We need a coalition of resistance against local council cuts
As the new year dawns, councillors around the country will start drawing up budgets for 2013-14. Sharp and continuous reductions in government grants totalling 30% will result in severe cuts to balance the books. By law, they have to do this. Town halls can’t run deficit budgets, unlike the government.
This is the point at which Labour councils should be saying no, in a loud and clear voice, with support from their national leadership. We won’t make your cuts. We will not pass on the burden of the calamitous economic and financial crisis of capitalism that we did not create. We will defend our communities.
As matters stand, however, Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton and Labour councils in other towns and cities are preparing to announce thousands of redundancies and the elimination of key services. Virtually every section of the community will be affected.
As the Observer reported today, the leaders of Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield warned this weekend: “The unfairness of the government’s cuts is in danger of creating a deeply divided nation. We urge them to stop what they are doing now and listen to our warnings before the forces of social unrest start to smoulder.”
Yet, despite their dire forecast, the leaders of these and other Labour councils intend to make the budget cuts as demanded by the government. In my view, this is absolutely indefensible.
The hollow argument used to justify implementing the cuts is one that’s been around since I was leader of Lambeth council during its momentous struggle with the Thatcher government. Neil Kinnock, then Labour’s leader, told councillors that they should abandon defiance that might be considered illegal and instead maintain a “dented shield”.
Better to have a Labour council administering cuts in a “caring” way than the Tories, went the argument. In any case, resisting central government might encourage the Tories to do the same if Labour were in office. I heard the same tune again recently when Steve Reed said councillors were finding “practical ways to limit the pain”. For his loyalty, Reed was rewarded with the safe seat of Croydon North, and left his post as Lambeth council leader.
Back in the 1980s, David Blunkett (Sheffield), Margaret Hodge (Islington) and Graham Stringer (Manchester) initially took stands against rate-capping and budget cuts. One by one, they were persuaded by Kinnock to drop their opposition. All subsequently became MPs.
Ed Miliband’s pseudo-Tory “One Nation” politics does not allow for meaningful resistance to coalition austerity policies. It’s not difficult to fathom why. As many are aware, New Labour prepared the ground for many of the coalition policies through the expansion of PFI, contracting out, academies, tuition fees and other market-orientated measures.
Ed Balls and Gordon Brown between them set the bankers free to run riot with other people’s money. Now local government workers and service users are being made the scapegoats for a crisis that New Labour had a political hand in making. Pensions have already been reduced and wages frozen – with the backing of Labour’s front bench.
The biggest coalition in recent times is emerging against this government’s policies. Families with children at nurseries and schools, single parents, the disabled, carers, pensioners, students, redundant workers, part-time workers, people struggling to make ends meet, those whose homes have been repossessed, those on ever longer waiting lists and a million young people unemployed – all dependent at some point on local authority services which are now being snatched away.
This coalition is the basis for a co-ordinated campaign of resistance to council cuts and would provide the platform for exploding the myth, repeated as gospel truth by all the major parties since 1979 that there is no alternative. Public sector trade unions should take the initiative and call local assemblies of community groups, anti-cuts campaigns and other activists. These assemblies could draw up, or even commission, work on policy alternatives to an unsustainable, divisive capitalism that promotes inequality.
Let’s draw on the experiences of Occupy internationally, UK Uncut and the assemblies’ movement that has swept Spain. Why not mobilise communities to keep open services earmarked for closure, even if on a temporary volunteer basis like at Friern Barnet library?
In the 1980s, Labour councils like my own did organise a fightback. A price was paid, councillors were surcharged and forced from office. But resistance, far from being futile, mobilised communities. We won additional funds so that budgets could be set without cuts. Labour councillors today have the same choice – they can either lead a struggle against a vicious government or stand aside for those who will.
Fit-for-work tests are exposed, again – change this shocking tactic now
A report written by people who have serious illnesses or disabilities,The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment, contains 70 first-hand accounts of taking the fit-for-work test, which in large part determines eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA).
ESA replaced incapacity benefit four years ago. These testimonials about the eligibility test clearly show how ministers have misled the public and used the press to demonise this most vulnerable of groups.
For the first time, the report exposes the extent of the opposition to the ESA and proves, beyond any doubt, that not only is it “unfit for purpose” but that it is also one of the most shocking betrayals of those most in need that has ever been allowed to go unchecked.
Since the test’s introduction in October 2008, more than 400,000 people with serious illnesses and profound disabilities have appealedagainst the decision to strip them of state support, and 40% have been successful; a great many disabled and sick people have died after being found “fit to work” and a survey has found that 6% of GPs have come across a patient who has attempted to take or taken their own life as a result of undergoing, or “fear of undergoing” the test.
It should have been so different. When the then Labour government introduced the ESA as a new benefit for those unable to work due to long-term illness or disability, the eligibility test was intended to look at what the disabled person could do, not what they couldn’t.
The assessment would have three possible outcomes: the person was too ill or disabled to undertake any kind of paid work so they would go into the long-term support group (SG) and would not be expected to look for work; the person had a significant illness or disability but might be able to work, or would like to work with the right support. They would go into the work-related activity group (WRAG) and have access to training or adaptions and experts to help them find a job; or the person would be found immediately able to work and would move to jobseeker’s allowance (JSA).
Charities and campaigners representing sick and disabled people supported this concept and indeed, the principle is still one we accept and would like to see today.
But the politicians have made the test far too limited. It has ignored whole classifications of illness or disability; people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties, autism or Asperger’s and conditions that fluctuate. Cancer patients have found themselves at the job centre between chemo treatments, paraplegics have been told that they are fully mobile.
Politicians and the media also stopped talking in warm, empowering terms and suddenly, an obsession with “scroungers”, “skivers” and “cheats” that had no basis in fact took over. Despite having one of the lowest rates of support for sick and disabled people in the developed world, despite the toughest criteria in the developed world and despite a broadly average number of people claiming support, ministers and the media painted a picture of a country held back by an army of lazy shirkers who could work if they wanted to but chose not to.
In fact, UK sickness and disability benefits have the lowest fraud rates of any benefit at less than half of 1%; a full one-third of sick or disabled people live in poverty and 60% of disabled people already work.
Luckily, the new benefit was tested first in two pilot studies and it became immediately apparent that the test could not accurately access claimants. At this point, the ESA should have been stopped and redesigned. Politicians should have seen that the language they were using was doing great damage to a vulnerable group and returned to the original concept of the ESA.
But far from pausing the ESA, the coalition government not only rolled it out nationwide, it limited the WRAG to just one year. Any last sense that the WRAG was a secure place for nurturing the untapped potential of those with significant barriers to the workplace was gone.
The coalition did at least ask professor Malcolm Harrington to lead an independent review into ESA and recommend improvements. A year later, Harrington suggested many sensible changes that wereaccepted but as yet, little progress has been made in rolling them out.
How many more seriously ill people must suffer mentally, physically and financially before the ESA is withdrawn and redesigned? Four years is long enough – indeed far too long. This report proves it beyond any doubt.
Deficit or no deficit, deafblind children need government help
Giving birth is an overwhelming experience. You feel joyous, exhausted, thrilled, desperate, excited and terrified all at once. One thing you cling on to in those early days is the reassurance from other parents that all babies do this or that, that it’s nothing unusual, that it’s just a phase. I can’t imagine how much more extreme all those emotions must be if you don’t get that reassurance; if instead you’re gradually facing the reality that your child isn’t the same as every other child and this isn’t going to change. How would you cope, for example, giving birth to a child who is both deaf and blind? That’s what I kept asking myself on a recent visit to the extraordinary Anne Wall Centre in north London.
Deafblindness is a combination of both sight and hearing difficulties. No two deafblind children are the same, and because of their complex conditions, many also have physical or learning disabilities. The Anne Wall Centre is there to support deafblind people and their families. It is an extraordinary place, every conceivable space crammed with art rooms, cooking areas, trampolines – you name it. One room is a kind of sensory chill-out zone, with crazy light shows and soundscapes to heighten the experience of whatever limited sight or hearing you may have. I could have stayed in there all day – in fact, I suggested they should hire it out for parties, but apparently that’s not quite the point.
During my visit, I was lucky enough to meet some of these wonderfully unique children and their parents, as well as the highly skilled professionals who support them. It’s an awful cliche to say it was inspiring, but … it just was. Utterly. The parents I met described the centre as a lifeline: their visits to it were not just highlights in their week, but indispensable ones.
I witnessed first-hand how these children can learn and achieve with the right support. A person who works one-to-one with a deafblind child is called an “intervenor”. This is a highly trained professional who enables a deafblind child to connect with the world around them and learn tactile communication. With intervenor support, a deafblind child can learn, play and develop as much independence as possible while growing up. This support is vital for deafblind children to overcome the isolation caused by deafblindness, offering opportunities to develop in our hearing and sighted world and learn language. Watching a deafblind child learn by touch as they feel the intervenor’s hands is like watching a beautiful ballet. It is remarkable.
I’ll confess that before I visited, I found the prospect of discussing deafblindness scary. As a claustrophobic, the thought of being trapped in a dark world, unable to communicate or be communicated with felt like the worst nightmare imaginable. What I learned was that, through the skill of these expert intervenors, deafblind people can communicate, and be communicated with. They can learn to write and paint and cook and clean and lead fulfilling lives.
So I am shocked to learn that most deafblind children are being left without the professional support they need to develop language and make sense of the world. These children are truly unique and it is estimated that there are 4,000 in the country. Research by the charity Sense shows that just 10% of deafblind children have been identified by local authorities, meaning that nine out of 10 deafblind children are left without any hope of intervenor support. And even for those children lucky enough to be identified by local authorities, only three out of 10 are getting the intervenor support they vitally need.
I’ve met some parents of deafblind children and they really are incredible. I’m sure they will never shirk from their responsibilities as parents – but they cannot do it alone. On 12 November, I’ll be supporting deafblind children and intervenors in parliament with the charity Sense, where we will speak to the Department for Education’s Edward Timpson. The message for him and for the government as a whole has to be that, deficit or no deficit, deafblind children desperately need intervenor support. Surely, as a society, we cannot leave their families to cope with these challenges alone? And we cannot leave these children unable to connect with their world.
Inquiries fail abused children
As an investigative journalist, I have for over 20 years exposed paedophiles preying on children in care in, among other sorry places, Islington, Essex, Hackney, Jersey, north Wales and Romania. My work has generated numerous inquiries. Every one essentially confirmed what I, brave whistleblowers and abuse survivors revealed. But did they bring child abusers to justice? Not at all.
Inquiries are mostly the establishment’s way of managing dissent and pretending something is being done. I did not rejoice when David Cameron announced there would be an inquiry into allegations that children in the north Wales homes scandal were abused not just by staff but also by politicians, police and businessmen; or when Theresa May appointed the chief of the National Crime Agency to investigate how north Wales police handled allegations of child abuse in the 70s and 80s. Those allegations have been known for decades. We don’t need another inquiry but a proper, long overdue police investigation.
The horrors of the Jimmy Savile scandal have at last made the unimaginable imaginable. Allegations that children abused in care homes and schools across Britain have sometimes also been abused by powerful outsiders are not new. But not one of the resulting inquiries has had the power, remit, skills or resources to investigate properly. How could they? The paedophile rings preying on children in care are a form of organised crime. Only an expert national taskforce, staffed by detectives and senior social workers with track records in collaring paedophiles, have the faintest chance of cracking them.
These rings all join up. An investigator may start by looking at a home in north Wales but soon will be looking at a linked home in north London or Devon. The paedophiles protect each other and swap children, references, cover stories, venues and customers. Yet no one ever joins up the dots and says it is time we investigated them nationally.
Worse, most inquiries depend almost exclusively upon the testimony of abuse survivors. Children who go into care have often suffered cruel or tragic family lives, poor education and then horrific abuse in the system supposed to protect them. Many later survive through prostitution and petty crime, serve time in mental hospitals or jail and become addicted to drugs and alcohol. They are easily attacked as poor and unreliable witnesses. It is obscene to make them relive childhood tortures yet again unless other evidence is looked at too.
Many survivors or those supporting them have tried to point police towards the people and places used to prostitute children. They have identified child brothels, transportation routes, hotels and bars, fixers, providers of false documents and outlets for the lucrative trade in images of child abuse. Almost none of this evidence has ever been acted upon.
The child protection whistleblower who contacted the MP Tom Watson last month did so because he was once in a team of just the kind needed now. I was first in contact with his team and wrote about it 19 years ago, before it was abruptly closed down by orders from on high. It was a brilliant prototype, a joint police/social services investigation into the ring around childcare guru Peter Righton. It produced establishment names and revealed an alleged linked cover-up by Labour – let us never forget paedophilia is a cross-party crime – and was shut down as a result. Not one of the implicated men was prosecuted.
So, how much does Britain care for its children? If we get another inquiry stuffed with do-gooders with no real powers, we will know. We don’t need more hand-wringing and a report published years later; we need to kick down a few doors and rescue some children.
Eileen Fairweather is a freelance journalist covering child protection issues