked email shows staff being warned by managers that they will be disciplined unless they increase the number of claimants referred to a tougher benefit regime.” The Guardian 

That’s something which has been persistently denied by Tory Ministers – but it is something which the Labour Party’s initiated review of sanctions will now strive to get to the bottom of. Well done Labour.

“This is why we took difficult decisions on the Jobseekers’ Bill to secure an independent review of sanctions. We knew there were sanctions targets and now we’ve secured an independent report to Parliament to put right a regime in Job Centres that’s running out of control.” Liam Byrne. 

Many Labour MPs – including front benchers – were aware of the whistle-blowing case before the vote, which was one of the main factors in the decision to abstain from voting.

Labour’s decision to abstain from voting on the Emergency Bill resulted in an unprecedented rage and knee-jerk responses from so many on the Left, and the situation was not helped by the fact that the media did not publish Labour’s press releases on the matter, the crass misrepresentation of Labour’s position on the Bill was considerable and widespread, with claims made that Labour “supported” the Government’s move.

The Government must have been laughing heartily at that one. Yet the situation was a difficult and complex one for the Labour Party, and I maintain that they made the best possible decision they could from where they were situated: between a rock and a very hard place. Well done Labour.

The Emergency bill reinstated the Department of Work and Pension’s power of sanction. Labour supports fair and proportionate sanctions in the context of a guaranteed six-month minimum-waged job. Labour’s position on sanctions is fundamentally different from the one currently held by the Coalition, and crucially, does not incorporate targets to remove benefits from vulnerable people for no good reason.

It was a no-win choice for Labour, with the Liberal Democrats and Tories combined in their vote, there was no way of making an impact or  stopping the Bill by voting anyway. The abstention came with negotiated and hard won concessions, and that was the best possible outcome that labour could secure. It’s important that we understand the complexities of the situation that arose in order to see this.

Ian Duncan Smith had let it be known that if the £130 million were to be repaid, Job Seekers Allowance would be reduced. The losses of the 230,000 already sanctioned were therefore pitched against potential losses for millions of other jobseekers.

That is an appalling prospect, and it was not a threat from Iain Duncan Smith that was widely publicised. It ought to be. It shows clearly that the Opposition are facing the same oppressive authoritarianism as we are.

The important concessions maintain and uphold the right of appeal for jobseekers, and will ensure an essential review of sanctioning practice happens. The review will serve as a guarantor to the Government having its abuses of the sanction system exposed. It wouldn’t have been highlighted otherwise, since review is the best opportunity for a party in opposition to challenge effectively, and demonstrate gross unfairness, and misapplication and administration regarding policies. Especially when the Government doing the maladministration is an authoritarian one. Well done Labour.

Whether or not this will reduce the angry and hysterical knee-jerk responses that many in the party feel and have articulated towards both Byrne and the Labour leadership remains to be seen, but the importance attached to the review of sanctions, and the other secured concessions certainly makes sense to me.

A vote would have been an empty and meaningless gesture, which, perhaps, may have appeased the Narxists, but with no presented opportunity to improve the lot of jobseekers. For me, looking after the interests of the most vulnerable citizens is paramount. Labour did the right thing here.

At least the review and the maintaining of the right to challenge sanctions have been a significant gain from a very difficult situation. Well done Labour, for prioritising content over style, for ensuring that your response was based on an in-depth analysis, and not on the quick and easy option of a populist, superficial ideal – an empty, meaningless gesture of voting, whilst knowing you would gain nothing. Well done Labour. For prioritising and supporting the rights of vulnerable jobseekers. Quite properly so.

Statement from Liam Byrne, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensioners.

“Most people are against the very idea of a retrospective Bill, especially a Bill pushed through Parliament so fast. I agree. It’s a terrible idea to rush ahead on this. Retrospective legislation does happen from time to time. But the government is moving too fast. It’s taken four weeks to bring forward a Bill that the government wants to push through Parliament in days.

So that’s why we are voting for a motion in the Lords deploring the speed with which the government acted – and its why we’ve argued so hard to maximise the time we have to improve the Bill. But we should be clear about something. If the DWP loses its Supreme Court case in a few weeks time, it might find itself liable for £130 million. Where would that money come from? The Employment Minister Mark Hoban told the House yesterday that it could only come from further benefit cuts.

And here’s the choice I faced in the Commons. Do I do everything to foul up the timetable of the bill, safe in the knowledge that because we lack a majority, the Tories and Lib Dems would ultimately win any vote they liked, whenever they liked? At best this might have delayed the Bill a week or two. Or, do I let the Bill go through before Easter in return for two critical concessions which Labour MP’s actually can actually use in practice to help people over the next two years?

I think we made the right call.

To be honest, I was surprised that Iain Duncan Smith accepted the concessions I demanded. Had I wanted to grandstand I could have forced votes that delayed the timetable a bit. This would have been the small “p” politics of parliamentary legislation. It would certainly have been easier for whips to convince colleagues who were concerned. But even now, after all the fury, I think the most honest way was to gain a guaranteed concession and bank it. Labour are in opposition. We don’t normally get any concessions at all. But now we’ve got two vital changes.

First, we had to make sure that people hit by sanctions have an iron-clad right of appeal against a sanction decision. That’s the right we’ve now ensured is written onto the face of the Bill; it’s the right to appeal on ‘good cause’ (for example, refusing to take a pointless course which is inappropriate) within a 13 month timetable.

There’s something else at stake here. I actually think it’s impossible for anyone to stand in Parliament and say that not one single sanction issued by DWP since 2011 is unfair. We’re not psychic. How could we know? The key thing the DWP got wrong was their notification letters which were too short. Instead of saying:

“If you fail to take part in the [name of employment programme] without a good reason under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, your Jobseeker’s Allowance could stop for up to 26 weeks. You could also lose your National Insurance credits.”

They should have said:

“Under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, your Jobseeker’s Allowance could stop for up to 26 weeks if you fail, without good reason, to take part in [name of employment programme]. This would include failing to complete any activity that your Provider has required you to do.

  • Two weeks, for a first failure
  • Four weeks, if you have previously received a two-week sanction, whether in relation to your participation in the Work Programme or any other scheme set up under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, within the last 12 months; or
  • 26 weeks if you have previously received a four-week or 26-week sanction, whether in relation to your participation in the Work Programme or any other scheme set up under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, within the last 12 months.

This was the lack of detail that provoked the Court of Appeal striking down the government’s sanctioning power. I don’t think we know whether every single sanction decision issued since 2011 is wrong. That’s why we need to ensure people hit by sanctions have the right of appeal – to protect the innocent – and that’s what we got guaranteed on the face of the bill.

Second, there’s something else. I’ve heard too many stories – not least from my own constituents – about people being wrongly sanctioned. And that’s why I insisted – and won – an independent review of the sanctions regime with an urgent report to Parliament. We need to use this to ruthlessly expose bad behaviour. It is actually one of the practical things we can do to make a difference over the next year.

The final argument about Labour’s stance on the Bill, is for many, the most emotive; it’s the wide anger about the very existence of ‘mandatory work activity.’ Labour’s view is that work experience can help get young people into work – but – and this is the crucial ‘but’, we strongly feel that young people should be given a real choice of a real job with a real wage. That means a tax on bankers’ bonuses to create a fund which we would spend offering over 100,000 young people a six month job, with training and job search paid at the national minimum wage. And that’s what we will vote for in the House of Lords over the next few days.

Not one Tory spoke on this Bill in the Commons. We’re different. Labour MP after Labour MP spoke in the Commons. We care about this – and we’re right to debate it with passion and vigour   When we stop being angry about this kind of issue will be the day that we lose our soul. But, let’s be under no illusion. Only by standing shoulder to shoulder will we ultimately push this terrible government into Opposition. We are Labour because we care and debate questions like this so passionately. We reject the politics of divide and rule. And we’ve learned the hard way that unity is strength.”

Liam Byrne.

“The Labour Party used the emergency legislation to ensure that all bad sanctioning decisions can be appealed and even more importantly, that the whole sanctioning regime is reviewed. We forced the Government to implement an independent inquiry into the sanctions regime as part of the Jobseekers Bill and voting against the Bill would have prevented this.

Labour is now gathering evidence to submit to that inquiry. If you have evidence of sanctions being handed out inappropriately I would be grateful to have them, so I can include them in Labour’s submission to the independent review.”

Jon Trickett, MP

Well done Labour.

Further reading:

Leaked jobcentre newsletter urges staff to improve on sanctions targets

Hodge demands explanation for DWP denial of jobcentre sanctions targets

Liam Byrne writes to IDS over sanctions whistleblower

 

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 Many thanks to Robert Livingstone, once again, for his brilliant art work

The Coming Tyranny and the Legal Aid Bill.

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“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.”  – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill.

Source: Hansard, Column 1557, 19 May, 2011.

The Ministry of Justice’s “reforms” (Tory-speak for cuts) to legal aid undermine the fundamental principle of legal equality and violate Article 6(1of the European Convention of Human Rights: the right to a fair trial. They reflect a truly authoritarian agenda of legislative tyranny: the reforms effectively remove legal access for many, crucially that access ultimately safeguards individual liberty against intrusion by the State, and protects us from despotic abuses of authority.

The cuts will seriously undermine access to justice and sidestep the obligation of Government accountability. The cuts will affect the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society and allow unlawful and unfair public body decision-making to go unchallenged.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s analysis in 2012 warned that reducing the scope of legal aid in a substantial number of areas in civil and family law will create serious practical barriers to access to justice, potentially in breach of Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

 

The cuts to the civil legal aid budget, which came in to effect from April 2013, mean many cases, including those about debt, private family law, employment, welfare benefits, clinical negligence and housing problems are no longer eligible for funding.

This is at a time when the Government have implemented other radical, controversial and contentious cuts to health, education and welfare, and it is no coincidence that the legal aid Bill will curtail justice for those with legitimate needs at a time when draconian Tory policies such as the bedroom tax will most likely result in a massive increase of numbers of people needing and seeking redress.

This will mean the compounding of effects of other fundamental  human rights breaches, legally unchecked, because of the profound impact of multiple, grossly unfair and unjust Tory-led policies. Each policy hitting the same group of citizens, to their detriment, over and over.

This sends out a truly worrying message to those of us who believed we lived in a first world liberal democracy  (one that has recognition of  individual rights and freedoms embedded in its Constitution, and one in which decisions from direct or representative processes prevail in State policies.) The promotion of equal opportunity to legal justice is the bedrock of a free and democratic society. It ought to be inclusive of all who cannot afford to be tried fairly. The reality is only a few can afford the legal costs to enforce contracts and against criminal prosecution. This profoundly unjust inequality is not something we expect to see in a Country which was once a beacon of Western liberty.

Even if we were to take a Conservative perspective, it’s still the case that the only way to wed the principle of a “pursuit of economic liberty” with wider justice is by a basic notion of equality before the law, through the equal access to justice. This means that the State must fund the means of contract enforcement and free and fair trial legal costs, for those who cannot afford it. If the State fails to fulfil this contingent function, then we simply cease to be free.

“Legal aid will continue to be provided to those who most need it, such as where domestic violence is involved, where people’s life or liberty is at stake or the loss of their home. But in cases like divorce, courts should be a last resort, not first. Evidence shows that mediation can often be more successful and less expensive for all involved.”  –  Chris Grayling.

Section 10 of LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) provides the new Director of legal aid casework with the power to provide ‘exceptional funding’ for cases that are out of scope. Part 8 of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012 indicates that providers of legal services will not have delegated powers to grant exceptional funding. Instead, an application must be made to the Director for an ‘exceptional case determination’.

Section 10(3) of LASPO states that an exceptional case determination is a determination:
a) that it is necessary to make the services available to the individual under this part because failure to do so would be a breach of:

1) the individual’s convention rights (within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998), or
2) any rights of the individual to the provision of legal services that are enforceable EU rights, or
b) that it is appropriate to do so, in the particular circumstances of the case, having regard to any risk that failure to do so would be such a breach.

This misses a very crucial point: it’s very dangerous to allow the State to decide which cases constitute the most need. In a free, democratic and fair Society, each and every single individual has equal legal worth and entitlement to opportunity to bring about legal justice. The Government choosing which cases are most “worthwhile” undermines this very premise of legal equality which is so fundamental to the notion of liberty. Everybody has a right to take any grievances they have, which have invoked legal ramifications, to court. Everybody ought to have an absolute, inalienable right to free and fair trial in a free, democratic and liberal country.

Having cut the civil legal aid budget by £320m, the Ministry of Justice proposes to cut the criminal legal aid budget by a further £220m. Legal contracts are to be based on competitive tendering. One of the outcomes of the reform and cut to the budget is that defendants on legal aid will no longer be offered a choice of solicitor.

One of the most unfair aspects of this system is that if you are charged, the State will select a prosecutor with specialist experience in that area of the law, funded by the taxpayer. Be it a sexual offences case, a road traffic death, a murder, a drugs case or a serious assault, in each case, a prosecutor will be picked to prosecute you from a specialist team.

But when it comes to your defending yourself, however, you will be given no choice. You will either have the defence lawyer allocated by the State or you will be on your own. This cannot be right. Many legal experts have voiced their alarm at this, because it will  invariably lead to gross injustices.

Large commercial firms who are going to be paid, win or lose, will have a vested interest to encourage their clients to plead guilty, whether they are or not. At a time when people are at their most vulnerable they need a local service that listens, not a business, whose goal will be to turn around the case as fast and cheaply as possible.

The scope for dangerous consequences due to vested interests in the justice system following Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s “reforms” is considerable, and allows potential for further erosion of legal freedom. In some cases,  the sole choice of lawyer for a defendant via legal aid will also be a representative for the organisation with an interest in ensuring a prosecution. The  tendering process – where the cheapest bid wins – would be run by companies with no record of providing legal services, resulting in a dumbing down of the profession and a race to the bottom that will mean citizens being denied access to quality legal aid.

As is always the case when private companies that are driven solely by the profit motive are involved in any service, cases will be run on the cheap by under-qualified, inexperienced, low-cost staff. The company Serco, for example, provides prison security guards. Serco is one company bidding for the legal contracts with the Legal Aid Agency. The Department of Justice has proposed to remove defendants’ automatic right to select their own solicitors to make the contracts to bidders more profitable.

I have no doubt that the Coalition wants to see access to justice removed for those affected by its nightmarish, dystopian policies. Those people affected most of all are some of our most vulnerable citizens, as the cuts have been disproportionately aimed at the poorest, at sick and disabled people, and those who are unemployed. Injustice increases and extends vulnerability, especially for those groups of people already experiencing marginalisation.

We need look no further than Clause 99 of the welfare “reform” Act to see how silencing those seeking redress is a priority for this Government. This is also about hiding the evidence of the dire consequences of the “reforms”, since large numbers of successful appeal outcomes highlight, for example, that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is grossly unfair and widely inaccurate. Yet despite almost 11,000 deaths, many of which have been attributed to the stress of the assessment process itself, and to people being wrongfully assessed, the Government have not even instigated an inquiry into the WCA. Had an auto-mobile been associated with such a high number of deaths, it would have been withdrawn. Yet we still have the WCA, and incredibly, no willingness for an investigation from our perennially indifferent Tory-led Government.

Those wishing to appeal wrongful decisions by Atos/The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) that they are “fit for work” after having their Employment Support Allowance (ESA) unfairly  removed will find that this will be an almost impossible task, since their right to legal aid has been removed. The introduction of the  Mandatory Review in Clause 99 will mean that they have to wait an indefinite period without any ESA sickness benefit, or claim Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), whilst waiting for the DWP to conduct the review, with no time limit imposed on the DWP to do so.

That means signing on and declaring that you are fit  for work, and people are being told by the DWP, unbelievably, that they don’t qualify because they are not fit, or fully available for work. Others have been told that to claim JSA they need to close their ESA claim which means they cannot appeal a review decision. Basic rate ESA is exactly the same amount of money as JSA, so the Government cannot even claim this is a cost-cutting move.

And we also know that Atos are contracted by the Government to make “wrongful” decisions. 

The right to a lawyer of a persons’ choice, regardless of your income, race, gender or nationality, is an underpinning condition of a free and fair justice system. Having both a sense of, and access to choice over one’s legal representative, who is there to fight for justice is paramount to basic legal equality and liberty. When this choice is removed and legal representation is essentially imposed on a passive defendant by the State (if a defendant can still access legal aid at all, that is,) our justice system becomes unacceptably authoritarian.

And it has.

Further reading:

Guidance on the exceptional funding regime

The Public Law Project scheme to assist people with making exceptional funding applications

Government lawyers warn Justice Secretary Chris Grayling over proposed ‘unconscionable’ changes to legal aid

Cutting Legal Aid – the surest way to threaten Justice 

John Finnemore on The Now Show, discussing the injustice of the Legal Aid Bill

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Update – In response to this article, a statement has been issued from the International Human Rights Commission, who say: “The IHRC strongly condemned the Bill and asked the UK Government to consider this action, which is against the norm of human rights”.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

 


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The UK Government have got it wrong about our Human Rights.

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The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights has conducted an inquiry into the UK Government’s implementation of Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) – the right to live independently and to be included in the community. The inquiry which began in 2011 has received evidence from over 300 witnesses.

The inquiry has highlighted just how little awareness, understanding and employment of the Convention there is by the Tory-led Government.  Very few of the witnesses made specific reference to the Convention in their presented evidence, despite the inquiry being conducted by the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, with the terms of reference clearly framing the inquiry as being about Article 19 of the UNCRPD.

“This finding is of international importance”, said Oliver Lewis, MDAC Executive Director, “Our experience is that many Governments are of the view that the CRPD is nothing more than a policy nicety, rather than a treaty which sets out legal obligations which governments must fulfil.”

The report is particularly critical of the Minister for Disabled People (Maria Miller, at the time) who told the Committee that the CRPD was “soft law”. The Committee criticised this as “indicative of an approach to the treaty which regards the rights it protects as being of less normative force than those contained in other human rights instruments.” (See para. 23 in the report, the link is at the foot of this article.) The Committee’s view is that the CRPD is hard law, not soft law.

Dr Hywel Francis MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “We are concerned to learn that the right of disabled people to independent living may be at risk through the cumulative impact of current reforms. Even though the UK ratified the UNCPRD in 2009 with cross-party support, the Government is unable to demonstrate that sufficient regard has been paid to the Convention in the development of policy with direct relevance to the lives of disabled people. The right to independent living in UK law may need to be strengthened further, and we call on the Government and other interested organisations to consider the need for a free-standing right to independent living in UK law.”

“The Government is meant to include disabled people in making sure people have their human rights upheld. We are concerned that a part of the Law on treating people equally and fairly (Equality Act section 149) does not say any more that disabled people should be involved. This is a step backwards.”

In other words, the Tory-led Coalition has quietly removed this part of the Equality Act.

The budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which was established by the Labour Party when they were drafting this flagship policy, is being reduced by over 60%, its staffing cut by 72%, and its powers restricted by the Coalition. Provisions that are being repealed by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill include the duty on public authorities to have due regard to the need to reduce socio-economic inequalities.

Savage Legal Aid cuts from April 2013 have also contributed significantly to creating further barriers to ensuring Equal Rights law protect us, and the Tory-driven Legal Aid Bill also contravenes our right to a fair trial under Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This is not a coincidental multiple policy timeline, but rather a very coordinated political attack on potential legal challenges at a time when Tory-led severe and devastating multiple welfare and provision cuts have affected disabled people so disproportionately. The changes, which came into effect in April, will hit the same group of disabled people over and over again”.

The threats to the legal infrastructure make it all the more important to mobilise all disadvantaged groups around equality as a fundamental human right.

The Report draws attention to several significant Human Rights issues, including:

  • the need for freestanding legislation to protect the right to independent living in UK law,
  • the effect of current reforms to benefits and services on the ability of disabled people to enjoy independent living,
  • the role played by the UNCRPD in policy development and decision-making at all levels of government,
  • the need for the use of equality impact assessments,
  • the effects of devolution on implementation of the UNCRPD, and
  • hate crime

The right to independent living does not exist as a free-standing right in UK law. Although it is protected and promoted to some extent by a matrix of rights, the Committee believes that this is not enough. It argues that the Government and other interested parties should immediately assess the need for, and feasibility of, legislation to establish independent living as a free-standing right. In addition, the Committee concludes that the UNCRPD is “hard law” and that the Government should fulfil their obligations under the Convention on that basis.

The Committee finds that:

  • reforms to benefits and services (let’s be frank here, they are not welfare “reforms”, they are cuts) risk leaving disabled people without the support they need to live independently;
  • restrictions in local authority eligibility criteria for social care support, the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and changes to housing benefit risk interacting in a particularly harmful way for disabled people;
  • people fear that the cumulative impact of these changes will force them out of their homes and local communities and into residential care.

It also finds that:

  • the Government has not conducted an Equality impact assessment of the cumulative impact of current “reforms” on disabled people. The Report urges them do so, and to report on the extent to which these “reforms “are enabling them and local authorities to comply with their obligations under the UNCRPD.
  • The Committee states that the Government should make a commitment to Parliament that they will give due consideration to the articles of the Convention when making legislation. The UNCRPD did not have a significant role in the development of policy and legislation, as is required by the Convention.

Furthermore, the Committee criticises changes to the duties of public authorities in England under the Equality Act 2010, which no longer require the production of equality impact assessments of changes in policy, nor the involvement of disabled people in developing policies which will affect them.

The Committee also expresses a major concern over a growing incidence of hate crime against disabled people and urges the Government take action to foster respect for the rights and dignity of disabled people.

Article 19 states that the Government must always ensure it “stops things getting worse.” This has NOT happened. The quality of so many sick and disabled people’s lives in this Country has been radically, significantly and DELIBERATELY reduced since the Tory-led Coalition took Office in 2010. This needs to change as a matter of urgency.

The Government’s “reforms” have led to a terrible increase in deaths amongst sick and disabled people, and we have already seen a significant rise in suicides that are directly linked with the Tory-driven austerity measures.

When we genuinely seek to improve the situation of the poorest and vulnerable, first of all we will need to spend time studying the privileged elite and their lifestyle choices of tax avoidance, their own economic lasciviousness and lack of capacity for personal and social responsibility.

We need to pay attention to Government handouts (of our money) to banks, private businesses and the wealthy: we need to appraise the dependency and culture of entitlement that these sponsored acts have fostered, and of course special focus should be on the amoral decisions and anti-social actions of the feckless, scrounging wealthy, and with particularly careful, critical scrutiny of the Government responsible for policies that re-distribute and concentrate our wealth and their advantage and power, therefore creating social divisions, inequality and poverty, perpetuating and extending it.

The Tory-led Coalition prefers to take money from the vulnerable, the sick and disabled, and hand it out to millionaires.

We need to ask why our Government refuses to instigate or agree an inquiry into the substantial rise in deaths amongst sick and disabled people, as these deaths are so clearly a direct consequence of this Government’s policies. What kind of Government uses the media to scape-goat and stigmatise sick and disabled people, by lying and inventing statistics to “justify” the persecution of some of our most vulnerable citizens, and the withdrawal of their crucial lifelines and support?

One that does not value those lives, or regard them as having an equal worth with others.

We are raising more money for the rich” – David Cameron, 12th December 2012


Further reading:

Archbishop Tartaglia adds to protest against Atos assessments which ‘trample on human dignity’

The European courts have their priorities wrong. Why aren’t they stopping the disability deaths? – Mike Sivier, Vox Political

Did They Hope We Wouldn’t Notice? Under The Smokescreen – John D Clare

The Coming Tyranny and The Legal Aid Bill – KittySJones

CRPD IS “HARD LAW” – UK PARLIAMENT

The Summary of the Report on Implementation of the Right of Disabled People to Independent Living: easy read version  and the full length report

644117_408620012540866_785481358_nMany thanks to Robert Livingstone for his outstanding art work.

Welfare Wrongs and Human Rights: a dialogue with Anne McGuire

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“It is undeniable that every human being is entitled to living space, daily bread, and the protection of the law as a common birthright; these are fundamentals and should not be handed out as an act of charity” ― Alfred Delp, S.J.

Nor should the meeting of such fundamental human needs ever be regarded as such.

“A decent provision for the poor and vulnerable is the true test of civilization” – Samuel Johnson.

I know that some of you have been waiting for an account of the discussion that took place between Anne McGuire and the small group of us that met with her in November, and quite understandably so. Labour currently present our only viable way of undoing the devastating damage, bleakness and despair that the Tory-led Coalition have created for so many of us, and of halting the shameful suffering and premature deaths being inflicted on some of our most vulnerable citizens. I am sorry this has taken such a while to write up, but I haven’t been very well, and have had to make some difficult choices about priorities over the last few months. I was hospitalised and seriously ill at the start of the year, and that has set me back some. However, Gail produced a report shortly following the meeting, this is the substantial version. It’s a long read, it was a long meeting that covered a lot of ground.

The meeting between Gail Ward, Susan Archibald, Sue Jones (me) and Anne McGuire took place on Friday 16th of November at the Stirling Labour headquarters. The meeting arose as follow on work from Sonia Poulton’s letter to Ed Miliband regarding the serious concerns many of us have about the work capability assessment (WCA). The idea of the letter arose, in part, because of a productive debate between Sonia and myself, following the Dispatches and Panorama documentaries about Atos and the WCA, and the appalling and shameful treatment of sick and disabled people by the Coalition.

The meeting with Anne was not time-limited, and she had to cancel an appointment to extend our time with her. We are enormously grateful for her time and consideration. The meeting also reflects something of Labour’s ongoing dialogue with the disabled community, which is a very positive development, as is the ongoing work of MPs such as John McDonnell, Michael Meacher, Dennis Skinner, Anne Begg, Debbie Abrahams, Tom Greatex, Anne McGuire, Liam Byrne and others in championing the human rights of the sick and disabled, and challenging an increasingly authoritarian Government.

Gail Ward and I each compiled an independent list of issues that we felt reflected those concerns we have encountered most commonly amongst our peers. The lists were remarkably similar, and so I consolidated the issues we both observed to inform and formalise an agenda.

Our starting point in the discussion was to state categorically that we believe that welfare provision is NOT a “hand out” or “something for nothing”. It is paid for by us via taxes, and is for us, to support us at times of vulnerability, such as when we are sick, or unemployed due to recession (some are now calling it a depression) that has been created by a totally ideologically-bound and unresponsive Government.

The fact we felt we had to state this at all indicates plainly just how terribly effective the Government’s anti-welfare propaganda has been. The Tories and some of the Sun, Mail and Telegraph-reading public are finger pointing, bullying, mean spirited: the moralsing outraged, and we are victims of the hideous, dehumanising Tory-led ideological rantings, we are the minoritized, marginalised and disabled, and we are shocked, fearful, and cannot believe that this has been allowed to happen. We are justifiably afraid and angry. We know the current benefit system is no longer about welfare, and current policies do not have a core principle – implicitly or explicitly, despite the rhetoric – of ensuring or promoting the well-being of sick and disabled people.

The welfare “reforms” – and the word “reform” implies some positive change that certainly isn’t evident here  –  are entirely about stripping away our publicly paid for welfare provision –  our “social security”. Not a single Tory “reform” is about enhancing lives: they are all about taking money away, leaving us to struggle for survival, and so stifling our potential for positive experiences, personal growth and development.

Through a combination of changes to existing benefits and the new Universal Credit, the UK Government aims to cut £18 billion off the benefits bill. A further £10 billion is to be cut from welfare provision in the near future. The hate-filled propaganda campaign of this Government is all about an attempt at justifying the theft of our support and provision. It is our money that we have PAID into the system via taxes. It was never the Government’s money to take from us. They have stolen it.

When we struggle to meet basic physical needs, we cannot transcend biology to fulfil other higher level, psychosocial  We become bound by the physical, and can’t be motivated beyond struggling to survive. Abraham Maslow told us that.

Benefit rates were originally carefully calculated by a body of professionals and officials to meet basic living requirements, such as food, shelter and fuel costs. Benefit rates have never reflected anything more than a financial amount to meet these fundamental human needs. Our welfare provision has eradicated absolute poverty in Britain, and has been an essential lifeline for many citizens, in times of their need of support. Benefit rates were set at the amount “the law says you need to live on”. If people cannot meet their basic living requirements, they die. It’s a fact. Furthermore, Maslow tells us that if we are struggling to survive, we cannot fulfil other human needs and motivations. The welfare “reforms”, and the subsequent reduction of our benefits indicates that the Government do not care about the wellbeing and survival of those people that depend on this crucial support to meet their basic living requirements.

This is not a Government that recognises the intrinsic value and worth of life. It is not a Government that recognises human potential, or values personal growth and development. It is not a Government that values social evolution and progress. Trying to explain these fundamental concepts to a Tory is like pondering how best to describe a rainbow and shooting stars to a blind man with no imagination. Or soul.

This is not just about an ideologically motivated economic theft from the people with the least, and a redistribution of wealth to those that need it least (the already very wealthy), it’s an existential attack too: a psychic war that is being waged on us every bit as much as a fiscal one, with the media on the enemy frontline, attacking us on a linguistic and psychological level every day. We have been redefined, semantically reduced, dehumanised, and demarcated from the rest of the population and turned into the others, and this divisive strategy has paid off for the Government, because we are now regularly attacked by our own side: by those people who are also with us on this increasingly sparsely resourced, economically excavated side of the growing inequality divide. Tory divide and rule tactics: fostering a politics of hatred.  

Imagine what that does to faith and hope. For those of you that are not sick and/or disabled, I can tell you that it is often a very isolating and lonely experience. That is made so much more unbearable by prejudice and hate from other people. To be excluded further from everyday life and experience, both materially and existentially, brings about a terrible, bleak, desolating sense of social abandonment and a very real imprisonment. We are living in a Government-directed culture of hatred.  It’s no coincidence that hate crime against disabled people has risen quite steeply over this past two years. Most of us have experienced some verbal abuse from members of the wider public, at the very least. It’s become such a common experience that it may be regarded as almost normalised behaviour.

Anne McGuire told us that she and Anne Begg, amongst others, have challenged  the Tory-led stigmatising and dehumanising language, and the shameful invention of statistics in the media. Publicly and privately. Anne expressed her anger and disgust at the “serial offenders” – especially Iain Duncan Smith.

The defamatory Tory-led commentary must surely constitute hate crime and we know that the rising statistics of disability hate crime is certainly linked to this hateful propaganda campaign on the part of the Coalition to justify removing support and benefit from the sick and disabled, and from those in low paid work.

Tory logic – punishing people into non-existent or unsuitable jobs

We raised our grave concerns about the fact that the Government have recently introduced harsh sanctions of up to three years without benefits for all benefit claimants, the only group being exempt from sanctions currently are those in the ESA Support Group. This is only  a proportionally small number of claimants that will remain unaffected. The Conservatives claim that the sanctions will “help people into work”, and are to be applied to those who “fail” to meet certain “conditions” to look for work. We know, however, that sanctions are applied often without any justifiable reasons because the DWP  deliberately set people up to fail, and we also know that the Government sets sanction targets for the DWP. 

Firstly, only a very cruel and injudicious Government would punish people for being out of work during an economic depression in this way. There are no jobs. We know this is true from our everyday experience, despite the Governments continued lies about employment figures. Secondly, removing people’s means of meeting fundamental survival needs by sanctioning them is most certainly not going to motivate them and “help them into work” as the Government are claiming.

“Evidence also suggests that work can have a positive impact on the long term health of people with disabilities and health conditions,” according to the Government, but we have yet to see convincing evidence of this. Those in the ESA Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) are expected, from December 3rd 2012, to undertake unlimited periods of mandatory workfare in order to meet conditions for continued eligibility. This means that they are at an increased risk of being sanctioned, because the condition of qualifying for this benefit in the first place is that a doctor has provided a statement to say that the claimant is unfit for work. There is clearly a monumental problem regarding Government expectations of those in this group. Once again, the sanctions raise some serious concerns regarding the Government’s casual transgression of human rights.

The previous Minister for Employment, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, has made the following  official statement regarding the new sanctions regime and Human Rights: “In my view the provisions of the Jobseeker’s Allowance Sanctions Amendment Regulations 2012  are compatible with the Convention rights”. We don’t agree.

Anne concurred with our concerns regarding human rights transgressions, and she stated that the benefit system as it currently stands is unfit for purpose more generally, and agreed that the Government need to carry out an impact assessment to consider the cumulative consequences of the welfare reforms on disabled people, including the reform of DLA. We also have the 12 month time limit on contributory ESA, the incapacity benefit reassessment to move people on to ESA, cuts to local authority care budgets and the lowering of disability premiums under universal credit. Some people may be hit by only one or two of the changes, but some might have to deal with them all, as they are implemented over the next two years.

That would be an enormous and very challenging change for them. Despite being urged many times by Anne McGuire and Anne Begg, amongst others, Iain Duncan Smith refused to acknowledge the pressing need for a cumulative impact assessment – part of the crucial equality and human rights safeguarding, as well as the considerable need for Government accountability. Iain Duncan Smith claims there is no need to carry out an assessment regarding the consequences of his “reforms”. I believe that Iain Duncan Smith already knows the devastating impact that his “reforms” have already had on many, and that he is also aware that the real catastrophe is yet to come, when the very worst of the cuts are implemented in April.

The welfare reforms, and the lack of equality impact assessment have massive implications regarding our various human rights. We know that the Legal Aid Bill contravenes Article 6, and with regard to the welfare reforms, we cited further probable contraventions of Article 3, particularly with regard to the sanctions, with further possible breaches to Articles 2, 4, 6, 8, 11 and 14. Anne also agreed that there is a real concern with respect to our human rights,  and she told us she has undertaken some work with Liam Byrne regarding a public consultation to address the issue of human rights for disabled people, and to raise public awareness.

Anne also explained that the Equality and Human Rights Commission have suffered significant cuts to funding from 70 million when Labour were in Government to just 25 million since the Coalition took Office, with fears that this will be further reduced to just 18 million. This has meant severe staffing reductions, and a massive backlog of work, and at a time when many are seeking to bring forward cases regarding the impact of current Government legislation. We all agreed that it is no coincidence that the Legal Aid reform is also due to be implemented at the same time, as well as the Bedroom Tax and the Localism Bill in April 2013.

Anne and others have also expressed concern that Harrington’s recommendations are not being implemented – “The review notes that although all recommendations from two previous annual reviews of the system have been accepted by the government, “not all have been fully acted upon yet”.… progress has been slower that hoped for and the scope and depth of these changes is less than desirable.” –  Michael Harrington

Bearing in mind that there are people dying within days or weeks of being told that they are “fit for work” by Atos and DWP, we all agreed that very clearly, urgent attention  is required from the Government. We note, however, that the Government prefers to ignore the rising number of deaths associated with people being wrongly assessed, and of course, having their benefit payments stopped. It’s a well known medical fact that stressful circumstances exacerbate illness, yet the Government persistently refuse to listen to these very real fears and concerns. One would have expected, at the very least, that an independent enquiry into the deaths would have happened by now. Ask yourselves what kind of Government responds to such grave concerns with shrugging indifference and a loud determination to carry on with a process that is causing, or at the very least correlated with fatalities at a rate currently estimated by some at more than  73 per week, according to the DWP (via an FOI).

Anne confirmed that discussion with the Government regarding the circumstances of ESA related deaths has been problematic, and both Anne and her colleagues have called for the release of pertinent information regarding those circumstances, such as details of which claimants were in the process of Appeal, and which ones had been reassessed.

I also know from discussion I had with Tom Greatex recently that the Government are now claiming that those 10,600 deaths that happened within six weeks of their claim for ESA ending may have happened “either side” of their claim being stopped. In other words, the claim may have ended because of the death, rather than the other way around.

Furthermore, of those deaths amongst those placed in the Support Group, the Government have (conveniently) claimed that “these were very ill individuals, and so we expect that there will be a higher death rate amongst that group”. Claiming that “the deaths MAY have prompted the claim to be closed, in some cases, rather than the converse being true” is NOT an adequate response at all. Anne and other Labour Ministers have demanded accurate, clear and precise data regarding the circumstances of the large number of tragic deaths. None have been presented to date.

However, I analysed the data from DWP, and noted that between October 2010 and November 2011, people with a recorded date of death within six weeks of that claim ceasing, who were until recently claiming Incapacity Benefit, (those that had been migrated to ESA ) totalled 310. Between January and November 2011, those having their ESA claim ended, with a recorded date of death within six weeks of that claim ending totalled 10,600.  One would expect that the death rates would be similar to those who have only ever claimed ESA. This is very clearly not the case.

So the Government don’t appear to be keeping very clearly defined data regarding the impact of their “reforms” and the precise circumstances of those deaths, or at least that information isn’t being released. Once again, we have to ask ourselves what kind of Government would be so casual about the large number of deaths of a group of citizens, especially when Government policy has been implicated as the cause of those deaths. Whilst the Coalition continue to play unacceptable, disgusting data interpretation games to support their loud and flat denial of culpability, people continue to die. The Government’s indifference to the deaths of vulnerable citizens is completely unacceptable and inhumane, the lack of willingness to investigate the correlated deaths, the loud and faux indignant framed denials, and the refusal to carry out an impact assessment regarding the broader impact of the welfare reforms  lead me to conclude that the consequences were known in advance of the legislation. We have an authoritarian Government that has a social Darwinist agenda: those deaths are calculated, hence the refusal to engage in open public discussion about the subject, and to investigate the circumstances of those deaths.

For the Record.

We raised the issue of  the right to record Atos assessments, and we informed Anne that whilst some people’s requests were accommodated, many were simply told that the equipment was not available. Some people also reported that they had their appointment cancelled on the last minute due to a lack of available recording machines. The provision is patchy, to say the least, and some people are being denied the right to have their assessment recorded.

 large number of reports by charities and disability groups have highlighted gross inaccuracies in the WCA testing process, which determines eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance. Many claimants are anxious to record their assessments to make sure an account of their health problems is correctly reflected in the Atos report. A wide array of accounts tell us that Atos reports are often full of “inexplicable” errors and not so full of truthful detail. Large numbers of cases are currently going to Tribunal because applicants know that  have been wrongly refused benefits; around 40% of cases are overturned in the claimant’s favour at tribunal. That percentage rises steeply, proportionally, when claimants are represented at Tribunal. This is evidence in itself that the Atos assessment process is deeply flawed, at the very least.

Despite a Government promise that everyone is entitled to record their assessment, many people have been told there are no machines available, because they are being repaired, and that they must go ahead with the test anyway. Individuals have been told they are not able to record assessments with their own devices “in view of security and confidentiality considerations”.

Chris Grayling has said: “Large scale purchase of machines in the absence of an evaluation of the process is not effective use of public money.” Bearing in mind that the right for all to have their assessment recorded was one of Harrington’s key recommendations in his first report, Grayling’s response is deplorable. We need to ask why the Government don’t favour assessments being recorded, for transparency and accountability.

I explained to Anne that those of us having been through assessments, particularly more than once, know that the whole process is heavily weighted towards ensuring that a person is passed as “fit to work”. I informed Anne that we know that even the fact that someone has managed to gather medical evidence is regarded as an indication by Atos that the person is capable of organisation and coherent thought. That’s a tick in the “work capability” box. The fact that the task may have taken a month of intermittent effort, and caused extreme pain and fatigue for the claimant is not recorded by Atos, of course. Nor is whether or not a person can perform any task reliably, consistently, safely and comfortably. (These and related issues was addressed in more detail later in the discussion.)

We pointed out to Anne that the consensus amongst our peers and ourselves is that Atos often lie in their reports to minimise (and trivialise) the impact of our illnesses and disability on our lives, and ability to function. Therefore, many now wish that the assessment is recorded, in order to at least make it more difficult for Atos assessors to write grossly misleading reports. And of course an accurate record is also important for appeal.

The shadow employment minister, Stephen Timms, who has written to Grayling to highlight his concerns about the lack of recording equipment, said: “I find it hard to believe that a company with a multimillion pound government contract is incapable of obtaining and operating sufficient recording devices.”

Anne informed us that despite the fact that Chris Grayling has said that more equipment has been purchased, there is no actual evidence of this being the case. MP’s are not allowed to call each other “liars”. I handed Anne an apt phrase when occasion calls for observation of parliamentary rules and etiquette – being “conservative with the truth”. Anne liked that very much.

Anne also told us that we do have a right to have our assessment recorded. That was recommended and established by Harrington.

We also raised the problem of access to Atos buildings, and explained that we have encountered many accounts of difficulties from disabled people, including appointments taking place that are not on the ground floor, with no lifts in the building. We know of people who have had their benefit stopped because they “failed to turn up for the assessment”. Anne recognises this problem, and how outrageously and unacceptably unfair it is, she told us that this pressing issue is to be raised by the Commons Work and Pensions Committee. (The Chair is Anne Begg)

The Blame Game.

We informed Anne that it is common opinion that the WCA – no matter how much it may be re-designed – is not fit for purpose, and that no-one has any faith in it because of the appalling damage already inflicted on so many members of the disabled community. The overwhelming consensus is that it needs to be scrapped. Atos have no credibilty whatsoever, with most of us regarding them with loathing and fear. Unfortunately, many sick and disabled people also recognise that successive Governments have contracted Atos, trust and faith in Government and Ministers has receded. I explained that some blame the previous Labour Government for current problems, as they originally contracted Atos to undertake the WCA. I don’t agree with this, personally, but I raised the point because it’s one that I’ve encountered frequently, and I recognise that it’s an important issue for some. However, I would like to point out that I don’t hold a previous Government responsible for what a current one does.

Anne explained that the original Labour Party contract with Atos did not happen within a context of welfare cuts, and was very different to the one that the current Government have with Atos.  Labour support some kind of assessment, and the old system typically involved a decision that was made entirely by the DWP, and the decision was regarded as final. Labour had felt at the time that this needed addressing with some form of independent decision-making mechanism.

We stated that the WCA has had such devastating consequences for so many sick and disabled people that it would never be trusted again, no matter how much it was redesigned and “improved” by ANY Government. However, the context of the Labour version of WCA, when it was piloted, was a completely different one to present day. There were many more jobs available, we were not in a recession, and there was support available (and well funded) for disabled people who wanted to work. Anne pointed out again that it is in the context of the welfare reforms, which are about taking away essential support, rather than providing it, that the aims of assessment have become grossly distorted. The original aims were intended to support sick and disabled people. That is clearly not the Coalitions’ aim at all.

Disability living allowance supports many in work, and despite Labours’ pleas for common sense safeguards, according to the Hardest Hit survey, three in ten disabled people stated that without DLA their carer would not be able to work. Carers UK estimates that 10,000 people could lose carer’s allowance as a result of cuts to DLA. Without this vital care, disabled people could be forced to turn to overstretched social care services. Liam Byrne  stated that here must now be an assessment, in the round, of all the changes hitting disabled people: a cumulative impact assessment. Esther McVey weakly said to the Commons that she wouldn’t order one because “Labour never did one.” Labour did complete a review, and informed this Government of the findings, and raised their concerns regarding the piloted WCA. They were completely ignored. Furthermore, Labour never inflicted the concerted attack we’re now seeing on disabled citizens. It was the Coalition that harshly “reformed” and reduced our welfare provision, and not Labour.

The Access to Work fund was re-established by the last Labour Government to ease the transition to work for disabled people, by paying grants to businesses for vital equipment. It was put in place to support people with disabilities, it aimed to reduce inequalities between disabled people and non-disabled people in the workplace by removing practical barriers to work. This fund has seen severe cuts since 2010, which flies in the face of this Government’s claim to “make work pay” for all. By reducing this essential funding, the Coalition have effectively excluded many from work.

Additionally, disabled people with the highest support needs have been left in fear and distress following a Government announcement that it is to callously abolish a key source of independent living support. The Government decision to close the Independent Living Fund and devolve responsibility to local authorities follows a consultation that disabled people claim is unlawful and on which an urgent hearing has been scheduled by the High Court to go ahead on 13/14 March 2013. Labour have also challenged the decision to close this crucial source of support. Opportunity for new applications for this funding was closed in June 2010 by the Coalition. Once again this plainly indicates that the Coalition do not consider the needs of disabled people as important, and clearly demonstrates the extent of their eager ideological drive to strip away essential provision and support for the vulnerable.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are those of us who simply cannot not work. Anne told us that the Labour Party agree that regardless of the national employment situation and support for those who could and wish to work, we must, as a civilised Society, make provision and support those who cannot work, too. I’m pleased that this important issue was recognised, because as we know, doctors are providing written evidence to the DWP and Atos that verifies people are not fit for work, and that professional and expert opinion and evidence is being ignored by people who are NOT qualified to decide otherwise. DWP “decision-makers” and Atos assessors have no expertise on medical conditions and how those impact on a persons’ capabilities for work. We know that the majority of Atos assessors are nurses or occupational therapists, and that Atos don’t take into account any medical facts at all: the assessment is entirely about “work capability”.

We informed Anne that we are acutely aware that every single part of the assessment process is designed to interpret any capability a person has to complete a task at all, no matter how small, as an indication that they can work. For example, if a person says that they watch TV, that translates as “can sit unaided for at least half an hour”, even if that half an hours viewing is done laid up in bed, propped up by pillows. Huge inferences are drawn from anything that a person can do, and translated into “work capability,” regardless of whether or not person can fulfil tasks without pain, fatigue and discomfort, and it always assumed that people can complete a task reliably, consistently and safely, unless it is explicitly stated that this isn’t the case. Even when it is expressed clearly, it is often ignored and omitted from the Atos reports. Anne acknowledged that there is a significant problem with the WCA descriptors, not least because of the many cases that have been brought to her attention regarding this issue.

Anne recognised that the WCA makes it very difficult for health professionals to exercise their professional judgement. It’s computer-based and has little or no regard to the complexity of the needs of severely disabled or sick persons. This is why the British Medical Association has condemned the WCA as unfit for purpose. Those who have been assessed often feel the opinion of their own health professionals have been overridden or ignored. As Iain McKenzie, Labour MP for Inverclyde, put it: “It is ridiculous to have people making an assessment based on a tick-list that looks like it should be used for an MOT on a car.” Anne has observed and acknowledged that people are having their lives ruined by a system that was designed to support them. It is outrageous; it is inhumane, it is shameful.

Labour conducted a review of the ESA pilot, and by the time they lost Office, they were aware of the fact that there were problems with the Work Capability Assessment: the main ones being that it did not acceptably accommodate fluctuating conditions, or mental health problems. Labour raised their concerns about this with Iain Duncan Smith, but he refused, as previously stated, to undertake an impact assessment, and he pushed the reforms through and made them law, regardless. Furthermore, the WCA was amended by the Coalition to be even less sensitive to how conditions impact on work capability. We know that when Atos were re-contracted by the Coalition, it was in the context of the “reforms”, and Atos are therefore contracted to remove support from the vulnerable. Dr Steven Bick revealed that there are targets imposed on staff at Atos, and  that only one in eight ESA claimants are passed as eligible for ESA (as “unfit for work”) regardless of their actual state of health and their capabilities.

This exposes what a sham the entire assessment process is, because it has been decided in advance that 7 out of 8 will lose their eligibility for ESA, no matter how much a person needs that support, or  how much of a negative impact this will have on the lives of those stripped of their ESA award. It’s therefore not terribly surprising that Atos reports contain so many widely reported “errors”, “inaccuracies” and “mistakes”. These are actually calculated and deliberate lies, which are also attempts at justifying taking away a persons’ benefit, regardless of the impact this will have on their well being and health. This is what Atos are contracted to do by the Coalition. This has nothing whatsoever to do with genuine assessment. It has everything to do with denying people what they are entitled to, and what they have already paid for. It has everything to do with an ideological drive to strip our welfare provision to the bone.

We know that PIP has targets because Esther McVey has indicated this by stating in advance that “More than 300,000 disabled people to have benefits cut”. It is concerning that in making her statement to Parliament, Disabilities Minister Esther McVey set out very clearly the numbers of people who she believed will qualify for the new benefit. But not surprising in light of how the whole legislative process has been conducted by Esther McVey. Conservatives are not known for following established procedure and protocol, nor do they value transparency and accountability.

Labour recognise it is people that are the most vulnerable who will bear a disproportionate share of the  cuts, simply because of the inequality they face in employment means they are more likely to rely on benefits. In other words they are facing a double penalty simply because of their characteristics – disadvantaged in the (somewhat limited) labor market and now targeted by benefit reform. This also raises concern about human rights, since this constitutes discrimination on the basis of “characteristics”, in accord with Labour’s Equality Act.

Anne has voiced major concerns about the mandatory workfare introduced to the ESA Work Related Activity Group, and the sanctions attached to this. She commented: “How can people be punished into work, especially during a recession?” We all agreed that there is a likely contravention of human rights, and we cited Article 3 of the ECHR, which we believe has clearly been breached.

Again, I pointed out that the issue isn’t so much one concerning the availability of jobs, but rather, it is one concerning the fact that people who have been deemed unfit for work by a doctor are being bullied into unlimited workfare and finding jobs, when they cannot, and ought not be expected to undertake these tasks. Anne agreed again that those who cannot work ought to be fully supported, and should not be not coerced into any kind of work if professional opinion is that they are unfit for work.

Again, the issue of human rights contraventions was raised, and Anne told us that there is a substantial backlog of work, concerning human rights cases, and this is because the  Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – established by Labour – has had its funding severely reduced  this past two years, as stated previously.

One cannot help but wonder just how calculated the cuts are in light of the extremely punitive nature of the reforms, and the continued blatant disregard of basic human rights, which is very evident in Tory-led policies. Such a well-coordinated attack on our rights seems unlikely to have happened by coincidence.

Since the meeting with Anne took place, I have remained in regular contact with her, and Anne Begg, John McDonnell, Tom Greatex, Dennis Skinner and my own MP, Kevan Jones. I send out information and articles on a regular basis, to ensure that the continued impact and the consequences of current policies are known to the Labour Party, as well as the United Nations and parliamentary select Committees when appropriate. By raising awareness, we can prompt the Opposition to challenge effectively. That is needed, because we have a Government that doesn’t follow procedure and protocol, and does not like to share information regarding its own policies, even to the relevant Parliamentary Committees, let alone with the Opposition.

We know from history that under Conservative Governments, poverty, unemployment, inequality and civil unrest increase, whilst the wealthy accumulate even more wealth, whilst the recognition and accommodation of human rights, our social secuirty, and all of our public support provisions and programs decrease.

“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it” –  Boris Pasternak

We need to learn how to be responsible citizens and participate in how our Country is governed. And we must. We do have a choice: we can each contribute something, when we are able, and in our own way, to raise public awareness and demand positive change. Governments must reflect and serve the needs and interests of the whole population, and not just an elite. It’s our duty and responsibility to make sure that they do.

It’s our responsibility to keep the Labour Party informed, and to push for effective challenges to be made against the Coalition, and to promote, prioritise and value social progress, the recognition of human potential, fairness and equality. We set the policy agenda, as voters, if only we will take that responsibility. The Coalition are dismantling democratic process. David Cameron has already stated that he wants to “reduce” consultations, judicial review, and equality impact assessments, amongst other processes that are essential to human rights safeguarding, accountability and transparency. “It’s not how you get things done” he said of these essential processes of inclusion and democracy. Ask yourself what it is that he wants to “get done”, which requires bypassing democratic process and human rights safeguarding. Clearly, this is a Government that certainly intends to continue to inflict harm.

We must collectively fight the Coalition’s steady attack on our support programs, welfare provision, human rights, and their determined intentions of undoing all that is civilised and decent about our society. We must maintain those (Labour) principles that make society welcoming, supportive and inclusive to all.  It is our own responsibility to recognise the equal worth and potential of every person, and the intrinsic value of each life. It’s an established, historically verified fact that Conservatives never have, and they never will.

Labour are currently consulting with the public on a National level, regarding the policy content of their Manifesto. That’s democracy in action. Make sure you have your say. It matters.

You can also get involved in Labour policy ideas here and here , or you can contact your nearest Labour MP here .

Further reading:-

This is what happens when we do collectively push for positive change and participate: we arm the Opposition with crucial information, detail and cases studies so that they can challenge effectively (from column 1050 onwards.)


The Shadow State: The “dehumanising, degrading” treatment of disabled people

New Statesman

ESA SOS 

Sue Marsh

The ESA Revolving Door Process 

Kitty Jones

Clause 99, Catch 22

Kitty Jones

Back to the Dark Ages as the Tories plan to scrap your Human Rights

Mike Sivier, Vox Political

 
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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant art work