Amplify the eloquent voices of the disabled protesters

The One Month Before Heartbreak blog shows how desperately help is needed to get our message about DLA changes across, writes Sue Marsh in the Guardian

    “And my word, did we write. We wrote for our dignity, for our sanity and, in some cases, we wrote for our lives. The posts were astonishing. Some were lyrical, others desperate. They all shared such eloquence, it’s hard to remember that you’re reading ordinary words from untrained writers. This group, who often can’t march or even leave the house, have become bloggers of great talent. Perhaps written words are their only defence against a media and political class unable to hear, see or understand them.

    Some tried to just show healthy, able-bodied readers why they weren’t “scroungers” (many work and only receive DLA to aid them continuing to do so) or to explain their conditions and how the cuts will affect them personally. Some were carers, terrified for their children, clients or parents. Some were humorous and heartbreaking, all at once.

    Some video-blogged, too. This entry is nearly too distressing to watch, but shows – almost unintentionally – the shocking neglect we now appear willing to accept, and just how many people are found “fit for work” who clearly are no such thing. Perhaps most distressing of all is this from a mental health patient unable to cope any more. What struck me was the matter-of-fact honestly and clarity in most of the posts. If you sit down with a cup of tea and a spare half an hour, you will read stories of great bravery, heartbreaking pleas for understanding, but none whatsoever appealing for pity or claiming that life isn’t “fair”.

    And if you haven’t got link fatigue, this is probably the best article any of us have ever read on just what it really means to be chronically ill or disabled. The “spoon theory” was born in an attempt to explain not how it feels to be ill, but just how it is. Picture disability as a bouquet of spoons (bear with me). For every small action you take, you lose a spoon – getting out of bed, showering, eating, taking the bus. When the spoons are gone for the day, they’re truly gone. If only one is left by lunchtime, you eat or you go to bed but can’t do both. Do you wash up or play with the kids? Do you visit a friend if it means you can’t go grocery shopping later on? When do you find the time to be politically active and throw your energy to defend the rights of those who, like you, are disabled?

    On top of this never-ending juggling to live our lives the best way we know how, we’re constantly in fear. What if “they” see us? What if “they” stop our benefits, cancel our lifelines? What if “they” take pictures to pass in brown envelopes to “medical assessors” paid by the hour to prove we’re cheats?

    As a wise friend pointed out that to truly have an impact on the ongoing debate “you need a mass of people chained to railings in Parliament Square in the freezing cold in February”. And, of course, he’s quite right. For the mainstream to take notice, that’s exactly what we need. But the barriers disabled people face to protest are often insurmountable: we might be bedridden, unable to leave the house. Some of us live in isolation with no one to push their chairs or guide them around Westminster, let alone help them make a journey to London that most would take for granted, but that to us might seem like climbing Everest. Likewise, someone living with agoraphobia or schizophrenia might consider marching on parliament about as achievable as becoming pope. Could it be that it is this more than anything else that makes politicians so confident they can persecute this group with no chance of a backlash?

    Benjamin Franklin once said that “justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are”. Perhaps you will all just have to lend us your spoons. Or even march for us. The stories at One Month Before Heartbreak show with absolute clarity not just why we need you so desperately, but why it could as easily be your mum, son or wife that needs state assistance one day. In a month’s time, you might find that if that dreadful day ever comes, it’s too late.

    There has been inspirational support for the recent “blog swarm” campaign organised by The Broken of Britain, a disability rights group. The One Month Before Heartbreak weekend encouraged disabled bloggers, carers, tweeters and concerned onlookers to come together for three days of blogosphere frenzy in an attempt to highlight the unthinkable pressure being piled upon physically and mentally ill people through a range of cuts that leave us breathless and terrified. The consultation on changes to the disability living allowance (DLA) ends on 14 February and the event hoped to raise as much awareness of the proposals as it could.”

    Sue Marsh is married with two small children. She campaigns to raise awareness of hidden disabilities and long term illness. A sufferer of severe Crohn’s Disease for nearly three decades, Sue set up the blog
    Diary of a Benefit Scrounger to raise awareness of life with a chronic illness.

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    Constituency sizes risk "chaotic" redrawing of boundaries

    Proposals being rushed through Parliament to equalise constituency sizes risk a “chaotic” redrawing of boundaries, a report has warned. Changes would not have regard to local loyalties and historic ties, the think tank Democratic Audit said. The government wants to cut the number of constituencies from 650 to 600, ending what it calls unfair voting. The report warned that failure to iron out flaws in the seat equalisation plans could spark a “revolt” among MPs.

    Report author, Lewis Baston, warned that ministers would “repent in leisure” their decision to combine the equalisation measures with the referendum on AV voting, in a single Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The government aims to get the Bill on to the statute book by 16th February – possibly requiring all-night sittings in the House of Lords – in order to be able to stage the AV referendum on the scheduled date of 5th May.

    If passed, changes would see an electorate in almost all seats within 5% of 76,000. Nationally, wards which have traditionally made up the basic building blocks of electoral geography and party organisation will have to be split between constituencies. It would mean that urban seats in cities like Doncaster and Coventry would have to take in countryside wards with few shared interests.

    One constituency would have to unite areas in the Isle of Wight and Hampshire, the island of Anglesey would be joined to Bangor across the Menai Strait and a “Devonwall” seat would give one MP responsibility for parts of Cornwall and Devon. Each constituency – with the exception of Shetland and Orkney, the Western Isles and the geographically massive Highlands seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber – will have between 72,200 and 79,800 voters, under the proposals.

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    Labour batters Coalition in Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election

    Labour has won the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election with a majority of more than 3,500. Labour’s Debbie Abrahams held off the challenge of her Lib Dem opponent while the Conservatives’ vote fell by more than 7,000 as they limped in third. Turnout in the contest was considerably lower than in the general election, with 48% of registered voters cast their ballots compared with 61% in May.

    02 Debbie Abrahams: Andy Burnham seemed very pleased with his latest recruit

    Clegg said it was a “big ask” (whatever that means) to win the seat but their performance would “confound our critics” while the Tories said it was “not a great result”. Abrahams told activists that the result sent a clear message to David Cameron that “you have to listen, think again and change direction”. The by-election was called after a special court found ex-Labour minister Phil Woolas lied about his Lib Dem opponent in May’s poll.

    Eight months ago, Labour won the seat by just 103 votes from the Lib Dems but this time it won a much more comfortable victory – finishing 3,558 votes ahead of its closest rivals. Although the Lib Dems failed to snatch the seat, their share of the vote actually increased by 0.3% to 32% from May. However, the Tories said it had been a “disappointing” night as their share of the vote fell by 13.6%.

    The by-election is the first significant opportunity that voters have had to pass judgement on the policies of the coalition government and Ed Miliband’s performance as opposition leader. Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham told the BBC that the result was a “good reward” for Mr Miliband whom he said had “led from the front” on issues such as VAT and bankers’ bonuses.

    The public had shown their anger over the coalition’s “broken promises”, he added. “Mr Cameron will be very worried when he sees these figures. There is real concern about the direction of travel of this Tory-led government. This is a wake-up call for David Cameron and Nick Clegg.”

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    Coalition caves in to banks paying unlimited bonuses

    After months in which a series of government ministers of all parties have threatened a toughening in the stance over City bonuses, Downing Street says the government does not intend to intervene in the pay of the UK’s top bankers

    The government has got itself into a fine old mess on bankers’ bonuses, writes Nils Pratley in the Guardian. The fault is entirely its own. The coalition agreement, published just eight months ago, declared that “detailed proposals for robust action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the financial services sector” would be brought forward. There was no commitment on timing but, come on, everybody knew the next bonus round would arrive in January 2011. The government should have defined “unacceptable” by now.

    01Do they smell of shit, George?

    It’s no use pleading, as the chancellor, George Osborne, does sometimes, that the bank levy, set to raise £1.25bn this year, is an adequate substitute. The coalition agreement was clear: the bank levy and the bonus proposals were separate items, and there was a pledge to implement both.

    Nor is it any use David Cameron calling for Royal Bank of Scotland, 84%-owned by the taxpayer, to be “a back marker” on bonuses. RBS is bound to be at the back of the pack because its profits will be lower than those of other big UK banks: the prime minister is appealing for something he knows will happen anyway.

    It is also disingenuous to point to the pan-European reform of bonus payments as evidence of change under this government. Reform to the structure of bonuses – limiting the proportion that can be paid up-front in cash – is welcome but the regulators had the matter in hand before last year’s election. The coalition’s use of the word “unacceptable” seemed to be directed at something else, like the size of bonus pools or the fact that most UK banks are still supping from the Bank of England’s special liquidity scheme.

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    The ultra-rich could solve this financial crisis

    Surely it is far better to inconvenience 1,000 of the country’s richest people than destroy millions of lives, writes Prem Sikka in Wednesday’s Guardian

    “The news that ‘only’ around 330,000 public sector jobs will be lost, is of little comfort to millions of people; especially as another 500,000 are likely disappear from the private sector. The government’s austerity plans will hasten home repossessions, shop closures, increase hospital queues and condemn children to crumbling schools. Yet the chancellor has been quiet about the contribution expected from the ultra-rich.

    05 Loving the idea

    Warren Buffett, the world’s third-richest person, estimated to be worth around $37bn (£24bn), has urged the US government to tax the rich more saying “people at the high end, people like myself should be paying a lot more in taxes. We have it better than we’ve ever had it”. Yet there is deafening silence from his UK counterparts. The government can solve the financial crisis by inconveniencing the richest 1,000 people in the UK.

    According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the collective wealth of the 1,000 richest people in the UK rose to £335.5bn in 2010. 53 of the richest 1,000 are billionaires. In 1997, when Labour came to office, the collective wealth of the richest 1,000 stood at £98.99bn. No other group has received such a massive boost in its wealth. Even if they have all the clothes, mansions, cars, yachts and jets they want, they still cannot spend it all. They came into this world empty-handed and will exit in exactly the same way, but leave behind impoverished citizens and employees when they could easily give 25%, or some £84bn of their wealth away without any noticeable effect on the quality of their life. This redistribution would reduce and probably eliminate the need for deeper cuts.

    With a private fortune of £22.45bn, steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal is thought to be Britain’s richest man. He has connections with offshore tax havens, but his wealth has been amassed though cultivation of the UK political machinery. Tony Blair personally intervened to help him expand his empire in Romania and other places. Some years ago, he spent £38m on the wedding of his daughter and also bought her a £70m mansion in Kensington Gardens in London.

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    Coalition’s quango cull condemned

    Plans to axe scores of quangos will not deliver significant savings or improve accountability, MPs have warned. A cross-party Commons committee carried out a review of the government’s cull of quangos and concluded the whole process was “botched”. Its chairman said the audit “was rushed and poorly handled” and missed a “Big Society” opportunity to grant greater powers to charities. The report found the legislation would give MPs excessive powers to axe more.

    In October the government announced it was axing 192 of the public bodies – such as the Film Council and the Audit Commission – while 118 would be merged. The review was overseen by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. Quangos – “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations” – are arm’s-length bodies funded by Whitehall departments but not run by them. They are advisory bodies, consumer watchdogs or organisations carrying out public services. The government reviewed 901 bodies – 679 quangos and 222 other statutory bodies.

    A review of that review was carried out by the Commons public administration select committee, which found the tests used to judge the quangos were “hopelessly unclear” and had not been applied consistently. “The current approach is not going to deliver significant cost savings or result in greater accountability,” the report found. “There was no meaningful consultation, the tests the review used were not clearly defined and the Cabinet Office failed to establish a proper procedure.”

    Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, chair of the committee, said: “The whole process was rushed and poorly handled and should have been thought through a lot more. This was a fantastic opportunity to help build the Big Society and save money at the same time, but it has been botched. The government needs to rethink which functions public bodies need to perform and consider transferring some of these functions over to mutuals and charities.”

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    Politics of the mind

    Shame, vanity, laziness and the desire to fit in are all to be used as tools of Government policy by ministers acting on the advice of a new psychology unit in Whitehall, writes Martin Hickman in the Independent

    The first glimpse into the confidential work of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team came on Tuesday when ministers suggested members of the public should be able to make small charitable donations when using cashpoints and their credit cards. On Friday, the Cabinet Office again followed the unit’s advice in proposing that learner drivers be opted in to an organ donation scheme when they apply for a licence, and also floated the idea of creating a lottery to encourage people to take tests to prove they have quit smoking.

    These initiatives are examples of the application of mental techniques which, while seemingly paradoxical to the Coalition’s goal of a smaller state, are likely to become a common feature of Government policy. The public will have “social norms” heavily emphasised to them in an attempt to increase healthy eating, voluntary work and tax gathering. Appeals will be made to “egotism” in a bid to foster individual support for the Big Society, while much greater use will be made of default options to select benevolent outcomes for passive citizens – exemplified by the organ donation scheme.

    A clue to the new approach came early in the life of the Coalition Government, in a sentence from its May agreement: “Our Government will be a much smarter one, shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past and finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves,” it read. David Cameron established the seven-strong unit in July, since when the Government has declined to divulge all its members and the full extent of its work. However, The Independent has learnt its guiding principles and some of the projects that have used its favoured techniques.

    One experiment involved Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) secretly changing the wording of tens of thousands of tax letters, leading to the collection of an extra £200m in income tax. Other ideas tried elsewhere that have been studied by the unit include reducing recidivism by changing public perception of ex-prisoners, and cutting health costs by encouraging relatives to look after family members in “patient hotels”. The unit draws inspiration from the Chicago University professor Richard H Thaler and his colleague Cass Sunstein, whose book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is required reading for Conservative frontbenchers.

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