Guest Blog: Soundbites, Spin and Spartacus.

The problem with the truth is that it’s complicated. Lies are simple, they can be altered to fit any audience, they can be sensational without any boring honest bits to dilute the story. Honesty doesn’t make headlines. That’s the problem with the Welfare Reform Bill; not the only problem, obviously, but the reason that there won’t be a huge public outcry until its too late.

 

For over a year now disability campaigners have been opposing the Welfare Reform Bill, countering the tabloids’ lies and the Government’s spin with detailed research and clear logic. Most of the proposals sound great in principle but if you take a closer look and work out the implications a completely different story unfolds.

 

Take Disability Living Allowance, the non means tested benefit paid to disabled and ill people to help with the additional cost of daily living and getting around. The proposal is to scrap DLA and replace it with Personal Independence Payment (PIP) cutting the caseload by around 20%. As the present fraud rate is 0.5% it’s clear that many genuine claimants will no longer qualify. DLA has been very successful in enabling disabled people to live independently and in many cases to stay in employment but the government believes it is ‘outdated’. The DWP says ‘most people receive DLA for life after just filling in a form’. That’s a great soundbite. The truth is that many people with permanent disabilities or degenerative conditions can receive a lifetime award after filling out a very detailed and intrusive 50 page document AND submitting evidence from their GP, hospital consultant etc. That’s not so good a soundbite.

 

The DWP states that everyone will undergo a face to face medical assessment on a regular basis. This sounds very reasonable at first glance and another great soundbite. The problem is that the medical assessment will be modeled on the Work Capability Assessment used for determining qualification for Employment Support Allowance. These assessments are universally accepted as flawed and have generated an unmanageable caseload for the Appeals Tribunal Service which overturns 40% of decisions at huge cost to the taxpayer. Continually reassessing claimants sounds good but as a large percentage of claimants have permanent disabilities, checking to see if amputated limbs have re-grown or if MS has gone away is a waste of everyone’s time and money.

 

Frustrated by being told by the DWP that disabled people were in favour of the planned changes to DLA, a group of disabled activists researched, funded and published a report called ‘Responsible Reform’. The document, known as the Spartacus Report because a huge number of individuals were involved, explains how the Government ran a flawed consultation process and then published misleading statements about the level of approval for the proposed changes. The Spartacus report is supported by almost all of the major charities representing ill and disabled people, healthcare professionals, carers and pretty much everyone else who reads it. Sadly, a factual document will never catch the eye like a dramatic soundbite.

 

The Spartacus report did help to influence the House of Lords. After receiving unprecedented numbers of letters and emails from disabled people, concerned individuals and organisations, many Lords considered our views and debated the Welfare Reform Bill thoroughly, making several amendments. Although the amendments don’t make the bill perfect, or even good, they do mitigate some of the most damaging aspects.

 

Last Wednesday the House of Commons debated the amendments proposed by the House of Lords. I followed the debate on Twitter as I usually do, holding ‘virtual’ hands with the other Spartacus supporters; we watched in horror and despair as one by one each hard won amendment was overturned after cursory and mostly ill informed debate (one MP even claimed that disability benefits had become a lifestyle choice). The Commons then invoked parliamentary ‘Financial Privilege’ to shut down further debate.

 

As I watched the distraught reactions of my friends, I noticed several people celebrating the result of the votes, I normally ignore such people but I was angry and upset so I challenged some of them. It was a chilling reminder of the power of spin and the soundbite over truth and reason.

 

Every one of them was celebrating the benefit cap, for them it was all the Welfare Reform Bill consisted of, they were pleased that ‘work-shy scroungers’ would no longer be allowed to get more in benefits than they earned by working. I can understand this, it’s what the government and most of the media have concentrated on to whip up public support and distract attention for the other elements of the bill.

When I explained what the Commons had actually voted on they were surprised, when I told them about the disabled children getting less money, the cancer patients being forced to look for work, the people who have paid NI all their lives only being able to claim benefit for one year whether they’re well enough to work or not, the disabled children who will never enjoy financial independence as adults and the people being forced to leave their homes because they have a spare room, they were shocked.

 

The people I spoke to believed that everyone who could work should work, that working was better than idleness and should be encouraged. They were appalled when I told them about Universal Credit and ‘in work conditionality’. They didn’t realise that people who didn’t earn enough not to need Tax Credits or Housing Benefit would be expected to earn more or face financial sanctions; suddenly the Welfare Reform Bill didn’t seem so worthy of celebration. This is typical of the response of most ordinary people when I explain what welfare reform will actually mean to them.

 

This bill is an eye-wateringly huge piece of legislation, its scope is vast. Everyone of working age who claims any type of ‘in work’ or ‘out of work’ benefit will be affected, many of the people affected don’t even know yet. It’s not just a benefit cap and its not just about disabled kids and cancer patients, it’s about nearly all of us, either now or in the future. No amount of soundbite or spin will change the fact that many of us will be affected badly.

 

Disabled people are not fighting this bill because we are ‘work-shy scroungers’, we’re fighting it because it is an ill conceived and damaging piece of legislation and the rhetoric which surrounds it is dangerous. ‘Disabled person’ is now synonymous with scrounger and disability hate crime is increasing. If welfare reform did what it promised to do we would support it wholeheartedly; we would love a system that was simple to understand, supported us into work (where appropriate) and deterred benefit cheats. This bill will not do that, it will leave all but the most severely disabled with less support, it will break up families and force many disabled people and carers to give up work and claim more benefits, nor will not deter benefit cheats, where there is money there will be cheats - just look at the tax system.

 

I’m proud that we fought an honest campaign, we looked at the facts and we told the truth. We wrote articles and gave interviews, we protested on the streets, we wrote to MPs and Peers of the Realm, we signed petitions and we published a ground breaking report. We gave our time and our health. People who were already struggling with illness and disability gave all they could, the effort of campaigning put some of our friends in hospital. The government had all the resources and all of the power, they fought a campaign Machiavelli would have been proud of. All we had was our fear, our anger and each other. This was not a battle we wanted to fight, but we had no choice because these decisions affect our lives.

 

The Welfare Reform Bill has been described as a ‘slow motion car crash’. Those of us who have been watching the process closely for months can relate to this idea. Just like a car crash, when you feel the impact it’s too late to shout STOP.

 

 

by @nessthehat for HullRePublic

 

 

We’d like to thank Ness for her take on the Welfare Reform Bill debate; we appreciate your hard work and your excellent contribution.

 

 

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