Peoples Petitions and the Democratic Deficit – Frances Kelly

Why in a modern representative democracy would disabled people need to use petitions – a method more appropriate to a feudal court. Government e-petitions are a modern twist on the ancient art of petitioning the powerful.  New and untried, they may trigger a debate in parliament if they reach 100,000 signatures. The Leader of the House says the government are watching the e-petitions and responding to them.

Why in a representative democracy wouldn’t disabled people turn to the government or the opposition to represent them and protect them? Unfortunately in this strange new twenty first century world of consensus all three main parties are determined on the same slash and burn approach to disability benefits and for disabled people that leads to a disastrous democratic deficit. Disabled people have no representation – they are completely undefended and vulnerable.

What is this ideological belief which now sets all three main parties against generous and supportive benefits and breaks the covenant with disabled people established under the welfare state. Disabled people mostly do not understand.

Labour for ideological reasons associated with NewLabour introduced US style welfare reform, the Conservatives couldn’t believe their luck and the LibDems who fought it initially were swallowed up by the Coalition. To be fair there are sizeable minorities within both the Labour Party and the LibDems who are trying to help disabled people but in this new weird political world they have no influence with the leadership.

The public don’t understand either. Polling shows that they support a general slash and burn approach to benefits – hopefully not because they don’t care but because they have been convinced that many benefits go to undeserving people who are lazy or cheating. The public seem to think that they can trust the government to protect the deserving and only take benefits from the undeserving. This support from the public confirms all three party leaderships in carrying on – now under the banner of deficit reduction although welfare reform predates the crash.

So disabled people turn to petitions.  Pat’s Petition has currently reached the first page of government e-petitions and collected over 33,000 signatures. Pat has six people helping her in their spare time – all with disability or carers – or both – they have no money, resources or organisation. They just became desperate.

Meet Pat – Pat is blind and a carer

Pat writes –

 

When I lost my sight in 1984 there was little if any support for us. You sank or swam. Together with a folding white cane, free only in a very few local authority areas, I launched myself into my new, unrecognisable world. The simplest of tasks were, and still are, impossible.

 

Washing machine settings – to boil socks or not?. Housework – polish or air freshener? Toothpaste or hand cream? Shampoo or bubble bath? Beans or dog food on toast? All this before even venturing into the outside. The list is endless. The worse thing for me, and so many others, though is literacy. Without sight you can neither read nor write. No matter how many hand held magnifiers you have – you are still illiterate.

The best for me was a ‘liquid level indicator.’ You put it in your mug and it vibrates when the boiling liquid reaches a certain level. The fact you have no idea where to pour the liquid seems immaterial to its designers. I found it works equally well when pouring gin with the only downside being no room for the tonic. My friends love coming here.

 

Maybe because I had a young family to look after or maybe because I am an outgoing person – whatever the reasons – I learnt survival.

 

There is nothing in this world that can prepare you for living with any disability. Experts, mostly able bodied, have university degrees in dealing with the emotional side. Pretty useless I always felt. Best intentions maybe but as the saying goes ‘it takes one to know one.’

When my husband broke his back whilst serving with the Royal Navy – we became the blind leading the lame. Over many years his condition has deteriorated. He lives with chronic pain, depression and severe restrictions in his ability to move. I am his carer.

 

I enjoy life, mostly, and for me life is for living. Together we manage but occasionally I have to ask for a little help.  Any services have always been extremely hard to source from local social works. For those with sight loss it is nil. Zilch. Nothing.

 

I look after David day in day out like tens of thousands of other unpaid carers. There have been times when I have needed to go away. Trying to get help for him is virtually impossible. Now with less and less funding situations can only get worse.

 

Disabled people, and those with long term ill health, have been treated as some sort of ‘different breed’ to the rest of society. Rather like aliens from another planet. To be peered at, ridiculed and denied basic human rights. I have, for many years, felt very strongly about this. I have attended focus groups, strategy groups and conferences. I have sat on committees, implementation boards and filled in consultations. I have information on disabilities coming out of my ears. My message is, has and always will be the same:- ‘Ask us what we want and LISTEN.

I decided something, to include us all, had to be done. Together with 6 other women – yes the fair and gentle sex – Pat’s Petition was born. The idea was to give everyone a chance to show the government how they feel about the ‘Perfect Storm.’  We feel angry. Very angry. Betrayed by those who should care. Let down by society. Pick any adjective you like – they all come back to the same meaning.

They aren’t listening.

 

The details of general welfare reform are beyond the scope of this article. This article is about disabled people and their carers.  The general principle is that the welfare budget is now out of control and it is necessary to cut payments. Most claimants will benefit from being coerced, persuaded, forced in to work and this is the only way forward for them. Mostly the reforms have been carried across almost intact from fit people to disabled people who have ended up as collateral damage.

The methods of welfare reform are through carrots and sticks but the carrots are few and far between and the sticks get larger all the time. Essentially it is coercion to work through pressure and sanctions. If that doesn’t work you are timed out and means tested. There is plenty of help with job search but no new jobs have actually been created. And if you are a non competitive applicant through a disability the employer is not being offered any form of subsidy to compensate for the non –competitiveness.

This hits a real problem for sick and disabled people in a competitive labour market where they have real problems in finding and keeping work. There is enormous confusion here because the social model of disability was a liberation model like feminism and gay rights.

Under this model disabled people want to overcome stigma and prejudice and be liberated in to leading the same lives with the same opportunities as everyone else. But there are problems with this because unfortunately even when stigma is removed disabled people still have very real difficulties in life and work. If they have to take more time off than fit workers, if they are in pain or incontinent or suffering in other ways they may be less productive. This is real –and remains even after all prejudice and stigma are gone. These problems can all be solved and they should be solved but this costs money and neither the government or the employer is offering to meet these costs. The answer is to support disabled people so that they can achieve their aims. But this costs money. And welfare reform is about saving money.

This inconvenient truth of the real difficulty of working with disability hasn’t been solved by spending money. It has been wished away. The difficulty of not being able to find and keep work has been pushed squarely back at disabled people to solve. It is now their problem. And as in all bullying the victims are being undermined. Myths and dirty tricks now stigmatise disabled people as either claiming fraudulently (despite all the evidence that this isn’t so) or actually being able to work despite serious long term disability (again despite all the evidence).

The aim of moving to US style welfare is to save money and this means taking money from disabled people. This is too blatant to be done openly so it was disguised and accomplished by sleight of hand during a transition to a new benefit – Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

And then from nowhere came the whirlwind. The economic crisis caught disabled people in a perfect storm.  Cutting the financial deficit became the mantra central to all government policy and all three main parties decided that taking money from disabled people is a valid way to pay for the crisis.

The cover story of finding work for the disabled died. It’s a dead parrot. So the Tories resorted to Plan B and decided to take the money any way through a time limit and a means test. Now any disabled person with a working partner or any savings loses the benefit after a year. Sheffield Hallam statisticians (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/nov/08/welfare-reforms-incapacity-benefit?INTCMP=SRCH) show how deliberate this manipulation is.

With no political representation and vulnerable people too weak to protest the plan is to follow up on ESA and repeat the trick again and again. First Disability Living Allowance (DLA) will be converted to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and in the process most disabled people will be cut off DLA. This is a disaster because DLA sustains so many disabled people. That will be followed by another transition as ESA and PIP become Universal Credit (UC) and benefits are cut again and by then very few disability benefits will remain. It’s shameless bullying by people who are too strong and powerful.

Disabled people and carers have never fought like this before. They are weak and vulnerable – often house bound. But the persecution has reached such a level – and the democratic deficit is now so massive – that this is changing.

And luckily democracy is more resilient than that. The oppressed find a way. This is the Disability Spring. The existing groups like DPAC and UKDPC and Hardest Hit are fighting like never before. Benefits and Work is as supportive as ever. And new groups like the Broken of Britain and the Spartacus group have been formed and made a massive impact. The TUC is supporting. The cross benchers and bishops in the Lords have come out fighting. Disabled people have chained their wheelchairs together in Oxford Street. And Pat’s Petition has reached 33,000 despite the difficulties of reaching disabled people and the dirty tricks in the press.

It’s a strange way to do politics but currently there is no other way. So if you care please sign the petition which gets us one signature but much better ask family and friends and social networks to sign which gets us many more signatures.

Sign Pat’s Petition at –
http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968

 

It’s very sad – but the fact that protecting disabled people and carers is the civilised thing to do just isn’t enough. We have to show the politicians that people care about vulnerable people and that there are votes in it. Sadly democracy isn’t a perfect system.

Sign Pat’s Petition at –
http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968

More details about the petition and the supporters are at –
http://carerwatch.com/reform/

See Pat’s Petition on FaceBook
http://www.facebook.com/patsepetition

and on Twitter at
http://www.twitter.com/PatsPetition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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