Time for Labour to stand up for the hardest hit

by Julianne Marriott

10,000 people are marching past Parliament now. If you were here, though, it would not be the march’s size that would catch your attention. Nor the distance; it will only really be a few hundred metres. Yet for many of those marching today, that short journey is more like a marathon.

And this march looks different too. It is slow. It includes lots of wheelchair users, people walking with sticks and others with guide dogs. Many are living with constant pain, on gruelling medication regimes, distressed by being in a crowd.

Scores of the walkers have fluctuating conditions, including cancer, dementia, arthritis and MS. Which means that many marchers can only be here because they are “having a good day”. Lots of people have a carer with them and wouldn’t have been able to come alone. They may have had to pay their carer, or they may be a family member, who’s had to take a day off work.

These 10,000 people are the hardest hit. Their incomes, independence and integrity are being systematically undermined. And today, a year to the day since that seven page initial agreement was signed, they have made a difficult and exhausting journey to Westminster to tell their story.

After the march, over a thousand people will queue for two hours to make their way into Westminster Hall. They hope that their MP will give them 15 minutes. And in that quarter of an hour they need to paint a picture of their lives now, and what effect of the welfare bill will have on them.

Disabled people are twice as likely to be living in poverty as non-disabled people. As well as having lower incomes, being disabled or ill is an expensive business. Other people have to do things for you. Often you have to pay them to do it. Most disabled people need stuff to help them do things for themselves, everything from easy-to-use tin openers, to ramps, stair lifts, extra lighting, specialist computers or a car.

72% of carers are worse-off as a result of the substantial care they give. One million people have given up work to care for people, others have taken lower paid jobs or passed up promotions to put a relative or friend first.

And this is now, before the changes proposed in the welfare bill take £9 billion away from disabled people. Which includes cutting £2.7bn from disability living allowance, the benefit designed to help with the extra costs of living with a disability. It’s not means tested, so it’s not a disincentive to work.

Over the last year, the Tory press has gone into overdrive to rebrand disabled and ill people as scroungers. The Evening Standard last month ran a headline, “Crackdown on London’s 250,000 ‘sick’ claimants”, with inverted commas of disbelief. Not 250,000 people who, through no fault of their own, need help to do things that the rest of us do without thinking.

At least once a week, the press dish up a story of a benefit claimant caught doing three jobs or skydiving. These people are nothing to do with disabled and ill people. They are criminals who are committing fraud.

The government claims that 32% of 2.1 million claimants are fit for work straight away. Their “pilot scheme” found that someone who has difficulty walking may be capable of desk work.

So what is “desk work”? Contrary to the popular myth that we all now work in call centres, many jobs include very little sitting, including: nursing, policing, teaching, shop work, just about anything in the hospitality sector, construction work, cleaning and hairdressing. And which “office worker” doesn’t have “other duties as assigned”, lurking in their job description, which we all know can include anything from popping to the shop to attending a conference? How many “desk jobs” are literally that?

The government insists that work must pay and that we’re all better off if we’re all in work, at the same time as cutting jobs. In some areas of the UK there are 44 unemployed people chasing each job. And those 44 people looking for work aren’t just looking for desk work.

You might have thought that the welfare bill would include ways of helping people find a job. Instead it reduces the amount of time you have to get one. If you get cancer or become disabled you will get just one year of employment and support allowance payments before moving to a means tested benefit. That’s one year from the day you lose your job. A year that will includes hospital treatment, rehabilitation (like learning Braille because you lost your sight, adapting to life in a wheelchair or with limbs that no longer function), maybe moving or adapting your home, retraining for a job that you can do with your condition or disability, applying for jobs – and then actually getting one.

If you don’t achieve all this within one year, you will still be looking for a job, but probably with a reduced income, which will make looking for a job even harder.

Anyone travelling today from Witney is unlikely to get to speak to their MP. David Cameron didn’t answer Kerry McCarthy MP when she asked if he would be meeting disabled people today. Instead, he talked about the big fly in the Tory-Lib Dem ointment: the NHS. “It is this government who are putting more money into the National Health Service – £11.5 billion extra”, he chanted. Ignoring the question and hoping that if he says it enough times people will believe it. As a PS, he added “I thought we had the support of the Labour party to reform benefits…”

And there’s the rub. Labour has done little to defend those hit by the welfare reform bill. The temptation to look “tough” has been too strong.

Yet more than 800 new Labour councillors were elected last week. They were voted in to oppose the Tory Lib Dem cuts. Each of those councillors, whether now running a council or part of a beefed-up opposition, has been given a mandate to represent the hardest hit.

And local authorities are at the sharp end of cutting services to the most vulnerable. In Birmingham, the city council announced its intention to stop providing care to 4,000 severely disabled people, most of whom need around the clock care. This has now been deemed unlawful, but they may well appeal. Other councils are trying to cut companion bus passes, which are essential to people unable to travel alone. Across the country, rehab workers are being laid off, equipment is no longer being provided, funding for support groups is drying up, respite care is being slashed and community transport schemes are being massively scaled back.

A year to the day since this government was formed, it’s time for Labour representatives in town halls as much as Westminster Hall to start standing up for the the hardest it.

Any elected representative in Parliament today could start by coming to say hello. Everyone there will have made a huge effort to come to see you.

Julianne Marriott is volunteering with the hardest hit protest today.

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One Response to “Time for Labour to stand up for the hardest hit”

  1. iain ker says:

    In some areas of the UK there are 44 unemployed people chasing each job


    Yes, of course, the easiest time to try and get the unemployed off the dole and back to work was when the economy was booming. Did TUCLabour do that? Or did it just open the immigration floodgates and BS about the immigrants ‘doing the jobs the British people don’t want to do?

    There was probably one unemployed person chasing each job ‘in some areas’ back then. At least now you seem to be grasping how truly incompetent TUCLabour were in government.

    ‘How many “desk jobs” are literally that?’

    Oh, let’s say, a good few million.

    Next question, please.

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