This Thursday, 27 February, MPs will debate a Commons motion requiring an independent cumulative assessment of the impact of changes in the welfare system on sick and disabled people, their families and carers, and an immediate end to the Work Capability Assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association.  It is the result of an e-petition signed by 104,000 people, supported and driven by War on Welfare (WOW), who with many others have carried the fight against  a bipartisan political assault on people with long-term conditions and severe disabilities which has been building up for nearly twenty years. Read a briefing for the debate here.

If you can, watch the debate (from around 11.15a.m.) through the link here. Those on twitter will be using the hash-tag  #WowDebate2014.

Afterwards, you can read the Hansard report here ; and use it politically. Parliament has an honourable history as a safety valve to express the real despair, and empathy, of many, mainly Labour MPs, in response to welfare reform: Labour made it the subject of an Opposition Day debate last July. But as a vehicle of democratic oversight of welfare reform, parliament’s record has been grim and toothless.

This month, with the revolt of the clerics over welfare reform, there has been a marked shift, with a new and immediate moral challenge concerning hunger and food banks which exposes an urgent need for politicians to start thinking through to a way forward, acknowledging a painful and shaming history. As I write, a leaked DWP memo has been published which puts a stop to all repeat medical assessments, which up to now have been a means of harrassing those who have won their reviews or appeals against their Work Capability Assessment. It’s like someone is opening windows.

Few now remember that this began under the John Major government. All those years ago, as Incapacity Benefit itself was rolled out, between April 1995 and October 1996 60% of disallowances were appealed; more than half were reinstated.   Familiar?  In my 1998 profile of poverty and health in Manchester, the Patient Affairs Officer at Manchester Royal Infirmary describes the system as having become ‘in many ways very punitive’. In 1999, Tony Blair opined that Incapacity Benefit is ‘not a benefit which compensates those who have had to give up work because of long-term illness or sickness – it’s an alternative to long-term unemployment or early retirement. That’s why it must be reformed’.   His aides will have drawn on Sheffield Hallam’s ‘Incapacity Benefit and Unemployment ‘ (1999), now mysteriously hard to come by, which identified  a ‘million hidden unemployed’ supposedly wasting away on incapacity benefit by assuming that the ‘real’ level of claims should be that of the region with the lowest level, i.e. the south-east – ignoring the minor detail of geographical health inequality; and finding that for three-quarters of people receiving incapacity benefit  ‘the issue is about what type of work or how much of it they are able to do’, when a more balanced interpretation of the same data would have been that overall, 76% were either unable to do any work or their health limited what they could do ‘a lot’, with another 18% saying their health limits what they can do ‘quite a lot’. That’s the history on which this era is built.

Fast forward to the ‘mature’ Labour government. In late 2006, David Freud, an investment banker and dealbroker,  was appointed by Tony Blair to provide an  independent review of ‘welfare’.   Freud acknowledged that he “didn’t know anything about welfare at all”.  After three weeks he concluded: ‘Based on the analysis in this report, I have no doubt that this will be an annual multi-billion pound market”.

Fast forward again to 2014, and we find 22,840 sanctions imposed on claimants of ESA in the work-related activity group in a year – but the Welfare Reform Act 2007 says that you get ESA if it is not reasonable to require you to work – and ‘work-related activity’ is not defined separately from work – so how come the sanctions? It’s easy if there’s no democratic scrutiny because too many of your representatives’ minds have been ‘bipartisan’.

Now the reality has been forced into conformity with the flawed methodology (A million found fit for work) – hotly pursued by the number wrongly found fit for work – and some people are shocked by the consequences, if they believe them. And Labour are right to be frightened, but this won’t go away. It’s a war against precisely the people on whom 70% of NHS resources are spent (pp8-15 of link).

There is no space here to elaborate on the human cost of welfare reform – many MPs have spoken eloquently from the evidence of their constituents – or on the fallacies that have been allowed to fester in the public mind. But a debate that is an opportunity for more hand-wringing is not good enough. Labour needs to get its head round the seriousness of the moral and political sinkhole we find ourselves in.  Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has spoken about ‘the  deep–rooted aspiration to “earn and belong” that Jon Cruddas has put at the heart of our policy review’. Can we imagine for a moment how that phrase will go down with someone who is too ill or disabled to work? As Cardinal Nichols says, the ‘basic safety net’ has gone. Jon Cruddas recently said, ‘After an historical struggle we built our welfare state’. Well, now we’ve got to rebuild it.

This was first published by Compass,

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  1. Mervyn Hyde says:

    “Ed Balls understands the message.
    Ed has made clear that we will govern with less money.
    In 2015-16 there will be no more borrowing for day-to-day spending.
    And we will have to make cuts too.
    There is a zero based review on all parts of public spending.”

    This is language of deception, after the world has seen the most widespread collapse in the financial sector that has ever gone before, never seen in my lifetime before, we are faced with the same politicians making the same banal platitudes as before.

    These politicians tell us they are going to empower us, then in the next breath take that power away by denying us the resources and finance to achieve it.

    This is the language of “SPIN,” the Tories are past masters of spin but since the days of Blair, Neo-Liberal New Labour think that like the Tories it doesn’t matter what you say so long as you all stay on message. Repeat the lie long enough and people will believe you.

    This is where New Labour has taken us:

    The simple truth is in financial terms, if you balance the budget you get no growth. In a depression like we are in now, we need growth or we remain in depression.

    We were told in 2008 that the world banking system had crashed. That of course was true because the Banks were refusing to lend to one another. Only when Gordon Brown the architect of the British Banking failure (deregulation), convinced world governments to print money to prop up the Banking institutions did the Banking and financial sector start to recover.

    So we ask ourselves, where did the money come from to fund the Banking system? Well, where it always comes from out of thin air!

    So if we can produce money out of thin air to prop up the corrupt Banking System (Bonuses????) why can’t government fund much needed public services?

    Because the Banks rely on debt to make their money, if the governments refuse to borrow their money and print their own, then the obvious conclusion is there is no need for Banks.

    We are in fact all working to keep the Banking system afloat, which is why we need to nationalise the Banking system and fund the economy directly.

    We need to democratise finance, the Banking system is literally strangling the life out of the economy.

    The deficit lie is a lie.

    Mike Norman is the chief economist at John Thomas Financial and has 30 years experience on Wall Street, He explains in this TV interview what I have referred to above. He spells out in clear terms that we are being lied to or politicians are simply ignorant, lots are but Like Blair some are just playing the game.

    Mike Norman:

    Money is a means of exchange, you can’t eat Gold which was why money is used in it’s place. Money is a unit of value so long as people understand the meaning of that value, they don’t need Banks that distort that value to dictate what their standard of living should be.

    Banks exist to create debt, that’s how they make their money, we need to create jobs, that can be done by the government just as it did after the war, only since Neo-Liberalism has dictated modern economics have seen poverty on a scale not seen since the 1920s.

    We can afford our health service and welfare state, all we need are the politicians with the will to do it.

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