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Mark Steel: Thatcher’s funeral is over. Can we go back to normal now, please? – Comment – Voices – The Independent

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

The Independent: Cutting benefits to poorest ‘a tragedy’

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cutting-benefits-to-poorest-a-tragedy-8374315.html

The Chancellor pledged to “tackle welfare bills” yesterday, as part of a range of measures to save billions of pounds in his autumn statement this week. He is expected to announce a below-inflation rise in key state benefits, including unemployment payments, while also raising revenue by cutting pension tax relief for the wealthy.

But in a letter to The Independent, more than 50 charities, academics and unions urged Mr Osborne not to penalise the poor at a time when food and utility prices are rising.

“It would be a tragedy for millions, and a travesty for the economy, to push the poorest into deeper poverty by this week failing to uprate benefits in line with inflation, or by making other cuts to social security for families and disabled people,” they state.

The Liberal Democrats are understood to have objected to plans for an absolute freeze in benefits, and have already blocked Tory plans to remove housing benefit for the under-25s. However with average earnings rising at a lower rate than inflation the two parties are believed to have agreed that welfare payments should not rise in line with inflation – but instead at a lower level, possibly one per cent.

Although pensioners and the disabled are expected to be spared any freeze, the charities claim that the plans will force vulnerable families to cut down on essentials.

“With basic living costs increasing, we know many families are having to make difficult choices; a freeze on benefits and tax credits will make these choices even harder,” the letter says.

Signatories include Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Anne Marie Carrie, chief executive of Barnardo’s, and Fiona Weir, chief executive of single parents charity Gingerbread.

They write: “This week’s autumn statement could leave thousands of children and families even further away from being able to meet their essential costs of living.

“As organisations and individuals concerned with their wellbeing, we are increasingly worried that the statement may worsen already-alarming projections that child poverty will rise by 800,000 by 2020.”

CPAG also cited a recent warning from the International Monetary Fund that struggling countries which cut social security payouts and housing subsidies risk doing further damage to their economies.

Yesterday Mr Osborne made clear that reducing the welfare bill would be a central element of Wednesday’s autumn statement, which is being touted as a mini-Budget.

“We are going to tackle welfare bills, and … the welfare system which is deeply unfair for working people,” he told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

“We’ve already made £18bn of savings from the welfare bill … but we’re determined to reform welfare, not just to cut bills, so that work always pays, that it’s always better off for someone to work that extra hour, to go out and get the job, and fundamentally that is about creating not just a fairer society, but a more competitive society. That is the Conservative approach to fairness, make the rich pay but also make sure you are tackling the welfare system, which is deeply unfair.”

But the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, insisted that it was only Mr Osborne’s economic strategy that meant he needed to find further savings. “The welfare bill is up because inflation is up and long-term unemployment is up,” he said. “The Work Programme is failing, he’s cutting taxes at the top. And then he says ‘I’m going to hit people at the bottom’.”

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York added: “While the poorest see their incomes slashed, incomes at the top have been rising rapidly – but everyone deserves a decent quality of life.”

Liberal Democrat sources said they believed that they had negotiated a “balanced package” which would be seen as fair.

However they did not deny suggestions that the autumn statement would include some real-terms benefits cuts.

“This is an important moment for the Government,” they said. “But I think if you look at the range of measures in the statement people will see that it is fair.”

However research commissioned by the Trades Union Congress, published today, found that families would lose most, out of the £10bn cut in the welfare budget, with low-income households losing more than £700 each a year. That is compared with the richest 10 per cent of households who would lose an estimated £100 per family. Working single parents would lose more than £300 a year if the cuts go ahead, the report says.

Autumn statement: Osborne’s options

Freezing welfare benefits entirely

A popular measure among Tory backbenchers but opposed by charities and many Liberal Democrats who feel it’s draconian. Chances of inclusion: 2/5

Raising welfare benefits in line with average incomes – not inflation

Average incomes are rising at less than 2 per cent while the rate of inflation is higher. Osborne may argue that to make work pay, benefits should only go up this year by the rate of earnings. 4/5

Reduce the amount of money that people can pay into their pensions without paying tax on it from £50,000 to £30,000 a year

Mr Osborne has already stated that the autumn statement will increase the tax burden on the better off and pension tax relief is an obvious way of doing this. 3/5

Removing housing benefit from the under-25s

This idea was floated by David Cameron in a speech earlier this year – but appears to have been blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Expect it in the Conservative manifesto. 0/5

Introducing a mansion tax on the most expensive properties or introducing a new council tax band

A long-time aspiration of the Liberal Democrats, the proposal appears to have been vetoed by Mr Cameron so will not happen in this parliament. But again expect it in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. 0/5

Freezing fuel duty

Having been postponed once before, fuel duty is due to rise by 3p per litre in January. However Mr Osborne is almost certain to delay the rise again or scrap it entirely. 4/5

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

The Independent: Standards fall as care operators get ‘too big to fail’

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/standards-fall-as-care-operators–get-too-big-to-fail-8374324.html

Standards in social care are being undermined because the handful of private companies which dominate public sector contracts are now “too big to fail”, a new report warns.

Outsourcing was supposed to drive up standards and cut costs, but the dominance of multinationals such as Serco and G4S risks harming vulnerable people, it claims.

Britain faces “another banking crisis” in the care sector unless charities and social enterprises are given a greater slice of the market, according to the report’s authors.

Peter Holbrook, the chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, who commissioned the investigation, told The Independent: “Britain’s most vulnerable people are suffering as competition and the delivery of efficient care is replaced by short-sighted bidding wars and low-quality service.”

The outsourced market for public services has an annual turnover of £82bn, which is predicted to rise to £140bn by 2014. The report identifies the emergence of a “shadow state”, with a small number of companies taking “large and complex stakes in public service markets, and a great deal of control over how they work”.

G4S, which made headlines this summer for failing to provide sufficient security at the Olympics, has contracts with 10 government departments and agencies and 14 police forces.

Serco has dozens of private contracts, running everything from prisons to hospital facilities to council waste collection. “Its failure would cause extreme turbulence in public services. No business should be too big to be allowed to fail,” the report warns.

About £1bn is spent every year looking after children and young people in residential care, with Sovereign and 3i the major private players. But the report found that it is “hard to pinpoint who owns what; their waters seem to be in perpetual motion, as they buy from one another and take one another over, and offload assets.”

Other private operators whose substantial public contracts are highlighted in the report include Atos, which has the contract to perform disability assessments, and Capita, which was recently named as the preferred bidder for a £1.7bn, 20-year contract to run educational services in Staffordshire.

“If we are going to go down this route of further marketisation, then it is imperative that these markets are open, transparent and well-functioning,” Mr Holbrook said. “There is a very small number of companies dominating these markets, and they surround themselves by complex legal structures so that it is hard to understand the level of profit they are taking from some of these contracts”.

The report, which is the result of interviews with policy-makers and front-line workers, accuses profit-seeking companies of bidding for public-sector contracts on short-term price alone, with devastating long-term effects, including a “race to the bottom” on pay.

One unnamed home-care worker for a “sizeable private provider” is quoted as saying: “Most of the carers don’t have English as a first language. It’s always the minimum wage.”

Charities and social enterprises can no longer compete, the report claims.

A G4S spokesman said yesterday: “There is absolutely no way we are comprising on service, for the very reason that every government contract we provide has to meet strict criteria and if we fail we incur financial penalties, which is not something echoed in the public sector.”

Serco could not be reached for comment.

Public sector market: Outsourcing giants

G4S Had its contract for Wold prison revoked last month after a shambolic performance in providing security at the London Olympics, pictured. The Government remains its biggest client, with 14 police forces within the firm’s remit.

SERCO Major shareholders include HBOS and Lloyds. Government contracts include maintaining the Docklands Light Railway, missile defence systems and military bases, and security services for the young offenders institutions.

ATOS The French multinational turned over €8m (£6.5m) last year. It made headlines after losing a memory stick with the passwords and names of a government computer system were found in a pub car park. Clients include the UK Border Agency.

CAPITA Contracts span administration of public-sector pensions and public grant programmes. Recently named preferred bidder for a 20-year contract to run educational services in Staffordshire. Specialises in “Business process Outsourcing”.

The Independent: The Tories are emasculating the Equality and Human Rights Commission

November 5, 2012 Leave a comment

The Tories are emasculating the Equality and Human Rights Commission

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-tories-are-emasculating-the-equality-and-human-rights-commission-8280977.html

 

Baroness Onora O’Neill, 71, has replaced Trevor Phillips as chair. Phillips was not as effective or dynamic as he needed to be, but he did understand how discrimination damaged individuals and society. O’Neill is a thoughtful philosopher, a former head of a Cambridge college, an establishment figure with no record in equality or human rights work. Oh, except for a paper on the “dark side of human rights” which suggests some victims get off on feelings of victimisation. The Hillsborough relatives and Doreen Lawrence have been accused of just that. Imagine what the Commission would be under Shami Chakrabarti, Geoffrey Robinson QC or the indomitable Helena Kennedy? They wouldn’t just play safe and would never be appointed.

The UN has just warned that the UK may lose its “A” status on human-rights protection and so be unable join in top-table discussions on those universal rights and country violations. On equality our UN figures are just as miserable. Latvia is getting better on gender parity and we are getting markedly worse. On race there is serious criticism of Government inaction.

The Tory right has always hated anti-discrimination remedies and talk of human rights. According to them, the members of this capitalist, individualistic nation should put up with hard luck and unfairness and not bother busy, busy businesses with profligate complaints. By comparison, the US, an even more fanatically individualistic, capitalist nation has had equality laws and anti-discrimination institutions since the 1960s for ethical and economic reasons. Not even George Bush and followers could persuade public opinion that such “interfering” legal protection was ruining the country.

The Human Rights Act and the Commission materialised after years of painstaking work by the Liberal Democrat lawyer Lord Anthony Lester and other civil rights and democracy experts. I remember endless seminars, fiery arguments and public meetings to work out a good model to defend all UK citizens from prejudice and injustice. That principle was what got me onside. The Commission would fight not only for black Britons and women, but white men too, old, young and gay people, anyone who had been treated unfairly. Though discrimination never stops, those rights are now firmly in our heads and hearts. Theresa May gave them as her reasons for not extraditing Gary McKinnon, Asperger’s sufferer and Pentagon hacker, to the USA recently; we are collectively profoundly upset when the human rights of children are violated as they were by Savile and others and shocked to see the abuse of vulnerable old people in some care homes, their right to human dignity violated.

I had an illuminating exchange at a party this week. A property developer wanted to know how to get the EHRC to take up his daughter’s case. Expected to get top grades, she applied to an Oxford college and was rejected. The disappointed teenager has, since, tried to kill herself: “It’s not fair, they didn’t give her a chance. They just judged her on class.” I replied I completely sympathised, and I do. And I hope he too now has some empathy with the qualified black man who never gets an interview, the old worker sacked because of his age. From being against such “PC nonsense” as he put it, the father had started to see why we need laws to safeguard us all.

David Cameron once seemed far removed from his anti-equality troglodytes.

David Cameron once seemed far removed from his anti-equality troglodytes. He worked tirelessly in the last election to persuade voters that under his leadership the Tories had undergone not a cosmetic makeover, but irreversible surgery. It was no longer the “ nasty party” (in Theresa May’s words), but nice, caring, sharing, modern, meritocratic, inclusive and diverse. He knew that without new blood the Conservatives were stuffed. Their most loyal white, middle-class supporters were ageing and most young Tory whippersnappers were almost as badly out of touch with modern Britain. Excluded and self-excluding voters had to be attracted to boost numbers and change the party’s image. I do think Cameron, in that moment, passionately believed and truly meant what he said – in that he is Tony Blair’s doppelgänger.

Now the PM backs off from all that idealism, dumps progressive policies and state institutions to enforce best practice, casually abandons his pre-election persona and swerves sharply right. Disabling the equalities and human rights agenda and sacrificing the Commission are offered as proof to the old guard that he is still one of them. And, as ever, Liberal Democrat leaders, warm in their ministerial cars and self-importance, do nothing to stop him or defend an institution they so wanted, so believed in.

Categories: Equality Tags:

The Independent: Thousands wrongly sectioned under mental health act following ‘technical error’

October 29, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/thousands-wrongly-sectioned-under-mental-health-act-following-technical-error-8231388.html

Thousands wrongly sectioned under mental health act following ‘technical error’

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Parliament that thousands of Britain’s most vulnerable patients have been locked up on the say so of doctors who, despite having the requisite medical knowledge, were not legally allowed to make such a decision.

The error will require immediate retrospective legislation to avoid a deluge of legal complaints whilst a review has been ordered to find out what went wrong.

The Department of Health insists that no patients have been wrongly sectioned in clinical terms and that the doctors behind the decisions had the correct professional qualifications.

Under the Mental Health Act those who are sectioned for their own or society’s safety are done so with the authorisation of a doctor who has to be approved by the Secretary of State. In recent years the Health Secretary has delegated responsibility for approving doctors to the 10 Strategic Health Authorities that cover England.

However four authorities – North East, Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands and East Midlands – delegated a further step top mental health trusts and then failed to sign off on the decisions they made, meaning they were effectively illegal.

In a statement to the Commons Mr Hunt said: “We believe that all the proper clinical processes were gone through when these patients were detained. They were detained by medically qualified doctors. We believe that no one is in hospital who shouldn’t be and no patients have suffered because of this.

He added: “But for the avoidance of any remaining doubt, and in the interests of the safety of patients themselves, as well as the potential concerns of their families and the staff who care for them, we are introducing emergency legislation to clarify the position.”

Andy Burnham, his opposite in the Labour party, said MPs would work with the Health Secretary in bringing in the emergency legislation but he warned: “There will be concerns about precedent – this the first time that the House has been presented with emergency legislation in this area which affects people’s rights. The public will want to know that it is being used in exceptional circumstances as a last resort, not as a convenient means of correcting administrative failures.”

Mental health charities reacted cautiously to the announcement saying that although the mistake was regrettable, they were assured by promises from the government that no-one had been sectioned falsely in clinical terms.

“Being involuntarily detained via the Mental Health Act is one of the most serious things that can happen to someone in terms of their mental health,” said Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind. “For this reason it is essential that the system works as it should, with safeguards in place to protect the rights of the person being detained. It is therefore regrettable that this mistake has been made and that it went unnoticed for so long.”

Paul Jenkins, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness added: “All of us need to know that if we were ever ill enough to be sectioned, we would be treated according to the proper processes. At this stage, we have no reason to think that anyone has been detained who should not have been, even though the correct procedures have not been followed. We believe that the Department of Health and Strategic Health Authorities are taking swift action and we will continue to monitor the situation.”

Marjorie Wallace chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, added: “It is a matter of some concern that the procedures for something as sensitive as being sectioned have not been followed in so many cases. At the moment we have the Health Secretary’s assurance that no-one has been detained unnecessarily, and must hope that these errors are correctly swiftly so that confidence in the system can be preserved. This is particularly important when an individual is placed in the care and authority of the state.”

* Picture posed by model

Categories: Mental Health Tags:

Owen Jones: Hatred of those on benefits is dangerously out of control

September 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Friday 18 May 2012

 

What does it say about modern Britain when the pre-meditated massacre of six children is described as “an accident waiting to happen” on national television? In the early hours of last Friday, someone poured petrol through the letterbox of the Philpott household, unleashing a blaze that ended in one of the most appalling mass murders in our country’s recent history. Whoever was responsible must have known the almost inevitable consequences of their actions. No rationalisations exist for this sort of atrocity.

But as the surviving Philpotts face an agony most would struggle to imagine, right-wing shock-jock Carole Malone argued that they had effectively brought it on themselves. “This family became a target a couple of years ago,” she argued on ITV’s This Morning; they had “probably upset a lot of people” by being a family of 17 who were receiving state benefits. “I suspect they have many enemies out there because they were seen to be on benefits,” she suggested with a tone that did not betray a hint of compassion. With the country in such a dire financial state, “People have seen families – maybe like this – wanting to take advantage.” Referring to the “culture of the family” and the fact they had brought “attention to themselves”, Malone concluded that “six innocent children have died as a result”.

Malone has form. In 2009, she absurdly claimed that illegal immigrants received “free cars”. The Press Complaints Commission forced the now defunct News of the World to apologise and publish a full retraction. After Karen Matthews shocked the nation by kidnapping her own daughter to extort money from the tabloid press, Malone claimed to have lived “next” to a council estate “full of people like Karen Matthews”. They were part of a “sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country”, she claimed, as though an abhorrent individual such as Karen Matthews was representative of anybody but herself. But as contemptible as this proven propagator of untruths is, Malone merely reflects prejudice that is increasingly rampant in austerity Britain. On the same day the children were killed, I am told that a producer at a leading radio station suggested using the tragedy as a hook for a feature on large families.

Before the general election, some of the media delighted in using the Philpotts as evidence the welfare system was out of control. They were featured on ITV shows Ann Widdecombe Versus The Benefit Culture and The Jeremy Kyle Show, and in several newspapers. The coverage had a simple aim: to provide proof of the age-old suspicion that the poor are breeding too much – and at taxpayers’ expense, too. It was a sentiment that was rife among the eugenicists who flourished in inter-war Britain; and Thatcher’s mentor, Keith Joseph, ruined his Conservative leadership ambitions in the mid-1970s by claiming that “our human stock is threatened” by single parents “in [social] classes 4 and 5” having too many children.

Echoing this tradition, Jeremy Hunt argued before the general election that long-term claimants had to “take responsibility’ for the number of children they had, adding that the state would no longer fund large workless families. But it is all based on myths. Just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more.

Hatred against those receiving benefits is out of control in Cameron’s Britain. The Tories transformed a crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending, and determined that the most vulnerable would make the biggest sacrifices. But taking away support from the disabled, the unemployed and the working poor is not straightforward. It can only be achieved by a campaign of demonisation – to crush any potential sympathy. Benefit recipients must only appear as feckless, workshy scroungers, living in opulent quasi-mansions with wall-to-wall widescreen TVs, rampaging around the Canary Islands courtesy of handouts from the squeezed taxpayer. Benefit fraud does exist – according to Government estimates, it is worth less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – but the most extreme examples are passed off as representative, or as the “tip of the iceberg”. The reality is all but airbrushed out of existence.

Earlier this year, a Sunday Times article featured the headline “End the something for nothing culture”. Below was a picture of the Gallagher family from the comedy-drama Shameless, as though these fictional caricatures were real life. This one-time paper of record quoted a Whitehall official on benefit recipients: “If we want them to tap dance, then they will tap dance.” Rod Liddle – who dresses up the boorish rants of a thick pub bore as journalism – claimed that his new year’s resolution “was to become disabled”, perhaps with a “newly invented” illness like fibromyalgia, so he could claim benefits. As the economic catastrophe that began four years ago led to a national jobs’ crisis – there are now over six million people looking for full-time work – the “scrounger'”caricature perversely has become more and more popular.

It is tempting to ignore the ramblings of glorified internet trolls like Liddle, but their projected ignorance has consequences. Six of the biggest disability charities have warned that the campaign of demonisation – by both journalists and politicians – has led to a surge in abuse towards people with disabilities. According to Scope, two-thirds reported abuse in September last year, up from 41 per cent just four months earlier.

But this campaign helps sustain public acquiescence in a massacre of the welfare state. George Osborne plans £10bn of further benefit cuts; Cameron’s parting spinmeister Steve Hilton has proposed £25bn. Half a million people are to have their disability living allowance taken away, even though the estimated fraud rate is just 0.5 per cent. People with serious illnesses are being stripped of their employment and support allowance, after undergoing the horrendous (and often humiliating) ordeal of a points-based assessment by French corporation Atos. One man with a degenerative lung disease, Larry Newman, was awarded no points – just a few weeks before he died of his illness. Under New Labour (let’s not forget who started this), one woman had her benefits cut after missing an assessment appointment – because she was in hospital having chemotherapy for stomach cancer.

But we rarely see this reality: it is intentionally hidden from us. The Government and much of the media divert anger from those who caused the crisis, to your “scrounging” neighbour down the street. And so we end with Carole Malone arguing that a family whose children died in a fire brought it on themselves. It is beyond shameful. And it must be challenged.

Categories: Benefits Tags: , ,

Andy Burnham, The Independent: We have the truth, now we need justice for the 96

September 14, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/we-have-the-truth-now-we-need-justice-for-the-96-8135801.html

 

In Liverpool, there have been people who saw people die at close quarters, in unimaginable circumstances and have been walking round for 23 years hearing that in some way they were to blame for what happened. It’s hard to understand the psychological impact of that. I’ve come across so many people over the years who have spoken of their difficulty in dealing with what happened and the way in which the tragedy was portrayed by the police.

On Wednesday, we cleared the names of all Liverpool fans who were there that day, and the value of that can’t be overestimated. The enormity of what was revealed made it more difficult to comprehend. You asked yourself: why hadn’t it been revealed, an injustice on this scale? But there are also deep questions, and the Prime Minister touched on this. The policing system, the coroners’ system, the legal system and the political system all failed to bring out the truth. Why?

In the legal system, people prepare a version of events and then fight it out in court. That is what they tried to do in this case. But because it came at the end of a decade when football supporters were treated as second-class citizens and the police were believed whatever they said, they created a version of events that stuck. When it came to fight out these versions of events in court, the truth wasn’t established.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel has done a magnificent job. It has created a potentially valuable model for government and society in the future, because what it did in a non-adversarial way was to put the emphasis on disclosure, not on two sides fighting their case.

There is also a parallel between Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough. Although the initial events were very different – one involving direct violence in Northern Ireland which left 14 dead, and the other where terrible negligence left 96 dead – the actions of the state in the aftermath were very similar. The effect on the bereaved was also similar: the denigration and the attempts to smear innocent people.

Believing eventually that the “truth will out”, I took the Hillsborough families over to Derry in July via Mark Durkan, the SDLP MP. To hear the two groups of families talk was a humbling experience. But what was interesting was that the Derry families told us that they only eventually got together to fight properly in 1992, 20 years after the shootings.

The SDLP and Sinn Fein put their differences aside and fought as one for 20 years. And on the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough, I went to Anfield and listened as people told me what they wanted. Twenty years – that seems to be the period when people recover enough to eventually demand truth and justice.

If we hadn’t made the call for disclosure when we did, it is unlikely the truth about Hillsborough would have been able to be told in the way it has. We are talking here not so much about Cabinet papers, but papers held at local level by public bodies; every year that passed our inability to retrieve this material increased.

All this came together at the right time and may not have happened with further passage of time. The key thing now is that after truth, must come justice. And that means a new inquest.

I cannot rest until that verdict of accidental death is removed from public record. The case for a new inquest is overwhelming. Only then will we be able to say we have righted one of the greatest injustices on British soil of the 20th century.

The writer is the Merseyside-born shadow Health Secretary and helped set up the Hillsborough Panel

Categories: Media, Stigma Tags: , ,

The Independent: Welfare reform cannot be an excuse for cuts

September 12, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/editorial-welfare-reform-cannot-be-an-excuse-for-cuts-8122235.html

 

So too should the concerns of 70 charities and lobbyists who have warned that the new system will disadvantage the 8m Britons who have no access to the internet and 14 million more who lack computer skills. Those are not the only worries. There are anxieties in Whitehall that the computer system to be installed to cope with the reforms may not be up to the job but is rather, as one civil servant put it, a “car crash waiting to happen”. (Whitehall does not have a good track record on the efficiency of its new huge computer systems.) There are worries that the new system will alter the dynamics within families, skewing control and autonomy away from women. And moving from fortnightly to monthly benefits payments could increase the grip of pay-day loan sharks on those in society who lack budgeting skills. Fair and sustainable reform must take account of such factors.

The government has said that from Day One of the new system no individuals will see their benefits fall – and that any longer term squeeze, as benefits rise less than the real rate of inflation – will be offset by shifts elsewhere in the tax and benefits system. That should be taken with more than pinch of salt. Rates which were previously based on the Retail Prices Index are now to be tracked against the Consumer Prices Index which is a far less accurate measure of how prices will rise for the low-to-middle income families who qualify for Child Benefit or in-work tax credits. There are always losers when changes are introduced to any complex financial system. That is a hard fact of political life. But the shift to the Consumer Prices Index will hit the least well-off disproportionately as prices rise faster than benefits will.

Moving from fortnightly to monthly benefit payments could increase the grip of pay-day loan skills on those in society who lack budgeting skills

But there is another, far bigger, political reality which cannot be ignored. It is that in a time of economic austerity the temptation will grow increasingly less resistible for reform to be used as cover for all round cuts in welfare. The Chancellor George Osborne has made no secret of the fact that he wants £10bn cuts in the welfare bill. But reforms like those proposed by Iain Duncan Smith, though they might eventually produce savings, will initial cost more up-front. Reforms usually do. The Work and Pensions Secretary knows that, which is why he dug his heels in when the prime minister asked him to switch jobs in the Cabinet reshuffle. He suspected that a new occupant of his post would be far less able than him to resist pressure from the Treasury for wider and deeper cuts.

If welfare is to be reformed it is vital that Mr Osborne and his Treasury number-crunchers are not effectively allowed to take charge. Reform must be driven by principle, not by deficit-reducing pragmatism. What is needed is shifts in incentives, not the slashing of payments to the least well-off.

Mr Osborne should bite a more potentially explosive political bullet and take another looking at stopping the payment of universal benefits – winter fuel payments, free bus passes and the like – to the comfortably-off. It will not raise the £10bn it wants, but it will save the Treasury between £2bn and £3bn, and that is a start. Whatever form reform takes it must not sacrifice the central principle that our welfare system needs radical changes on incentives. It cannot be a mask for big cuts which would hit the poorest hardest.

Categories: Benefits, Media Tags:

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Independent 02-09-12: Not all disabled people can be world-beaters

September 3, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/yasmin-alibhai-brown/yasmin-alibhaibrown-not-all-disabled-people-can-be-worldbeaters-8101375.html

 

In the stadium loo I heard two young Asian women arguing in Gujarati with their Hindu grandmother who still holds to these dreadful superstitions, common in most non-Western countries even now. In the West, societies based on Darwinian Capitalism have their own embedded hostilities towards body and mental imperfections. These Paralympic Games answer both sets of prejudices and bit by bit change global public attitudes. (Britain should take more credit than it does for first setting up the competition in 1948 with a small number of war veterans.)

After the first hour you didn’t even notice the missing arm, the metal blades, the shakes. Richard Whitehead, winner in the 200 metres, became a Grecian God with fab biceps; double amputee South African Oscar Pistorius looked like a bird of paradise as he took off in the 200-metre heats, and the finalists in the men’s triple jump were breathtakingly graceful.

Houssein Omar Hassan from Djibouti came last in his 1,500 metres heat – a full seven minutes behind the field. He had injured his ankle, but as the only representative of his country and for his own pride he finished and with honour. He was given a standing ovation.

I wasn’t in the Aquatics Centre to see Ellie Simmonds, only 17 and 4ft tall, win her gold medal, but can imagine what that was like for her and the crowds who love her so. In the women’s club throw, the bronze medal went to our own Gemma Prescott and the gold and silver were won by Maroua Ibrahmi of Tunisia and Mounia Gasmi of Algeria – impaired Muslim females, you know, the much caricatured objects of anti-PC mirth. They were stunned as the crowd affirmed them in a way they probably have never been before.

The superhuman participants have pushed their bodies and minds beyond all limits, as the organisers keep emphasising. The competitors are not victims, not physically and mentally deficient, not grotesque, not abnormal, but gifted and determined. They don’t expect pity or special pleading. They are winners. And that is exactly how the spectators saw them.

These responses are both fantastic and problematic. Just because Paralympians have triumphed over disabilities doesn’t mean that all the rest of the disabled can or must. And the Games are not evidence of the end of discrimination against these humans. That’s like saying (and too many do say it) that Will.i.am and Barack Obama attest that racism has passed on or that Margaret Thatcher proved that sexism was just a self-serving whine.

I come not to bury the Games, but to caution against naiveté and those who will exploit the glory and turn it to their advantage. A small number of protesters have come out against the private French firm Atos, a Games sponsor which assesses the work fitness of people on disability benefits – like jobs are queuing up for such applicants. We know of their many unfair decisions and the anguish of those summarily denied money they can survive on.

Remploy factories where people of disability had jobs and dignity are being closed down by the Coalition. Today workers begin a series of strikes against these heartless, senseless decisions. I don’t know which is more cynical – to offer sponsorship or to be approved. Then the German Company, Chemie Grunenthal, manufacturers of the drug Thalidomide which caused thousands of people to be born limbless, have just apologised and paid for a statue of a child without arms and legs. Do you suspect they are just choosing this euphoric and celebratory time for the debilitated in the hope of stealing redemption? Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times when it uncovered the Thalidomide disaster, responded this weekend to the nauseating gesture: “[The company] remains silent still on adjusting compensation for inflation and the dreadful effects on victims – the men and women in adulthood, many now without parental support.”

Evans, thankfully, uses the V word. It’s all very well to celebrate heroes but hundreds of thousands of incapacitated people must feel bewildered in this suddenly victimless environment they are told is around them. How convenient for the Government. It wants to cut the bill for disabled benefits by 20 per cent and so has mounted a PR assault on claimants, accusing most of being bogus when only 0.5 per cent, apparently, are falsifiers. The public has been brainwashed; now there is the additional burden on the disabled to fight fate, overcome their limitations, and emulate inspirational athletes.

I understand why the disabled have fought hard to be defined for their abilities and not afflictions. But now the danger is that they will be treated as if they are the same as everyone else and expected just get on with it, without special provisions or understanding. After the closing ceremony, disabled people may find themselves living with a more pernicious, invidious kind of inequality as they are forced to march under the banners of aspiration and victory.

Categories: Disability Tags:

Francesca Martinez in the Independent

September 2, 2012 Leave a comment

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/francesca-martinez-empty-words-dont-fund-a-full-life-for-disabled-people-8100582.html

Francesca Martinez: Empty words don’t fund a full life for disabled people

When David Cameron made his comments at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, I admit I felt a bit sick. His talk about the “inspirational” athletes while the Government carefully erodes the welfare system that helped many of the same athletes to achieve their dreams was pure hypocrisy. Nobody is more pleased than I am at the impact the Paralympics appear to be having. Eyes are being opened, attitudes hopefully shifted and great sport enjoyed. For once, diversity is fully visible in the media, and this is fantastic as it has the power to help to normalise difference. Disability is normal and the more we can accept it as a natural part of life, the more we can move beyond divisive labels and realise that we are all one group, sharing one planet.

The Paralympics provide the perfect opportunity for the Government to praise the human qualities of the Paralympians. But it is undeniable that government targeting of disabled people in the cuts, together with much of the right-wing press’s customary (but not at the moment, you understand) portrayal of disabled people as benefit cheats and drains on society, are proving a deadly cocktail. Disability hate crime is at record levels, with up to 100,000 estimated incidents per year. People with serious conditions such as cancer or heart disease, or who require morphine every day, are being told that they are “fit to work”. Disabled and sick people are being forced to endure lengthy appeals to claw back benefits that go towards essential costs. Suicides and deaths are increasing because crucial help is being withdrawn.

We are constantly being told that cuts need to be made so that the money goes to those who really need it. This is not welfare reform. It’s welfare cuts. The Government wants to cut Disability Living Allowance (which has a fraud rate of 0.5 per cent) by 20 per cent. Half a million genuine claimants are to lose their benefits. A lengthy medical assessment is required to qualify for this benefit although it is already rigorously tested, which explains the low fraud rate. The word “benefit” implies getting something extra, but it exists to cover costs that non-disabled people don’t have. As a taxpayer, I am happy to help pay those vital costs rather than funding illegal wars or weapons developed to kill or maim people in ever more horrific ways.

A phrase routinely trotted out is that we have to end this “something for nothing” culture. But benefits are something for something. That small minority who make fraudulent claims should be targeted, but not the majority who receive this help to cover the extra challenges they face. Given that David Cameron and his wife are set to inherit more than £20m between them, his recent criticism of the “culture of entitlement” is laughable. In fact, this Cabinet is one of the wealthiest in memory, with 80 per cent of its ministers already millionaires or multimillionaires. By contrast, one in three disabled people is already in poverty; more will no doubt follow, with the cuts. That leaders who know little of financial hardship can implement massive cuts that will devastate many, but from the effects of which they are insulated, is morally dubious.

The Government has done little to correct wildly inaccurate benefit fraud figures printed in sections of the press, figures that have contributed to a climate of hate towards those in need. Politicians such as Iain Duncan Smith have backed tabloid campaigns to dob in “scroungers”. These negative portrayals demonise disabled people and have coincided with a rise in violence and abuse; sickening stories of torture and murder are on the increase. The coalition’s silence on the media’s scapegoating of disabled people speaks volumes.

The Employment minister, Chris Grayling, recently talked about the need for “tough love” to get people back to work and off the Extra Support Allowance (fraud rate 0.3 per cent). This minister claimed more than £10,000 in illegal expenses. Has he the moral authority to speak about “scroungers”? Where’s the tough love for the banks and the lax regulators who caused this recession, or the corporations that evade and avoid more than £100bn in taxes annually (a figure that dwarfs the £12bn in DLA and £12.5bn in ESA payments)?

In 2010, City bonuses totalled £14bn. This sector is still being protected and rewarded despite its central role in the financial crisis. The powerful clique that runs the Government and its City friends are happy to keep the profits to themselves, while sharing the deficit with us all. There is nothing wrong with using public money to fund healthcare, transport, education and the welfare state. A civilised society does its best to look after those who need it most, and is proud to do so.

This Government’s ruthless ideology must be challenged. Its interests lie in keeping Britain one of the most unequal societies in the world, in keeping power and wealth in the hands of the few, in portraying those in need as a drain on resources, in protecting the rich from taxation and regulation, and in making the public believe otherwise. Disabled or not, we must join together on our streets, in our communities and at the polling station to fight for a fairer society.

Comedian Francesca Martinez’s ‘What The **** Is Normal?’ tour continues until 20 April 2013

 

More Information on Francesca Martinez

 

Categories: Benefits, Democratic Accountability, Disability, Funding, Health, Media, Mental Health Tags:
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