Right-wing populism vs. participatory democracy
Peter Beresford and Mark Harrison attempt to chart a way forward
We can expect the inquests about the 2019 UK general election result to go on for a long time yet. According to our personal preferences, we will find all sorts of explanations. Whatever these may be though, the bottom line is that a Conservative government has been re-elected made up of people and policies which have made life more rather than less difficult for most people over the last nine years.
What we also know is that the policies Labour offered, however positive they might seem to many of us and however much we might feel they were in most people’s interests, did not carry the day. Instead of rejecting years of Tory imposed cuts, millions, especially in the North and Midlands, turned to the Tories. The right-wing populism of Johnson carried more political weight than the progressive proposals of Labour.
Having won an election without apparently needing to bother about any of the key issues of our day (unless we see Brexit as one), it looks as though the new government can continue to sidestep most of them, for example, sustainability and the future of the planet; aid and the southern hemisphere, the marginalisation of groups like trans and disabled people, the future of employment, the health and support of an ageing population, etc.
But it would be wrong to confuse voters’ tacit support for such an approach with active allegiance to the Conservative Party. Increasingly in recent years people seem to vote against rather than for parties and politicians. A key issue in this election seems to be the sense that a lot of people have had enough of not having a voice, being ignored and powerless. Ironically that seems to have played best for the political right which since Thatcher’s time, beyond consumerist rhetoric, had increasingly limited the effective say of ordinary people in their daily lives.
Perhaps the real lesson to be learned by left of centre parties and their supporters, in the UK and beyond, is that we are going to have to do things differently. Only left democratisation is likely to counter right-wing populism. More prescriptions for “better policy”, however good or ‘right’ we think they are, certainly don’t seem able to.
The logic is that if we are to secure a better, different kind of politics, then people must begin to have a real sense of reconnection of politics with their lives and some real say in what happens to them. Instead of blaming the electorate, we have got to start changing politics, to make it something people understand, connect with and are encouraged to be part of. The big battle coming will be between right-wing populism and participatory democracy. Any progressive party must now begin to focus on this as the critical underpinning issue.
There are some key areas of social policy to focus on, but within these are some really difficult choices for the Labour Party. We know that a Johnson-led government is going to continue to radically reshape the local and national state along libertarian lines. The shrinking of the state means the continued drive to eradicate any form of welfare from the benefits system, as the Thomas Cook workforce found to its cost. As we have analysed before, Universal Credit (UC) is one of the main weapons in “making work pay” and reducing claimants to below poverty and starvation conditions as a weapon against workers trying to improve pay and conditions.
The knighting of Iain Duncan Smith demonstrates how important UC is to the Tories’ project to reshape the welfare state and how slavish and craven those in our movement are who tried to sell us the line that it was a good idea in principle. The battle to move the party from a position of “pause and fix” to “stop and scrap” was fought and won by our disabled members and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). The battle over UC has only just begun but the challenge for Labour is to organise a social movement along the lines of the anti-Poll Tax rebellion which did for the hated tax and Thatcher. We need a leader who will lead this fight.
If the electorate is to regain trust that Labour can truly represent their interests then we have to walk the walk and not say one thing and do the opposite. In local government this means reassessing the approach advocated to date. The instruction from the leadership not to pass illegal budgets means we have Labour-led local authorities up and down the country carrying out Tory cuts on schools, children’s services, and adult social care and closing Sure Start children’s centres and youth clubs.
A credible path has to be developed that defends vital services from the Tory onslaught. The New Labour line that “our cuts are kinder than Tory ones” does not hold water, as we have seen in Scottish, northern and Midlands constituencies where the Blairite years were an almost seamless continuation of Thatcherism leading to voter cynicism and defections to nationalist and populist parties. The Stalinist inspired “progressive patriotism” is also a slogan devoid of meaning – let’s instead have a real fight to defend services and provision rather than appeasement and slavish obedience to Tory austerity.
While there was much to be commended in the manifesto, the policy on social care was neither transformational nor socialist. The commitment to provide free (excluding residential costs) care for over 65s was tame and reactionary. If implemented, this would not have met any tests of being progressive. It would also have resulted in conflict with the disability movement, progressive social work organisations and the UN as it was in flagrant breach of Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (CRPD). It would have taken away important rights won by disabled people for choice and control over our care and support. Delivery through a local authority employed workforce for a ‘one size fits all’ service is a 20th century solution and completely inappropriate for today’s setting.
The radicalism of the Green New Deal and the diversity of approach was completely missing in the social care proposals which were more about solving a problem for the NHS than a personalised and bespoke response to ten years of savage cuts.
As the leadership contest gathers pace we will see all sorts of commitments to listen to the electorate and learn lessons. Our fear is that this will just be empty gestures and no real change will occur. Credibility will come through fighting alongside people and communities. Listening is key – but then acting on what is heard is even more important. This means changing the relationship with people in communities. Labour has dipped its toe into community organising and this is one of the ways forward – but it must be based on the principles of rights not charity, solidarity, mutuality and reciprocity. What matters to people in communities are the things that make a difference in their lives.
Unless there is a radical shift in policy then communities will increasingly be trying to defend community facilities which Labour councils are cutting or closing because they are committed to obeying Tory finance laws rather than legal requirements under the Care or Children and Families Acts. This conflict will just deepen the alienation of working-class voters and our party members.
Listening must not be a cynical exercise to win back votes without changing anything – the lessons of Scotland must be analysed and learned if we are not to risk a similar meltdown in England and Wales.
This is not about phoney participation like the Brexit vote but involvement where people have a real chance to be part of the process. It is not about one-off participatory initiatives. Instead, it must be about a new systemic bottom-up approach to involvement that:
Treats diversity with equality;
Works particularly to include those marginalised and excluded by traditional political processes;
Addresses issues of physical, communication and cultural access with equality;
Builds on and learns from existing movements including disabled people’s and service user movements;
Seeks to reconcile representative and participatory elements of the political process.
Challenges inequality and advances social justice.
This is, of course, a long-term project, but it needs to start immediately.
WHEN I WROTE ON UNIVERSAL CREDIT (UC) in the November 2017 issue of Labour Briefing with Julie Kemmy, the early effects of this radical change to benefits were only just beginning to be felt by claimants and disabled people. Twenty months on the picture is becoming clearer.
What has been revealed is that UC is at least as big a threat to those in work as it is to claimants. We can see the much larger and scarier implications of the restructuring of the economy as well as the benefits system under the Tories. Trade unions need to wise up quickly as it is their members who will be hardest hit as UC goes mainstream.
UC is an attack on the organised trade union movement as it is designed to control and sanction millions of workers and claimants. It is designed to facilitate low pay and insecure work and to leave people indebted and fearful. They will then be forced to work on zero-hours contracts for a minimum or below minimum wage for employers who are often the same companies avoiding paying their taxes.
Blair and Brown set up the system of working tax credits to support those in work but in low pay sectors. This was to ensure a sufficient level of income to support them and their families.
Effectively this was a subsidy on low wages and drove incomes and wage levels down. The minimum wage (now misnamed the National Living Wage) is exactly that, although unscrupulous employers always try to find ways to avoid paying even this amount. This is especially true in the gig economy and in sectors such as social care where travel time between appointments in the community is not paid.
Essentially UC is restructuring the labour market and forcing workers to be monitored and controlled by DWP work coaches. Job Centres are now acting as ‘pimps’ for the private sector by forcing people as part of their claimant commitment to work in companies which offer three hour a week contracts and don’t pay the minimum wage. They are also coercing people to become self-employed when they are working exclusively for one company who are determining when they work, for how long and where.
A claimant in Norwich outlines this process.
“After being made redundant I was put onto UC as a job seeker. I applied for over 170 jobs unsuccessfully. Eventually I was offered a job, and although it was a role different to anything I’d done before it was a job ‘I could do’ so I was obliged to take it under pain of sanction. The job was ‘self-employed’ and as such paid below the national minimum wage. My work coach said that this was ‘illegal’ yet still made undertaking it part of my claimant commitment, which I would have to comply with in order to continue to receive UC. “Because the work is so poorly paid, continuing to receive UC is essential in order for me to survive, yet to receive UC I have keep doing the job, bearing in mind it costs me over £100 a month in fares simply to get to it. If the ‘employer’ is acting illegally, as my work coach considered, then is not the DWP abetting a crime by compelling me to do the work? Now I am sure that the ‘employer’ – a large, well known UK firm – has probably checked all the loopholes to make sure that they are not acting illegally by ‘employing’ me as an agent on a self-employed basis even though I have to work at the company premises using the company’s equipment”.
So claimants are forced into self-employment, under threat of sanction, by DWP/UC staff. Self-employed UC claimants are now responsible for their own national insurance and tax and are not able to receive sick or holiday pay while being paid minimum or below minimum wage rates of pay. Workers on low pay and zero-hours, or near zero hours, contracts are being sucked into the UC vortex. Pay is so low in the DWP itself, the department responsible for designing and delivering UC, that the PCS union estimates that around 40% of DWP employees will have to claim UC and therefore potentially be subject to the sanctioning regime. You would then have the bizarre situation of DWP staff sanctioning colleagues in their own organisation.
The rollout of UC has been hit by the crisis in the government and the Tory Party. In October 2018, the then DWP secretary Esther McVey had to get a vote through Parliament to extend the rollout of UC across the country.
This was not going to be won as the surgeries of Tory MPs were full of UC claimants left destitute by the six week (sometimes ten weeks or longer) delay in receiving payments, the dysfunctional loans process and the extra-judicial, pernicious sanctioning processes. So the government pulled the vote but UC is still being rolled out by stealth.
The problem is that claimants are being transferred onto UC through ‘change of circumstances’. This means that people are losing their legacy benefits when their old claims and enhancements are cancelled and the UC claim is treated as a new claim. This leaves claimants thousands of pounds a year worse off.
McVey was forced to admit this could reach £2,400 a year for some people. However, this suits the Treasury as they are saving billions a year while claimants and their children are forced to use food banks. In this crisis they were forced to reduce the wait for money down to five weeks but food bank use continues to rise as the numbers pushed onto UC continues to suck in more new and existing claimants.
Latest DWP secretary Amber Rudd has been robust in defence of UC and is determined to proceed with the managed migration/rollout despite the overwhelming evidence from her own department and government statistics of the harm being caused. In a desperate attempt to detoxify the brand she has shamelessly bought a series of advertorials in the free Metro newspaper at a cost of over £250,000 to the taxpayer, spinning propaganda and lies about the positive effects of UC as journalism.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) have launched a campaign to dump the Metro DWP lies, with activists up and down the country binning thousands of copies every Wednesday when the advertorials appear.
Evidence has emerged of women being forced into prostitution as a result of the five week delay and low levels of payments for single parents. So-called survival sex was revealed by the Guardian and the Work and Pensions select committee is taking evidence on this.
Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty singled out UC as a major contributing factor in his report on the UK. He said that draconian sanctions and long payment delays are driving claimants into hardship, depression and despair; that the benefit was “fast falling into universal discredit”; and compared the Tories’ welfare policies to the creation of the 19th century workhouses. He said that unless austerity is ended the poorest in the UK faced lives that are “solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short”. He accused ministers of being in a state of denial about the impact of policies, including the rollout of UC, since 2010.
His report highlights the shocking rise in the use of food banks, and rough sleeping, falling life expectancy for some, the decimation of legal aid, the denial of benefits to severely disabled people and the impoverishment of single mothers and people in mental distress.
A landmark study published in November 2017 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Open estimated that 120,000 deaths were directly attributable to austerity cuts. The calculation was made that there were 45,000 more deaths in the first four years of austerity 2010-2014. The research calculated that this could rise to 200,000 by the end of 2020 if austerity is not reversed. The researchers from UCL and Cambridge University labelled this as “economic murder”.
UC is also violating women’s rights. According to evidence collected by the Trussell Trust the five week wait can increase the severe financial barriers women face when leaving abusive relationships. Over 50% of survivors said they couldn’t afford to leave as they had restricted access to funds. The single household payment puts women at further risk and vulnerability. Many survivors in women’s refuges face double the wait if they have escaped an abusive relationship without ID and documents needed to make the claim.
Latest figures show half of people receiving UC have had their payments cut by 20% by the government to repay a debt, including advances.
So what now? The Tories are immune to criticism and evidence as seen in their dismissal of the UN report. In my original article I questioned whether UC was May’s Poll Tax. I concluded that it would only be so if Labour and the trade unions mobilised a mass movement to defeat it. This has not happened.
While Corbyn and McDonnell have said a future Labour government would scrap UC, the shadow DWP minister Margaret Greenwood continues to sit on the fence. The TUC has passed a motion to stop and scrap UC, as has the PCS union. However, they have failed to mobilise any extra-parliamentary action, leaving protest at the level of exposing the horrors while failing to hold government to account.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Unite Community are organising actions to stop and scrap UC and we are building a national social movement in the Scrap UC Alliance (www.suca.org. uk), encouraging activists to set up local groups.
The next stage of the battle needs to move beyond moral outrage to effective direct action to stop the deaths and poverty crisis caused by austerity and UC
FORTY YEARS AFTER THATCHER told us that the market and privatisation would make the consumer king and queen, her big lie is exposed for all to see. Instead of being a nation of home owners we are more and more at the mercy of an overpriced and inadequately regulated private rented sector. We see the loss of most social housing and an ever worsening problem of homelessness. Instead of having decently run public services and utilities we face the consequences of the race for profit – ever rising bills, lack of help for those most needing it and a neglected, wasteful infrastructure.
All this was sold on the promise that the market would give the public choice and power. It would put an end to the paternalism, dependency and inefficiency that Thatcher and her heirs told us that state services would always burden us with. Maybe the first founders of the welfare state in their desperate quest to put right the poverty, disease and insecurity of years of market dominance really did think they knew best. But ever since then there has been a determination on the part of the welfare state’s supporters to make it more democratic, accountable and inclusive of diversity.
Now the Labour Party has picked up the baton and published the pamphlet From Paternalism To Participation, highlighting the importance of such a participatory future and offering pioneering examples. This is a really helpful step forward, but it’s one thing to identify prefigurative instances of involvement at a time of continuing austerity and another to reshape policy and politics from the ground up.
There are some assumptions which need questioning. The foremost is that participation is a ‘good thing’. However, if the institution itself is dysfunctional or not fit for purpose then, no matter how good the involvement structures are, they won’t work in the interests of their communities or service users.
This can be seen at its sharpest in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the private companies which profit from the outsourced assessments processes. It can also be seen in local authorities, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), housing associations and parts of the NHS. No amount of participation in Atos, Capita or Maximus is going to make them anything more than the profit driven enterprises they are.
However, we also need to pass a critical eye over charities and public sector bodies and question if they are the best institutions to run services for the populations they currently serve.
Many of these institutions have their roots in 19th and 20th century paternalistic capitalist development and there is a need to replace them with new ones that are fit for the 21st century. If a transformative Labour government is going to be truly radical in the mold of the 1945 one, then, rather than breathing life into outdated organisations which are part of the problem, funding and new investment needs to be diverted into organisations which promote, rather than obstruct, meaningful and genuine community empowerment.
Some of these institutions can be reformed but others will need to be replaced with co-operatives, communityand service user-led organisations which are democratically run, represent the diversity of the populations they serve and are valued by their customers. If consumerist involvement has mainly meant an endless succession of market research and tokenistic consultation exercises branded as “tell us what you think” to disguise another round of “efficiency cuts” and self-help rhetoric, the evidence is now clear that real participation must mean people having a genuine chance to make change individually and collectively. Citizen participation must mean having a real, meaningful, say in shaping professional practice and services as they intervene in our lives, and playing an equal role in shaping politics, policy and provision.
Despite the hostile political environment for such participatory politics over the last decade, much has been achieved and many lessons learned, especially from the new social movements – notably the welfare service user movements like the disabled people’s and survivor movements, which have been making great strides. We now know enough to inform effective goals and a sustainable strategy for building a participatory democracy that alone will kill present right wing populist politics stone dead.
First, participation must include everyone, not just the ‘usual suspects’ – the white educated middle class men who have long dominated policy and political processes. It must move beyond the token, the tame and the pliable who provide decoration for business as usual and obstruct change.
Second, participation must be accessible. It must move on from traditional forms like public meetings and questionnaire completion so that it no longer privileges those with verbal and writing skills. There are innumerable people-friendly approaches that can make sure that often excluded voices like those of young and disabled people, homeless and poor people, are included on equal terms. Participation can be fun as well as effective.
We know how to do it. Do it, we must.
The goal should be co-production, meaning that people who’ve never had a say can feel supported and empowered – with help where needed – to make their equal contributions effectively on their own terms. But to do co-production effectively we must confront the issue of power. The Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie) produced a helpful briefing paper in 2009 which shows how co-production is different from participation:
“Co-production is a potentially transformative way of thinking about power, resources, partnerships, risks and outcomes, not an off-the-shelf model of service provision or a single magic solution.
“To act as partners, both users and providers must be empowered. Co-production means involving citizens in collaborative relationships with more empowered frontline staff who are able and confident to share power and accept user expertise.”
As far back as 1992, the pioneering disability researcher and activist Mike Oliver addressed the power question in relation to research. He wrote that conventional research has tended to be imposed on participants, merely seeking to extract their knowledge and experience.
What’s really needed, he argued, is emancipatory research which is based on equalising the social relations of research so that researcher and researched are treated equally – and so that research empowers people and improves the world they live in, in line with their rights and ideas.
We also now have a large and growing body of evidence which highlights some of the most effective avenues for such participation enabling co-production – if it is to enable meaningful positive change. These include:
» Effective and equal involvement in research and knowledge production, valuing the lived experience, particularly of groups facing discrimination, to identify their priorities, proposals and solutions, instead of continuing to rely on self-identified ‘experts’.
» Structured user and carer involvement is essential in all human service training, learning and practice development. We have learned from social work professional education, where this is centrally funded and a requirement, how much this is valued and how much it can improve the culture, policy and practice of public services.
» There needs to be citizen participation at policy as well as individual service level. Such involvement needs to be built into its management and accountability.
» Ongoing citizen involvement in all processes of audit, outcome measurement and evaluation. Who knows better than service users how well services work and what they need to be doing? Can we honestly imagine that disasters like the scandal at the Mid-Staffs hospital and in private provision for people with learning difficulties would ever have happened if such participatory processes of quality measurement were in place, or whistleblowers had a real say and protection?
» The political shift to the right and the introduction of the market and its procedures over the last 40 years has been associated with increased bureaucratisation, managerialism, bullying and reduced worker rights. Non-hierarchical, democratising structures like co-operatives, based on collaborative and collective working, offer valuable democratising alternatives. They also highlight the importance of empowering service workers as well as service users for truly participatory policy.
» Finally, we need to invest in and develop the network of user led organisations (ULOs) and disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) needed to ensure that some of our most marginalised groups have opportunities for selfempowerment and have equal voice in more participatory arrangements. Many traditional charities have lost their way and largely become an extension of government and market. Organisations controlled by those they are intended to benefit and give voice to must be a priority for support from a future Labour administration, committed to participatory, sustainable and equalising politics and policy.
SCIE Research briefing 31: Co-production: an emerging evidence base for adult social care transformation. By Dr Catherine Needham, Queen Mary University of London and Sarah Carr, Social Care Institute for Excellence. Published March 2009.
Disability, Handicap & Society Volume 7, 1992 – Issue 2 Changing the Social Relations of Research Production? Mike Oliver.
PETER BERESFORD AND MARK HARRISON
Mark Harrison is director of Social Action Solutions, and Senior Research Fellow in Social Action at the University of Suffolk.
Peter Beresford is co-chair of Shaping OurLives, the disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network, and Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex.
When the chair of the UN disability committee described what has happened to disabled people in the UK as a “human catastrophe” the world was shocked. Unfortunately our Government, who are responsible for creating this situation, characteristically denied everything and went on the attack saying they are world leaders in disability. So what has led us to this situation?
The roots of the problem lie in the last New Labour administration. When elected in 1998 the Blair Government established a disability unit at the heart of Government to address the institutional barriers that prevented disabled people leading equal lives with their non-disabled peers. This was a positive and progressive move to put disability policy high up the political agenda. In 2005 the government strategy; Improving the Life Chances for Disabled People was launched with a clear implementation plan. However by the time the UN had developed the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (CRPD) with and by disabled people in 2006 the New Labour administration had veered to the right and adopted the US neo-liberal model of welfare to work programmes. Blair, Brown and co, schooled in and admirers of Chicago school economics privatised welfare to work assessments and programmes. In their last term in power they phased out Incapacity Benefit, replacing it with Employment Support Allowance (ESA). The assessments were outsourced to foreign owned, private companies, Atos and now Maximus. Work capability assessments (WCA) became the gateway to out of work sickness/disability benefits. WCA has proved totally unfit for purpose. Under the Coalition and subsequent Tory administrations the situation for disabled people has gone from bad to worse.
The situation got a whole lot worse when the Coalition Government was formed in 2010 and unleashed an austerity programme which targeted disabled people for the harshest of treatment. Despite signing and ratifying the CRPD in 2009 the Government set its course to dismantle the rights based approach based on the social model of disability as set out in the CRPD. Instead of adopting an approach to progressively implement improvements by dismantling the barriers which exclude they set a course to undermine and dismantle rights won over the previous four decades. Many of the cuts affected disabled people disproportionately to the rest of the population. These included the Bedroom Tax, scrapping Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and replacing it with Personal Independence Payments (PIP), cuts to adult social care and children’s services, closing the Independent Living Fund (ILF), cuts to mental health services, benefit sanctions, cuts to ESA, targets for private providers to restrict/fail PIP and WCA claimants.
Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) opposed these cuts and changes and called on the Government to carry out a cumulative impact assessment under the Equality Act. This they refused to do and proceeded on their course.
The wider political agenda of successive Government’s from 1979 onwards was to accelerate the redistribution of wealth from the bottom upwards by undermining, privatising and ultimately destroying large parts of the welfare state. To justify their targeting of disabled people the Tory led Coalition Government unleashed a pernicious propaganda campaign through the popular media. To achieve their ‘Poor Law’ goals they had to recast the public’s view of disabled people from the deserving to the undeserving poor. In the wake of the Paralympics where disability and disabled people were cast in a positive light with huge public support, they had to change public perception. What was unleashed was a torrent of stories of disabled people as benefit scroungers. The political discourse was that we had become a drain on society, a luxury in austere times we could no longer afford. Government’s own figures show that disability benefits have the lowest levels of fraud but if you read the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Express or The Telegraph you would perceive the opposite.
In a chilling warning to the UK Government to change course the Chair of the UN Disability Committee Theresia Degener said disabled people could be at risk of violence and even “killings and euthanasia”, because of their portrayal by the UK Government and media as “parasites” who live on benefits.
It felt like disabled people were being treated in the same way as the miners were by the Thatcher Government in the 19984/85 miners’ strike. It felt like we had become the ‘enemy within’ and the accompanying rise in hate crime against us showed how successful their propaganda campaign was. The Tories and their Lib Dem lackeys couldn’t have got away with the unrelenting attacks on our rights without this negative briefing of the right wing media.
What they didn’t expect was the resistance from a disability community who won their rights through struggle and direct action. Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) was formed in 2010 to oppose austerity and embarked on a campaign of direct action, legal actions and protest. One of the key actions taken by DPAC was to report the UK Government to the UN using the Optional Protocol of the CRPD. Having exhausted all options domestically to get the Coalition to change course DPAC presented powerful evidence to the UN of human rights abuses, disproportionate treatment and rising deaths and suicides as a direct result of austerity policies. The UN took this evidence seriously and launched an inquiry. This was a very thorough process which concluded that:
“…there is reliable evidence that the threshold of grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities has been met in the State party.”
The UK Government is the only Government in the world to be subject to an inquiry under the CRPD. Characteristically the Tories dismissed the UN findings.
This year the UK Government has undergone an examination of its progress in implementing the Convention. An alliance of DPOs from across the UK produced a civil society Shadow Report which again evidenced widespread violations of our human rights. The alliance told the UN committee that a range of government policies – many arising from the austerity agenda – place it in breach of the convention. These shortcomings are aggravated by the failure of other public sector bodies such as local authorities and NHS organisations to deliver the support and safeguards set out in the convention.
Among the issues highlighted in the UK DPOs’ submission were:
Again the UN found widespread breaches of the Convention. The disability committee told the UK government to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.
In its “concluding observations” on the progress the UK has made the committee raised concerns and made recommendations on all but three of the 33 treaty articles it has breached. This is the highest number of recommendations it has ever produced for a country undergoing the review process.
So where do we go from here? Disabled people need a complete change of approach from Government. Nobody involved in the disability rights movement is under any illusions that things will improve whilst we have a Tory Government. Indeed they have signalled their intent to carry on regardless by appointing the hated Esther McVey (previously Minister AGAINST Disabled People) as Minister for Work and Pensions.
Disability activists have the utmost respect for Jeremy Corbyn and, in particular, John McDonnell who has supported every DPAC direct action over the last 8 years. The disability roadshow led by Debbie Abrahams and production of the disability manifesto during last year’s election campaign was a step forward. We welcome the commitment made by McDonnell at the recent National Disabled People’s Summit that disabled people would “go into government just as much as we do when that election comes”.
He said: “You can also rest assured that when we go into government, whenever this government falls, it will be you that will be determining our policies, it will be you that will be involved in implementing them, because we believe that principle for disabled people of ‘nothing about us without us’.”
McDonnell made a similar pledge in 2016, when he promised that organisations like Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) would be “at the heart of government, sitting alongside ministers and others, advising them on how to implement… policies”.
Bring it on! Let’s not wait until the election, we need this work to start now! This is the only way forward to stop this human catastrophe from escalating further and spiralling out of control.
Mark Harrison and Julie Kemmy, both of whom work for Equal Lives, a user-led disabled people’s organisation (DPO) supporting people who face disabling barriers in Norfolk and Suffolk, explain the crisis facing Universal Credit
Universal Credit (UC) is potentially May’s Poll Tax. It could be her Thatcher moment. This pernicious assault on the rights of UK citizens to welfare benefits has, during its pilot phases, caused huge poverty, rent arrears and hunger for claimants, their children and families. The people affected have to rely on food banks and go into debt just to survive while waiting for their rightful benefit. This affects poor and disabled people who are being deliberately made vulnerable by this ideologically driven assault.
The groundswell of opposition is growing rapidly in the country at large and within Parliament. The cross-party DWP select committee has called for a halt to the roll out. The introduction of UC in North Kensington has been postponed. The potential for conflict, not seen since the Poll Tax and inner city uprisings, in the Grenfell area has caused a political retreat. However at Tory Party conference the DWP Minister David Gauke confirmed that UC will continue to be rolled out without any pause or reform.
Where does it come from? In 2003, Iain Duncan Smith said: “I want to be the party for the poor.” He spoke at a 2005 Labour Party conference fringe meeting, saying Labour’s definition of poverty was too limited: it is “not just about a lack of basics but a lack of sufficient resources to participate in the life of the community”. After losing the party leadership he founded the Centre for Social Justice, which published reports on poverty and welfare reform. However when he became Work and Pensions Secretary in 2010 he reverted to Tory type. He announced the plan for UC at the Conservative conference in the same year.
The philosophy that drives UC is to make work pay (to allow people to keep a bit more money if they do some work), and to make the benefits system mirror the world of work for most people – so you get one monthly payment, from which everything, including rent, has to be paid. That way you can easily move into work; you have already learned how to manage your money. Every time someone has a change in income, UC can adjust the payments made within the next month – unlike the yearly assessments made with tax credits. It has been designed to be claimed and managed online, with all communication with a work coach taking place through an online journal and ‘to do’ list, which requires use of a PIN number. The insistence on using a digital process is difficult in rural areas, and if you can’t afford phone credit, have no broadband or access to a computer, and have no money to travel anywhere. For disabled people who can’t learn how to use a computer or remember a PIN number, the process is even more of a barrier.
The design looks good on paper for roughly 50-60% of claimants who can learn (with help) to budget their money, and will try to take on some work. IDS’s grand idea was that people would keep 65% of all extra money they earned (65p in every pound), and the government would take 35% of it. This would have been a serious incentive for anyone on benefits to work, and would have lifted many people out of what was known as the ‘benefits trap’, where it was hard to leave the benefits system as it could leave you worse off. Osborne insisted that these sums should be turned on their head, so the actual rule ended up that people only kept an extra 35p in every pound they earned, and the government took 65p. Last year they made a big fuss about increasing this, so that people now get to keep 37p, and the government only takes 63p. So yes, it does make work pay, but not by very much.
It’s not so good for the 30-40% of people who cannot manage the demands of the process, and can’t manage to budget their income over a monthly period. At the moment they don’t always cope with fortnightly payments, but at least their rent is taken care of because it is paid direct to the landlord. UC replaces five means-tested benefits/tax credits for working age claimants, which was supposed to lead to a simpler system of benefit rules. But people’s lives are very complex – and they don’t always fit easily within so-called simple rules.
By far the biggest general complaints about UC are:
Some of the loudest cries about delays have been from local authorities, housing associations and private landlords, who are finding that rent isn’t paid on time. Some housing associations have been issuing automatic notices to their tenants, telling them that if they become a UC claimant they must have two months’ credit on their rent account or they will face eviction proceedings. The delays have also caused a big increase in claimant debt – some of which involve payday loans at extortionate rates of interest. More recently, food banks in rollout areas have reported struggling to meet demand since UC was introduced.
The all-party Work & Pensions Select Committee (W&PC) has been hearing evidence about all of the problems caused by UC since April 2017. It is now considering whether the rollout of UC should be halted because of the problems caused by delays in people getting their benefit payments, and the likelihood that this will be made worse if the DWP continues with the planned accelerated national rollout from October 2017.
On 15th September the DWP released UC statistics showing that 77% of people are getting their payments on time (i.e. after a wait of 6 weeks). Frank Field, Chair of the W&PC, said “77% on time may look good on an exam paper or from an office on Whitehall but even those payments mean a wait of six weeks for money for food and housing, and nearly one in four households are waiting even longer. Everything I have seen so far …. points to fundamental flaws in the operation of UC which must be resolved before the full service rollout proceeds. As things stand, the government is on a Christmas collision course which will leave families destitute.”
At the Conservative Party Conference David Gauke said the UC rollout will continue as planned. He said “people needed to be more aware that they could claim emergency advance payments instead of waiting for six weeks….almost half of all new claimants were now asking for payments in advance because they were unable to wait six weeks, up from just under 40% in April.”
There may have been an increase in uptake of advance payments (which are a loan against future benefit income), but they are the equivalent of 50% of what you expect to get in the future and have to be paid back over a six month period. If you have no money, and you are given only 50% of what the government says you need to survive for the month (which includes your rent), many people are forced into a situation of not paying their rent so that they can feed their family. It can cause serious problems with rent arrears and threats of homelessness. Repayment rates are considerable, causing extended periods of hardship.
Disabled people face additional problems:
In response to a torrent of complaints from advice services over the last few years, the DWP have tweaked around the edges, appointing people in Jobcentres to help vulnerable customers, but they expect the Third Sector to fulfil all the other support needs of claimants at a time of cuts in funding which have decimated services. Landlords have been told to make adjustments to allow for the delay in first rent payments. Some local authorities are being creative: Norwich City Council is looking to see whether it can set up rent agreements that specify the date that a Direct Debt has to be made for UC, and will only classify someone as being in arrears if the DD bounces – the only way to start someone off on UC without automatic arrears on their rent account when they transfer from Housing Benefit to UC.
The local test areas of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft have experienced substantial difficulties – one local organisation has reported a 70% increase of referrals being made to help avoid evictions. Frontline staff in the Jobcentre are expected to learn on the job and don’t know answers to simple questions. They are treating extremely vulnerable people as guinea-pigs. A final nail in the coffin for anyone who misses an appointment or doesn’t do every task that their work coach has set them, is that they will be sanctioned – and potentially lose a large chunk of their money anyway.
So how can this be defeated? The government is weak. The labour and trade union movement needs to mobilise and make this May’s Poll Tax. UC can be defeated if a grassroots social movement can be created in opposition to this attack on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. The fact that the government has had to cancel implementation in the Grenfell area shows its weakness. The opportunity to defeat this is now, in the run up to Christmas, when thousands of families are going to be left without food and money.
It has to become a key part of Labour’s campaign to elect a Corbyn-led government for the many not the few. However, the people affected cannot wait another four years. A national campaign rolled out locally, mobilising the 600,000 party members, both old and new, can sweep away UC and this weak and wounded government in the process.
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Anger as a disabled assessment centre has no wheelchair access
He did this 4 months after his Department had committed to closing the inaccessible disability assessment centre in Norwich and re-locating to suitable premises. That centre is still open, still inaccessible and is still turning away disabled people 8 months after the decision to close it was made.
The Department for Work and Pensions publicity states:
The Accessible Britain Challenge encourages communities to be inclusive and accessible. That means working with disabled people to remove the barriers that stop them participating fully in their community.
Far from working with disabled people Mr Harper has ignored us and refused to enter into a dialogue or even answer our letters.
What makes it more perverse is that a new provider Maximus, an American outsourcing firm takes over the multi million pound Work Capability Assessment (WCA) contract from Atos next Monday and will continue to operate from St Mary’s House, 3 years after the DWP was made aware of the access issues.
Disabled campaigners and our supporters will be demonstrating between 12.30 – 1.30pm on Monday 2nd March outside St Mary’s House against this injustice.
Mark Harrison, CEO of Equal Lives said “This shows that the Accessible Britain Challenge is just a publicity stunt. We have been campaigning for 3 years outside St Mary’s House. They are even presenting awards in conjunction with the British Institute for Facilities Management and one of the categories is ‘innovative use of buildings, spaces and places’. The winners are to be announced on 15 March. I am sure the irony of this is not lost on the thousands of disabled people who have been forced to travel hundreds of miles for their assessments because the DWP won’t lease a suitable premises.”
“It also demonstrates the contempt this Government has for disabled people. How can you appoint a new provider for the hated assessments and force them to use an inaccessible building which the DWP leases through another private sector provider Telereal Trillium? This clearly demonstrated that we are not all in this together. There is one rule for disabled people and another for the private sector, bankers and Ministers who see themselves as being unaccountable and above the law”.