Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Mr Potter goes to Westminster #wrb

Yesterday I went to parliament to attend a meeting organised by the Social Liberal Forum. The point of the meeting was tolobby our peers to support party policy and party principles by getting them to support the Lords' amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill when they vote on it tomorrow.

Last Friday I wrote an article on Lib Dem Voice about the aims of the meeting so you can read more about those here.

The meeting itself was under Chatham House Rules which basically means everyone could say exactly what they thought as no one is allowed to disclose who exactly said what in the meeting.

I'm grateful to the Lib Dem MPs who turned up at relatively short notice, and I'm fairly confident they'll be able to take the key points raised and answers given, to others.

A number of different groups attended including people from Lib Ded Disability Association, Womwen Liberal Democrats, Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Youth (myself).
Some points raised at the meeting were:
  • The time limiting of ESA, which received particular attention from a lot of speakers
  • The impact of the benefits cap, including that people in receipt of ESA but not DLA would be hit by it and that, unless child benefits were excluded, it would have a massively detrimental impact on child poverty
  • The unfairness of the cuts to and DLA given how low the fraud rates
  • The belief that the cuts were motivated purely for the sake of saving money rather than anything else
  • The fact that some key items in the Welfare Reform Bill go directly against party policy
  • The need for Lib Dem parliamentarians to stand up on this issue
The impression I got is that the MPs who attended the meeting were broadly supportive of what we were saying but I can't say anything more than that.

I think one of the most important things we took away from the meeting is that the vote on Wednesday is not the end, whatever the outcome. The Lords will still need to be persuaded to dig their heels in against the DWP and there will need to be lots of lobbying and engaging with consultations to make sure that the changes we can't stop will be implemented as fairly as possible. The vast bulk of the changes won't be in actual legislation passed by parliament and this is where keeping up political pressure could really pay dividends.

The other thing I took away was that there is, apparently, widespread unease about the bill amongst Lib Dem MPs but that it's unease without direction. This is why it's vital that people lobby MPs and peers about the bill and keep doing so even after the vote on Wednesday.  There's an easy way for you to do this here. You should also sign Pat's Petition.

Finally, one fairly definite bit of good news is that apparently Jenny Willott has indicated that the government is likely to concede to the Lords amendment on disabled children and National Insurance contributions. This was an item in the Welfare Reform Bill which would have meant that severely disabled children would have no longer be treated as having made NI contributions when they became adults. Since they're unable to work and therefore unable to build up NI contributions, this would have prevented them from having access to disability benefits in their own right and would have even denied them access to a proper state pension when they reached old age(UPDATE: As has been pointed out in the comments, I was wrong on this bit). It was an utterly idiotic proposal (especially as it only saved £10 million a year) and it's good to see signs that common sense and decency will prevail on this.

UPDATE: Monday also saw me get an article published in the online version of the Guardian.

Friday, 27 January 2012

#shellshocked

So today, not only do I have an article up on Lib Dem Voice, but I've also been quoted in a Guardian article (or rather, they've compiled what I said in a blogpost and turned it into a quote). As such, my mind is currently somewhat blown.

(For those interested, the contents of the letter to Nick Clegg can be found here.)

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Lib Dem fightback on #WRB: Update 1

This is a lunchtime blogpost.

Last week, in the aftermath of what I consider to be more shameful, and utterly illiberal voting by Lib Dem peers on the Welfare Reform Bill, I wrote this blogpost about my determination to make sure that there was some sort of fightback against what I can only describe as a shameful and deeply worrying dismissal of the democratic will of the party by our parliamentarians.

Fortunately it turns out that there were plenty of others who felt the same way I did. The same evening I was contacted by Gareth Epps, key member of the Social Liberal Forum, member of the Federal Policy Committee and all-round good guy. He'd been contacting some other people and, over the past few days we've worked out a plan of action. On Friday about 45 of our parliamentary candidates from 2010 will send an open letter to Nick Clegg, also hopefully to be published in the Guardian, that will express their concern over the way our parliamentary party has acted on the Welfare Reform Bill.

And then, on Monday, I'm going to be off to the Houses of Parliament to attend a meeting between our parliamentarians and various people who don't agree with what's happening and who want to change our parliamentarians' minds.

It's not possible to undo what's been done so the main aim will be to try and make sure that the House of Commons doesn't undo the spirit of what has been done in the Lords and to make sure that the Welfare Reform Bill is made much fairer. That said, I will also be speaking and, depending on whether they're stonewalling or not, our parliamentarians might well risk getting an earful about what damage the things they've voted for will actually do to the vulnerable people we're meant to be in politics to protect. I'll try and avoid swearing though.

I'll report back on how the meeting went while travelling home on Monday - assuming security actually let me into the meeting in the first place of course ;)

But above all, I'm determined that we will either change some minds at the meeting or we will turn up the volume on our opposition to aspects of the Welfare Reform Bill and to parliamentarians ignoring the democratic principles on which this party was founded. And I doubt that that will give them good publicity at all... ;)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Well done to Lib Dem peers over the benefit cap

WARNING: This post contains a fair bit of swearing.

At last! Finally, Lib Dem peers are being collectively useful over the Welfare Reform Bill. Yesterday 17 [CORRECTION: it was 26] Lib Dem peers rebelled against the government and backed an amendment which stops child benefit from being taken into account in the £26,000 cap on benefits. It's great to see this happen and it's just a shame that only two of the rebels yesterday showed the same concern about disabled people a few weeks ago as they did about children yesterday.

I've already seen people come out of the woodwork and start condemning the decision of the lords to exempt child benefit from being taken into account. I've seen both commentors online and government ministers, MPs and spokespersons come out and call it every kind of evil under the sun.

And that makes me sick. And it just goes to show how fucking sick and twisted our society is. Apparently the benefit cap is popular and therefore we shouldn't do a thing about it. Well that's fucked up on two levels. On the one hand, support for it is based on how the question is asked. Of course people will back a cap of £26,000 because it sounds like a large amount and more than they themselves probably earn. But if you were to ask them if they support a cap which sees a couple who have never worked get £200 a week while a family where the parents have only just lost their job after working all their lives will only get £100 a week to support four people then the answer will probably be no.

Because that's what the cap does. Like so many money-motivated government welfare "reform" plans, it is arbitrary. Most of the money which makes up the cap is never seen by the recipients. It goes to private or social landlords. And that means that families in particular will be hit hardest. Because a single person might have a rent of only £150 a week. But for a family, in some places the rent might be much higher, £400 or £500 a week even. But because the cap is arbitrary, the single person will receive the full amount of housing benefit and be left with plenty a week to live on. But the family will receive far less per person, with most of what they get going on rent, leaving them a pittance to live on.

And, in any event, since when has popularity been a sign that something is right? Persecuting the Jews in Germany was very popular at the time but that doesn't mean that the Nazis were right to beat, rape, torture and murder innocent people. Politicians, and Lib Dems in particular, should do what is fucking right, and just regardless of how fucking unpopular it might be. It was fucking right for us to oppose the Iraq War even though it was unpopular for us to do so at the time.

But in any event, the entire rationale for the cap is bullshit. Utter bullshit. It's all about atomisation, setting one group of struggling people against another group of struggling people. We can afford to spend billions on the olympics, we can afford to continue fighting in Afghanistan, we can afford to build High Speed Rail and Crossrail, we can afford billions on new aircraft carriers but apparently we can't afford to spend money on welfare.

Let's put this in some fucking context, right? The savings the government is making from the benefit cap is just 0.1% of the welfare budget. The cost of taking child benefit out of the cap calculations is just 0.05% of the welfare budget. You could save that amount of money many, many times over purely by fixing the administrative procedures in the welfare system - all of which are bloated, ineffective, confusing for claimants and, above all, costly to run.

Eric Pickles, the tory local government minister, a fat oaf who has never known hardship in his life, has said that the benefits cap will make 20,000 families homeless, all of whom will have to be put in emergency housing at local councils' expense, ultimately costing the taxpayer more than it saves from the cap. And in big cities like London, it will mean the poor being forced out of the city, just like Paris, we will see a doughnut of ghettos and slums of poor people surrounding a glittering, gentrified city centre. Out of sight, out of fucking mind, right? I'm sure the middle and upper class tory voters will love not having to see untidy poor people at any point in their lives. After all, in Paris you have absolutely appalling and barbaric conditions in the ghettos around the city but central Parisians never see them as the motorways and railways just go right over the heads of all the poor people. For the wealthy, poverty is something which you flash past in five seconds on the motorway.

Above all, the most flawed aspect of the benefit cap is that it punishes children for the sins of their parents. Yes, there are some fucking lazy people out there, people who have loads of kids in order to milk the welfare system and to avoid working while the taxpayer pays for things. There might be fewer of them than the tabloids make out but they still exist. But if you punish the parents for being irresponsible then you end up punishing the children as well. Even with child benefit being excluded, the cap will still force thousands of children into poverty. I've never experienced real hardship myself but I damn well know what it's like growing up in a house where money is tight. My father is a brilliant man and gave my brother and I as stable an environment as possible, doing his absolute best at great stress to himself and as a result, despite losing my mother at the age of seven, I'd still say that I had a good childhood. But I know what it's like as a child to be aware that money is tight and to be worrying about that in addition to all the stresses of childhood. Children should not have to experience that. It happens, unavoidably it happens, but it shouldn't. And it certainly shouldn't be the case that the government knowingly passes laws which it knows will make that happen.

All, of course, under the guise of "incentivising" people to work. A noble idea but I fail to see how cutting people's benefits is meant to force them into work when there aren't enough fucking jobs to go round!

My generation has been royally fucked by the ones prior to us. They've left us a mountain of debt, a planet of depleted resources and an environment damaged by two centuries of pollution. The short-sighted consumerism of the past 30 years has well and truly fucked up our futures. But I don't think it's right to ask children to suffer, to make they pay for the sins of their parents, just so that I will have to pay ever so slightly lower taxes for ever so slightly less. The deficit is billions big. The national debt is hundreds of billions big. A few hundred million for the children of the poorest families is an insignificant additional burden.

And I'd much rather live in a society where the poor aren't forced into slums, where my children won't just live and grow up in a gentrified bubble where the real world and real hardship is swept under the rug. And, above all, I'd rather my children, if I ever have any, grow up in a society with slightly more compassion for the poor, the sick and the disabled than the heartless, selfish, merciless society we seem to be living in now and which our politicians seem to believe in.

And, maybe if our parliamentairns had enough backbone to make the counter argument against the cap, to stand up and explain why the amendment was necessary, then the tories might not be reaping political dividends for a disgusting policy and we might have actually made the world a slightly better place.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

A response to "The best kept secret in the Lib Dems"

The other day Mark Pack, one of the editors over at Lib Dem Voice, and someone whose opinion I respect, wrote a piece on his blog entitled "The best kept secret in the Liberal Democrats" which is a response, in part, to my article on Lib Dem Voice last week. In it he argues that the reason for Lib Dem peers voting with the government to time limit contributory ESA is because they must have secured  improvements in the government's plans through negotiation and that the real issue is them failing to communicate this and thus giving the impression of ignoring concerns by disabled people and the party membership.

His exact words are:
"George Potter’s impassioned post, for example is understandable, but wrong. Wrong – because he is judging the peers by how they voted and not by what changes to legislation they have secured before and after votes. When you are negotiating to secure concessions and get concessions in return for votes, you should really be judged by that overall trade-off. But it’s hardly fair to criticise George or anyone else for not judging by the overall package – because given this omerta like news blackout, it’s not exactly easy to extract the necessary information."
I'm afraid I have to disagree.

There's no doubt that, as he pointed out, that some considerable changes took place on the proposals to replace DLA with PIP (something that will also include a 20% cut for a benefit which has a fraud rate of only 0.35%). Now, Mark refers to Sue Marsh's piece on this and I have to agree with her. There have been some improvements. But I also agree with her that they still aren't good enough. They are a lot better than what the government originally proposed though. Whether this is down to negotiation by Lib Dem peers or due to the government wanting to placate enough crossbencher (e.g. non-affiliated) peers to avoid another defeat on the bill is impossible to say. Either or both might be correct.

So, on that basis, we can potentially excuse Lib Dem peers for overwhelmingly with the government on DLA. I still don't think it was right, but the fact is that DLA wasn't specifically mentioned in the motion passed at conference and so they have something of an excuse.

But Mark Pack is utterly wrong about ESA. The fact is that the motion specifically called for
"Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA."
and for
"A presumption that ESA claimants with serious and uncontrollable life-threatening conditions should be allocated to the support group rather than the work related activity group."
The fact is that, two weeks ago, Lib Dem peers voted by a margin of 51 to 2 to back an arbitrary time limit on contributory ESA (the main benefit for people who are unable to work due to disability or illness). This means that long term sick and disabled people who are unable to work, will after one year of receiving contributory ESA, have support taken away. The DWP's own figures show that 40% of people receiving contributory ESA will lose out by the change. This is because after the year is up they will be switched to another part of the system, one which will take away all support for anyone with a household income over £16,000 - because that's clearly enough to support an entire family, including a severely disabled adult, on. And it will also take away money from people with household incomes below this level. 

In fact, the only people unaffected by the time limit will be those with a household income of less than £7,500 - meaning that the majority of them will be sick and disabled people living on their own. But families where one parent is disabled and one works will be placed under financial pressure which will take away much needed support unless they have an income so low that they are actively living in poverty. In fact, it will place many families in the position where they'd be better off splitting up rather than trying to support an entire family , including the costs of sickness and disability, on one person's income or on ESA payment designed only to be capable of supporting one person.

Our peers also voted overwhelmingly in favour of subjecting cancer patients to the stressful ESA assessment process.

So I really can't see how, on either of the two points from the motion above, that our peers upheld the principle or the letter of the motion. More importantly than that, I really can't see how they can justify as in any way "liberal" changes that will put vulnerable people through significant hardship.

Our peers might have got changes to DLA or they might not. But they certainly haven't achieved anything significant on ESA when the most damaging and unnecessary proposal by the government is not only unchanged but also overwhelmingly backed in the lords by Lib Dem peers.

And, if Mark Pack is reading this, I'd like to ask him to also read this other piece by Sue Marsh. And, after reading it, I'd like to ask him if he still thinks we've won on disability benefits:

Fire in the belly

Long time no post - sorry about that. I'll try and actually have a decent and interesting blog post up tomorrow.

Right now I'm sitting in bed and will shortly be going to sleep. This evening my father and I went to see 'The Iron Lady' at a local independent cinema. It's certainly a good film and personally I think it very much reminded me that, no matter how much I despise her politics and the poisonous legacy of a divided country which she left us, Margaret Thatcher is now just a widowed old woman struggling with dementia. In the end, after all she did and didn't do, she has ended up facing old age and death in the same way that everyone else has to face. At the end of the day, she's human. And I think that that reminder of ultimate mortality is something that a lot of powerful people could do well to remember.

But that's not what this post is about. Because after the film my father and I got to talking politics - as we tend to do now and again. I won't go into details but it wasn't about party politics, it was about human nature and injustice and corruption and ineptitude.

As it happens, I rather enjoy that kind of conversation. Not just because it gets the old brain cells working and can give you new insights into things but because of the impact it has on me. Like a lot of people who take an interest in politics I can find things pretty depressing at times and end up wondering what the point of all the effort is when nothing ever seems to change.

But conversations like that, where I'm reminded of all the injustice, all the flaws, all the needless cruelty and poverty are brilliant at making me angry at the downright unfairness of it all. And, funnily enough, anger is my main political motivator. It puts fire in my belly by making me want to tear down the whole rotten edifice of the modern world and fix all that is wrong with it. In practice I know that I've got to be a tad more realistic in my aims than perfecting society, the radically reforming the economic system and fixing the flaws in human nature, but, by the gods, it certainly gives me something pure and unadultered to aim for. So, all in all, being angry and having the conviction and burning desire to end the injustice is probably a good thing. After all, it's that fiery anger that you need to keep you going, that you need if you ever want to accomplish something in the face of adversity.

So that's pretty much what I wanted to say in this blogpost. Incidentally, the whole recharging of the fire in my belly following the conversation (because I was feeling pretty drained and spread thin beforehand) is why tomorrow I intend to finally get round to a) writing a reply to this and b) beginning plotting in earnest over a fightback on the Welfare Reform Bill.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Welfare Reform Bill - real Lib Dem #fightback

Well, they've gone and done it again It's rather depressing that I feel so unsurprised by the fact that, once again, by a margin of 65 to 2, our peers have decided to back yet another government proposal which will take support away from deserving sick and disabled people who can't survive without it. Apparently 500,000 vulnerable people losing support wasn't enough for them to bother to defy the whip. Of course, this might be partly related to the fact that so fucking few of them even bothered to turn up to the debate and listen to the arguments about the amendments they were actually fucking voting on.

As you can probably tell, I'm very angry. The only thing stopping me from going utterly berserk is that at least Lord Freud has been forced to agree to have a slow introduction of the replacement for DLA in order to make sure that any problems can be fixed before they cause too much hardship. Of course that's assuming Lord Freud and the DWP a) keep their word and b) do the job properly. And based on previous performance that's about as likely as me joining the tories.

But despite that the behaviour of our peers was far from good enough.

From tomorrow, I'm going to be getting together with  ther grassroots Lib Dems and organising a fight back. We will force our parliamentarians to listen to the democratic will of the party or I'll do my utmost to make sure that we kick up such a media storm that it'll make them long for the days of merger and having the party leader on trial for murder!

The Lib Dem peers might have forgotten their principles, souls and spines but I and others haven't. Stay tuned for more in the coming days and weeks.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Help defeat the government on DLA

 I've been asked to post this on my blog and I'm proud to do so. Please read it.

Last week the government was defeated three times on the Welfare Reform Bill.

On Tuesday this week there will be another debate in the Lords - this time on proposed changes to DLA (Disability Living Allowance).

Sue Marsh is calling for a pause on Tuesday to reflect on DLA legislation in the light of the Spartacus Report.

Pat's Petition asks for the government to stop and review all the changes to benefits that are creating a perfect storm.

Pat's Petition has now reached almost 20,000 in a very short time. Our contacts in the House of Lords say Pat's Petition is being watched because it is a grassroots petition. High numbers of signatures give them evidence of the strength of feeling behind everyone's actions. This is exactly what they need.

If you want to support campaigners on Tuesday please help with Pat's Petition. Whether you've been on a Hardest Hit march, tweeted about the Spartacus Report or written to a Lord, please share the link as widely as possible in the run up to the vote on DLA on Tuesday. Keep sharing it so that Lord Freud and others know how many there are of us, watching their every move.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968 is the link to the petition.

It's on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/patsepetition
and twitter at http://twitter.com/PatsPetition

Saturday, 14 January 2012

What the hell is wrong with Labour?

What the hell is wrong with Labour?

I'm serious, they probably couldn't be a more incompetent opposition if they tried. The government has given them so, so many open goals, so many opportunities to utterly destroy their credibility - and I say that as a pro-coalition Lib Dem.

Let me give you an example, last Wednesday, Ed Miliband faced off against David Cameron in Prime Minister's Questions. He could have hammered the government hard over cuts to disability benefits which the Lords were voting on later that night. He could have pointed out how unfair and unnecessary it was to deny profoundly disabled children the right to independence in adult life through removing their benefits, how the cost arguments didn't add up when the government was preparing to spend billions on HS2 which will inevitably end up over budget. But instead Ed chose to get into an argument about rail fare increases - one where both he and Cameron argued about whose figures were correct (according to FactCheck they were each partly right and partly wrong) - it might have been mildly interesting or informative but a knock out blow to the coalition it wasn't. And then Ed raised the matter of Scottish independence and both men had a chance to play at being statesmen - something which Cameron usually manages to do slightly better than Ed does.

So, once again, it was, at best for Labour, a draw. And yet later that same night the government received a massive defeat on disability benefit cuts in the Lords - an unprecedented triple defeat in fact. And then later on, to make things even better for Labour, Lord Freud used underhanded tactics to try and reverse the democratic will of the House.

But, because Labour hadn't mentioned it earlier, the story only got 45 seconds on the news and Chris Grayling was able to go onto Newsnight (which opened the segment with a piece by a tory former DWP minister on why the benefits system needed reforming) and spouting the usual paper thin guff about why the government's proposals to hit vulnerable disabled people purely for the sake of cost were actually the best thing since sliced bread. The entire story of the government's defeat was forgotten about in a whole news cycle despite the fact that masses of disabled people have revolted against the governments proposals, got the subject trending on twitter and have published a devastating report completely demolishing the governments plans on Disability Living Allowance (which will be voted on in the Lords next week).

This was a golden opportunity for Labour to force the issue onto the agenda and gain masses of political capital. Instead, just as they did for thirteen years in government, Labour seems intent on squandering chance after chance after chance. This is a government making a hash of already unpopular and complex NHS reform, making several counter productive cuts purely to satisfy the blinkered ideology of tory backbenchers and generally creating a crisis for themselves every other week.

But the best Labour seems to be able to think of is Ed Balls suddenly coming out and definitively yielded the entire economic argument to the coalition, agreeing to fight the battle entirely on their terms, and thereby losing any reason for support from the sizeable chunk of the public that disagrees with the government's strategy. The fact is that polls show that people aren't satisfied with government economic policy but think Labour are likely to be even worse. Putting up the backs of Labour's core voters by accepting massive and, let's be honest, at least sometimes unnecessary, public service cuts is going to make left wing voters consider finding another party (such as the resolutely anti-cuts Greens) while doing nothing much to gain any new support as more moderate voters will just see this as the latest of a series of Labour flip-flopping and mixed messages on the economy.

Labour should be destroying the coalition's economic credibility on specific arguments it knows it can win, while also setting out solid alternatives. And please note, a jobs scheme, a VAT cut, and gods knows what else relatively minor tinkering, all to be paid for out of the same, limited revenue raising of an unsustainable bonus tax, does not count as an alternative economic policy. When you say "we'd cut differently" the obvious question people will ask is "How?"

There is no more perfect time to be in opposition, the situation could hardly be more perfect and yet Labour are making a hash of it. And that's deeply worrying given that a) our political system requires an effective opposition to keep the government in check and b) even Lib Dems like me really don't like the idea of a Labour collapse if it means a massive boost to the tories.

For what it's worth, my assessment is that the Labour leadership doesn't seem to have any sort of ideological framework or vision and instead are obsessed simply with winning elections in order to win power for the sake of power. Don't get me wrong, I have fundamental disagreements with many elements of social democratic philosophy but if ever we needed a counterweight to neo-liberalist capitalist excess then it's now.

But all Labour's leaders can seem to think of is pandering to the prejudices of one set of voters after another - so one week you get Liam Byrne demonising disabled people by playing into the "scrounger" narrative and then attacking the coalition for "crossing a basic line of British disability" on disability benefit cuts the next.

If I was in opposition, I'd be having a field day right now. And I don't even have much of an interest in Labour doing well, other than my fervent belief that the best outcome for my party and the country after 2015 would be one which does not end up in a tory majority government or a renewal of the coalition. So when I say this it's mainly with frustration at the sheer apparent stupidity of the people deciding Labour's strategy.

Seriously Labour, please get your act together. I don't care what direction you pick as long as you pick one and stick to it. And quite frankly, facepalming at your actions on such a regular basis is bad for my health.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Let's put the welfare cuts in perspective

I've seen some reprehensible individuals recently arguing that cutting disability benefits is necessary for the sake reducing the deficit and that no one should be exempted from having to share the burden, not even the disabled. But that's a load of crap.

So let me put this in perspective for you. A friend of mine is Sue Marsh and I visited her this weekend. She suffers from a debilitating illness called Crohn's disease - essentially she regularly gets massive kidney stones in her bowels which need to be surgically removed and which cause all sorts of associated health problems such as pain, lack of energy, lack of appetite, etc.

She's suffered since this since she was a child but was repeatedly misdiagnosed and therefore struggled through school and university and then through work for a few years before her illness finally became too much and she had to go on benefits.

She currently gets contributory ESA because she made National Insurance payments when she was working.

Under the government's proposals, in a few weeks her ESA would end (because the changes are retrospective) and she'd be cut off from support. She's ill enough to be permanently unable to work but not ill enough to go into the unconditional support group. And because of that, there's no provision for supporting her.

And, because her husband works, despite also having to look after Sue and their two young children, and despite having spinal problems himself and having had two nervous breakdowns due to stress, they won't get any support. The only way they'll be able to get support under the government's plans is if Sue's husband gives up his job - the threshold for receiving support is a household income of less than £7,500 a year. But the support they'd then be eligible for is too little to support a family of four off of. The alternative that Sue's husband keeps on working and trying to support the family after Sue's ESA ends. But the fact is that they simply can't afford to live without the ESA payments.

And there's no alternative to the disability benefits system because Sue being long term ill makes her ineligible for things like JSA.

This is the catch 22 that the government's changes will put thousands of disabled people in. Not to mention the permanently disabled children who will be denied all access to benefits when they become adults (because they won't have been able to make any NI contributions) because of the flawed logic that assumes that their family (despite the fact that a lot of disabled children are in state care) will always be around and willing to look after them.

Protecting these disabled people would cost £400 million a year - an insignificant fraction of the amounts we spend on far less worthy causes.

Yes, we need to get rid of the deficit, yes we need to spend less money across the board. But it goes completely against the fundamental principles of this party to make people like Sue, who are already living with debilitating conditions and who are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, bear the burden of the cuts. They're already living right on the margins - how the hell can we expect to take even more away from them without it causing disaster?

I can tell you, I've never been more ashamed of my party than I am right now.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

What the fuck has happened to us?

Tonight the government suffered a massive triple defeat on elements of the Welfare Reform Bill that would have removed support from disabled children and cancer patients and that would have limited to one year the length of time seriously ill and disabled people could receive support for, after which they'd be denied support unless they had a household income of less than £7,500.

While it's brilliant that we won on this, and that the principles supported unanimously by Lib Dem conference in September triumphed in the lords, the fact is that this was no thanks to Lib Dem peers. Only three of them rebelled against the government on the whipped votes and only five of them went against the government even when the had a free vote. What follows is a list of all those Lib Dem peers who betrayed our party, our principles and the most vulnerable in our society:
Addington, Lord
Alderdice, Lord
Allan of Hallam, Lord
Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, Lord
Benjamin, Baroness
Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, Baroness
Burnett, Lord
Clement-Jones, Lord
Cotter, Lord
Dholakia, Lord
Falkner of Margravine, Baroness
Garden of Frognal, Baroness
Goodhart, Lord
Jolly, Baroness
Kirkwood of Kirkhope, Lord
Kramer, Baroness
Lee of Trafford, Lord
Lester of Herne Hill, Lord
Linklater of Butterstone, Baroness
Loomba, Lord
Maddock, Baroness
Mar and Kellie, Earl
Marks of Henley-on-Thames, Lord
McNally, Lord
Methuen, Lord
Newby, Lord
Northover, Baroness
Parminter, Baroness
Randerson, Baroness
Razzall, Lord
Redesdale, Lord
Rennard, Lord
Roberts of Llandudno, Lord
Scott of Needham Market, Baroness
Sharp of Guildford, Baroness
Shutt of Greetland, Lord
Steel of Aikwood, Lord
Stephen, Lord
Stoneham of Droxford, Lord
Storey, Lord
Taverne, Lord
Taylor of Goss Moor, Lord
Teverson, Lord
Thomas of Gresford, Lord
Thomas of Winchester, Baroness
Tyler, Lord
Wallace of Saltaire, Lord
Wallace of Tankerness, Lord
Walmsley, Baroness
Watson of Richmond, Lord
Williams of Crosby, Baroness
I feel so utterly, utterly ashamed about this. What the fuck has happened to us?

UPDATE: Some credit goes to the 44 or so Lib Dem peers who abstained and thereby allowed the opposition to win the votes. But the fact is that there's still no explanation for why they didn't vote against the government on the third amendment where they were specifically allowed to vote however they liked. Yesterday was a dark day for the state of democracy within the party.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Support the #spartacusreport


This weekend I was working on the launch of Responsible Reform, a report into the government's changes to Disability Living Allowance by replacing it with PIP and cutting it 20% in the process. The report has found that the DWP has misled the public and parliament over the changes, using incorrect statistics and claiming support for the changes where there was none and pushing forward with proposals that were almost unanimously opposed by respondents to a government consultation on the changes. The consultation, incidentally, breached the government's own deadlines by being two weeks short, poorly advertised and finishing two days after the DWP had finished writing their response.


This report still hasn't been picked up by the TV media but it really is huge news. Yesterday, the report launched with the hashtag #spartacusreport which was a top trending topic all day and gained support from people ranging from Stephen Fry to the Royal Association of GPs.

The government has already tried to dismiss the report as being unrepresentative and out of date. But it's not. The government's latest impact assessment comes from only a few weeks ago and is virtually identical to the previous one, showing that they paid almost not attention to the consultation at all.

And the report certainly isn't just a group of left wingers upset at the changes. Why else does the Conservative Mayor of London oppose the DLA changes? Why does every single sickness and disability related charity, including giants such as Macmillan endorse the report?

It’s simple, the changes are rushed and don’t make sense. To give one example, one of the changes will stop DLA being used as a qualifier for other benefits – such as blue badges. Which means that loads of entirely new assessments will need to be set up.

All of these people have engaged with the consultations by the DWP. They’ve expressed concern over problems and suggested alternatives. But all of them have been ignored in favour of a DWP assessment which lies and says that there is “broad support” for the changes when the responses to the consultation which clearly shows otherwise.

The fact is that the DWP wants to cut DLA by 20%. The cuts will come only from those of working age. As these make up 50% of the DLA caseload, that amounts to a 40% cut in funding to those affected. The number of people in need of help isn’t going to decrease, it just means that they’ll be less disabled people able to get the help they need.

And this switch to a new system will cost at least £600 million in admin costs – and that’s with the DWP assuming there won’t be any hiccups, which, inevitably, there will be.  DLA is an incredibly cost effective benefit. A large number of claimants are in work and paying taxes – but they are only able to do so because DLA helps provide them with the assistance they need to stay in work, for example, helping to cover the extra heating costs caused by working from home. If they are moved off of DLA then they’ll be left unable to work and will instead become an incredibly costly burden on the NHS and social care services.

The government talks about a rise in DLA claims, but the majority of the rise in DLA is down to demographic changes – as the population ages that means more people in old age are living with conditions associated with old age, such as partial blindness, hearing loss, mobility loss, back problems, etc. There’s also been a rise over the past decade because this is a relatively recent benefit and it takes time for people to move onto it – in fact, a lot of the rise corresponds with a government campaign to get people on it because too many people were missing out.

And the fact is that there is very little room for savings – true, some people defraud the system, though that amounts to less than 0.5% of claimants, and some people are overpaid. But there are also people who are underpaid and the net result of the overpayments and fraud and underpayments is a net SAVING for the DWP.

Switching to an entirely new system will only cause a bureaucratic nightmare and damage a group of people who are already struggling on a daily basis with disability and pain and who are disproportionately more likely to be living in poverty. Disability campaigners and charities have suggested ways DLA could be reformed to make it more cost effective but the DWP isn’t interested. All they’re interested in is cutting 20% from the budget. And that’s why Responsible Reform doesn’t propose an alternative – there’s not enough time for that. These changes could be rushed through parliament in a matter of a couple of weeks and campaigners are desperately focusing all their efforts on getting a six month pause for the proposals to be PROPERLY consulted on and examined. That’s all they’re after. And they deserve it.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The media dam is breaking...

The official figures for Disability Living Allowance fraud is 0.5%. The government want to cut 20% from the disability bill. They plan to do this by abolishing DLA and making eligability for its replacement, PIP, harder.

That does not mean there are fewer disabled people, just fewer who will get the help they need.

A new report will be coming out on Monday which will reveal the results of FOI requests to find out about the responses to the government consultation on the plans to scrap DLA and replace it with "PIP". The reason FOI requests are necessary is because the government still hasn't published the consultation despite the fact that MPs have already voted on the proposals.  There's also the small matter than it reveals that the government has been using misleading and incorrect figures to get parliamentarians to support the proposals.

Among the report’s conclusions that the press have already got hold of are:
  • Only 7% of organisations that took part in the consultation were fully in support of plans to replace DLA with PIP
  • There was overwhelming opposition in the consultation responses to nearly all of the government’s proposals for DLA reform
  • The government has consistently used inaccurate figures to exaggerate the rise in DLA claimants
  • The report shows that nearly all of the recent increase in working-age claimants of DLA has been associated with mental health conditions and learning difficulties. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties remained remarkably stable
  • 98% of those who responded opposed plans to change the qualifying period for PIP from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months
  • 90% opposed plans for a new assessment, which disabled people fear will be far too similar to the much-criticised work capability assessment used to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA)
  • Respondents to the consultation repeatedly warned that the government’s plans could breach the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Today, this story is in the Mirror, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Indy and the Guardian. Boris Johnson has attacked the government's proposals. And the report hasn't even been published yet! The media dam is breaking and this issue is on the verge of exploding into the national conciousness and when it does, a lot of people in government will be asked some very hard questions.

But meanwhile, despite us passing a motion on this at conference, our leadership is maintaining the same silence and deliberate avoidance of this topic that they have for the past six months. Words cannot describe just how depressing it is when the Tory Mayor of London is doing a better job at standing up for the vulnerable then our own leadership.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Big report on DLA to be published soon

 This is one of my ongoing series of lunch time blogposts.

I happen to know from a very good source (e.g. the author) that there is a report entitled "Responsible Reform" which is due to be published soon - I'm not allowed to disclose the publication date.

The report will be about the government's plans to replace Disability Living Allowance with 'PIPs' (Personal Independence Payments). I don't know what it says but I highly doubt the evidence will be in the government's favour.

There's not much more I can say about it at the moment but I'll have a lot more details about it in the near future. What I can say is that, by the time it's published, it will have taken under two months to write and will have cost £4,000. Yet this is a report of comparable size and effort to that of a major think tank - which normally take £100,000 and up to a year to write and publish a report. Given that this is a report organised and researched mostly by volunteers, nearly all of whom suffer from disabilities or long term illness, I consider that a tremendous achievement.

But I also hope that this report won't distract from another issue facing disabled people which is just as damaging as the flawed schemed to replace DLA. And that other issue is the introduction of a 12 month time limit on how long sick and disabled people can receive contributory ESA.

As Caron says over on her blog (and I can't recommend you read the whole blogpost strongly enough):
At the moment, if you receive contributory ESA (based on your NI contributions), you get around £90 a week and are eligible for that until you reach State Pension age. Now, you will lose your entitlement to it after a year. So, if you work for 40 years and pay tax and NI for all that time, you will only, when you need it most, get a year's support if the Government plans become law. This will take effect in just 3 months' time.

That means that people who are too ill to work will effectively have to rely on their families to support them. Being ill is a pretty expensive business - if you need to have regular medical treatment there's transport costs affected with that. Also if your mobility is affected, you will need  your house to be warmer. Not want. Need. 

I think depriving sick people of the support they get from the State based on an arbitrary time limit is wrong. It flies in the face of everything I believe as a liberal in terms of looking at the person and what they need. 

Most people, thankfully, do recover from illness within a year but some don't. It certainly took me two years after contracting Glandular Fever to feel remotely human again and it's left me with continuing health problems. Luckily I didn't need to claim ESA, but if I had, I am fairly sure I'd have had problems proving eligibility because of the fluctuating nature of the condition. If Sue Marsh, who suffers from really severe bowel disease, has trouble convincing the authorities that she's ill, then we have to suspect that the system is very flawed. Sue isn't my only example. Four years of working as an MP's caseworker provided me with many examples of the wrong decisions being taken and overturned after a lengthy and stressful appeals process.

The best argument I've heard against the time limit was put forward by Ken Reed, the new Chair of RNIB Scotland. He and I were speakers at a fringe meeting on welfare reform chaired by Secretary of State for Scotland Mike Moore at the Scottish Lib Dems' Autumn conference. Ken said that if you became blind as the result of an accident today, it would take a year just to get used to being blind, let alone being ready to get back into the labour market.