Labour must take time to listen and learn on welfare reform

Diary of a Benefit Scrounger

By Sue Marsh

I have been a member of the Labour Party since I was 18. I have worked for Labour for as long as I can remember. Cold, rainy days delivering leaflets, weeks lobbying at conference, letters to the paper, blogging on the internet, writing to my MP, signing petitions, phoning members, urging people to join, endless, boring CLP meetings, speech writing – I must have donated literally thousands of hours, unpaid, to Labour.

Why? Because I believe utterly that “By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone…in a society in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.” Because the party that Keir Hardy imagined spoke for those who didn’t have that luxury and empowered them to stand together against oppression or injustice. Because, growing up, it was endlessly clear that a Conservative government didn’t speak for the weak and vulnerable and never would.

Over 13 years of a Labour government, I watched various groups become disillusioned and stop voting for us. On the doorstep, I heard a litany of complaints from lifelong Labour voters and over time, I began to dread knocking on the doors of my natural allies more than those of Conservatives or “Don’t Knows.” PFIs, Academy schools, Iraq, Tuition fees, 10p tax, Immigration – one by one, Labour seemed to turn it’s back on the people it had always sought to protect. We all make mistakes, especially over 13 years, but the ones that damaged my party most were the ones where the leadership showed they actually had no real concept of what it means, in their hearts, to be Labour. Time and time again, I met puzzled faces and heard “How can they not see? How can they be Labour politicians and not automatically know what’s wrong with this?”

For years, I found arguments in favour of what was, occasionally, indefensible – but what should really terrify Douglas Alexander this morning is that I was a Blairite. I agreed with many of the changes, felt they made Labour a more viable party of government, and in some cases, were long, long overdue. What mattered to me was that underpinning any policies, there must be a true understanding of people’s lives and a genuine desire to help them, not abandon them.

When Labour bought in Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), it was clearly not fit for purpose. You were either “Disabled” or “Fit for Work”, there was no provision for those who were long term sick. The Work Capability Group was actually a good idea in theory, but the so-called “support” disabled and sick people could expect just wasn’t there. The jobs just weren’t available and co-operation with employers just wasn’t sought. The assessments were conducted by a private company, paid on how many people they found fit to work! Yes, under a Labour government, a private company, using assessors who weren’t even doctors, was tasked with deciding who were and weren’t sick enough to work and incentivised to get sick people working. I lobbied the disability minister, Jonathan Shaw, endlessly, but he never even bothered to reply.

Recent figures from the DWP, show that just 6% of those being assessed for ESA are put into the Support Group. 39% have been found capable of work and have been turned down completely. 36% of claims have been closed and no-one knows what has happened to them – not even the DWP. Just 15% are put into the Work Capability Group, in theory, entitled to support and training to help them into work. (3% of claims are ongoing). Recently, the public accounts committee published a report which found that using private sector companies in the Pathways to Work Scheme (the scheme entrusted with getting sick and disabled people back to work) had “Universally failed.”

* “Under the programme, launched in 2005, private sector companies were brought in to target those on incapacity benefit to see if they were fit for work – and to find them a job.

* MPs found the private providers had “seriously underperformed” and had lower success rates than JobCentre Plus.

* There is no evidence that any of the 125,000 people who came off incapacity benefits in the same period did so as a result of the programme, the report says.”

I ask anyone reading this to tell me, hand on heart, that they believe that of the 2.6 million people claiming Incapacity Benefit, only 6% of claimants are unable to work. I published some figures a while ago about how many people actually suffer from chronic illnesses or disabilities in the UK. It is far from a comprehensive list, but might give you some idea of why all claimants aren’t “scroungers” or “lazy”:

“Around 3.7 million people have lung disease, 2.6 million people have diabetes, 180,000 people suffer from bowel disease, 5.4 million people suffer from asthma, 2.6 million live with heart disease, around 300,000 people a year are diagnosed with cancer, 1,800 babies a year are born with cerebral palsy, 640,000 people live with schizophrenia, 820,000 live with Alzheimers or dementia, 19,000 receive dialysis for kidney failure, 23,000 are deaf blind, around 40,000 people have suffered a spinal injury and 8,500 people suffer from cystic fibrosis, 200,000 suffer from ME and 100,000 from MS. Whilst only scratching the surface, we’re heading towards 18 million already, yet only 2.4 million people claim ESA. That’s at least 15 million people living with a severe illness or disability not claiming anything at all. **

ESA is not fit for purpose. There is nothing else to say. Labour – you made a mistake. The intention may have been good, but it failed. Douglas Alexander said this week:

“We will take time to listen and learn from our defeat. And apply our thinking afresh to the challenges of the future…election defeat is an instruction to face up to weaknesses as well as strengths. Five months or so after an election defeat and five years or so before the next election is not yet the time to write a manifesto. Labour must start by going back to more fundamental questions. What do we stand for? What sort of country do we want Britain to be?”

Indeed Douglas, fine words. Sadly, you also said that you already agreed with:

“Pathways to Work, using the private and voluntary sector to provide back to work support, with payment by results…and proposals such as; reforming the DLA gateway, continuing the IB to ESA transition and continuing to drive down fraud (and)…. a role for private and voluntary providers. Funding based on outcomes not processes…..Virtually everyone on benefits should be on an active journey towards work.”

Which makes it fairly clear that you’ve made your mind up.

I think the phrase that made me most furious was:

“But let me give you an example of where the government have got it flat wrong. Their proposal for a 10% cut in housing benefit for people unable to find work for 12 months is both unfair and the wrong approach. If someone is trying their very best to find work – going to interviews, sending off applications, turning up at the Jobcentre – then taking 10% of the money they need to pay the rent is just unfair.”

Indeed it is Douglas, but during the CSR, Mr Osborne announced that anyone put into the Work Capability Group of ESA, who has not found work after one year would lose 100% of their benefits if they had a working partner. Do, please, explain to me, how “If someone is trying their very best to find work – going to interviews, sending off applications, turning up at the Jobcentre” taking 100% of their benefits is not unfair?? Or was this just a little oversight in your speech? At a time when anywhere between 490,000 and 1.6 million jobs are estimated to be lost, could you explain just why an employer might choose me over a healthy applicant?

If you’re in any doubt why it is unfair that those who already support and care for sick and disabled partners should be totally responsible for their financial support, no matter how little they earn, perhaps you should read “Dave’s Story“.

Carer Watch have concluded that:

“The covenant on welfare seems to have been broken. They (ESA claimants) have been caught up as collateral damage in this push back to work and they feel very afraid. They had never expected that the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem Parties would all abandon them like this. No party is demonstrating any understanding of their situation or offering them any reassurance or protection. They cannot believe that all three main parties continue to sign up to the delusion that they can be forced back to work by pressure and removal of benefits. Unrealistic and cavalier talk of ‘helping’ them in to work is ill informed and adds to their fears that politicians do not understand the reality of caring, illness and disability.”

Comment after comment on my blog tells me that none of the main political parties care about this issue.

And “Puff!” there go another 2.6 million voters, Mr Alexander, and maybe a few more activists like me. Because if there is anyone in society you should be protecting, anyone Labour should instinctively know they should protect, anyone that needs you and our party desperately today, it is these sick and disabled and frightened people.

Admit you got it wrong on ESA. Take the hit. Come up with solutions and most of all, do what you claim you will do and listen. Now, before it is too late – or give up the name Labour and all it stands for.

In the end, you see, there will be no-one left. No-one who believes you are any different to the Conservatives. No-one who doesn’t expect you to let them down on every promise, just as the Lib Dems have. I heard it every day of the campaign. “they’re all the same, they’re all the same, they’re all the same.” The words should ring in your ears, you should not need suggestions for government when people up and down the country are suffering and frightened.

By all means support the “Squeezed Middle” but if, in the process, you decide the rest are all “Feckless Poor” then admit you are, in fact, Tories. Make the same dazzling conversion on the Road to Damascus that has overcome Mr Clegg and leave Labour to her true supporters.

And to Ed Miliband I say – you are not Labour. I am Labour and so are the millions of people who came out to vote for and canvass on behalf of our party on May 6th. You represent us, you do not decide to mould us in your image. You decide on policy with us in mind, not with one eye on the Daily Mail, and one eye on the opinion polls. Do what is right and the votes will follow. Most of all, reshape my party, our party so that I don’t hear that endless refrain on the doorsteps next time: “They’re all the same.”

I, and other bloggers, politicians, journalists and charities will make this an issue. We will campaign with every ounce of strength until this terrible, terrible removal of ALL benefits from the most vulnerable people in society is reversed and ESA is overhauled. It would be a dreadful state of affairs if Labour are not there, campaigning with us, side by side, if they choose this issue to prove once and for all, that they really are “all the same.”

**All figures taken from relevant charity research.

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