Sunday, 26 February 2012

Meeting with Jenny Willott: Some small wins

Judging by the comments on my first update on the meeting with Jenny Willott (boy am I starting to get tired of typing that phrase now) I just want to clarify that what I'm trying to do is to give an account of how the meeting went and the arguments that were made - but that doesn't mean I agree with everything Jenny said or that I think that everything's magically okay even when I do agree with something.

So, despite the meeting revealing precisely what I feared - that the government won't budge an inch on the time limit - I'm hopeful that the meeting did do some good. This is because I took the opportunity to raise a few, relatively minor (compared to the time limit anyway) issues that have been causing difficulties to disabled people for ages but that would be relatively easy to fix.

Here's the list of what I raised:
1) The DWP publishes documents on its website - such as press briefings, guides to the different types of benefits, policy proposals and, crucially, consultations on welfare reform - in downloadable pdf file formats. Now obviously some people affected by the welfare reforms aren't necessarily able to read - due to severe dyslexia or being partially sighted, for example. So, these people use special software which reads web pages and documents out to them. But this software can't read pdf files. And this means that a significant number of people are dependent on somebody converting consultation documents and the like into Word files (which the software can handle) so that they can access them. Which means that these people are effectively excluded from government consultations on changes that will effect their lives. 
So all I did was ask Jenny whether she might be able to get the DWP to make documents available on its website in accessible formats. Judging by her reaction she had no idea that this was a problem (as I imagine no one within the DWP had either) and she seemed to be very happy to get something done about it - either by speaking to the DWP herself, or getting Steve Webb to do it or getting the new Lib Dem disability spokesman to do it (I can't remember which one she said she'd do but she did definitely say she'd try and do something about it). As this is such an easy and simple change to make, I can't see any reason why it should be a problem so hopefully within a very short period of time we'll start to see the DWP publishing documents in an accessible format. Not particularly a big win but, as forced labour using Tesco likes to say: every little helps. 
2) One of the minor but significant changes the government has made is to give disabled people going to Atos interviews (as part of the Work Capability Assessment) the right to have the interview recorded and to be given a copy of the recording. Previously Atos refused to allow recording unless it was performed by a qualified sound engineer and recorded to a standard of quality which, as an electronic engineer I can guarantee you, would be impossible to achieve and would cost tens of thousands of pounds just to attempt it. So basically, Atos didn't want people to be able to record what was happening in interviews and catch them out if they misrepresented what claimants had said (as has been documented as happening on several occasions) and this change will overturn that and give claimants a bit of a fairer chance if they have to go to appeal. 
But the problem is that this isn't a well publicised change and a lot of people going to interviews probably won't know that they now have the right to have a recording made of the interview. So I asked Jenny if the new Lib Dem disability spokesman could make sure that this was properly publicised to make sure that everyone going to interview knew about this. And, again, I felt confident from Jenny's reply that she would do her best to make sure that that happens. 
3) Similarly, disabled people now have the right to take "advocates" into interviews with them. These can be friends or family members or carers or anybody at all really. And, when you get vulnerable people confronted with a monolithic system where many of the people dealing with them (such as interviewers) seem to view every claimant as a criminal or a fraudster, it's all for the better that they don't have to go into interviews alone. Plus, psychologically speaking, the interviewers are more likely to be more careful to get the assessment right if they know there's a third party watching. 
Again though, this is something which needs to be publicised so that people know that they have this right. And, just as with interview recordings, I'm convinced Jenny will do her best to make sure that this is properly publicised. 
4) A lot of the Atos assessment centres where people have to go for interviews actually lack disabled access. Let me just repeat that: some of the assessment centres, where disabled people have to go to in order to be able to receive benefits, aren't actually accessible to them. And a lot of the assessment centres are also located away from public transport and don't have disabled parking bays. And, on top of that, most assessment centres have waiting areas which only have the bog-standard hard plastic chairs for people to sit on. Now, my school had them in the assembly hall and, I can tell you, after half an hour of sitting on them as a healthy person I always ended up with a back ache. So imagine how uncomfortable they are for people with muscular or spinal problems. 
I raised all of this with Jenny and she turned out to be already aware of it and told me that she's already been working for months on a report about all these problems and ways to resolve them which (reading between the lines of what she said) she expects the DWP to accept and implement without opposition. The report is apparently something which will now have to be published under the name of the new Lib Dem disability spokesman but it sounded like it's fairly close to completion so, again, we should see some improvement on this soon. She also promised to feed in the other issues I'd raised (i.e. accessible documents, advocates and recordings) into this report.
Now, I know that all of these are't particularly earth shattering or make up for the massive damage the government is doing. Indeed, as I said earlier, even if Jenny was right and only tens of thousands will lose ESA without support to make up for it, as opposed to hundreds of thousands, then that still doesn't mean it's acceptable or, for that matter, any less devastating to those who are affected. But, nonetheless, hopefully at least some of these things I raised will be dealt with and, as a result, the lives of some vulnerable people will be a little less hard. So I'm kind of hoping that, even if I haven't managed to accomplish anything else, I might at least have those few scraps to hang onto as me being able to have made the world an ever so slightly better place.

The next and final update will hopefully be up tomorrow. It'll cover the politics of it and will also contain my actual opinion of the entire situation as a result of the meeting. I'm afraid that in that update I'll be saying some rather unpleasant things about Lib Dem parliamentary party - in case any of you thought I'd gone native following the meeting ;)

I'm back

Right, I'm back after a hiatus of a few days. To be honest, I suddenly found myself feeling completely drained and not up to facing anything related to blogging or the Welfare Reform Bill. Not writing anything, not reading anything, not debating about anything, not anything about it at all. Partly this is because of the meeting with Jenny Willott. To be honest, I'm used to seeing things in black and white terms and, as a result of the meeting I've suddenly found a lot of shades of grey in what I'm doing. Which in turn means that I've been confronted with uncertainty and with having to wonder if I might not be wrong.

Well, as a friend of mine told me: I need to get over myself and get back campaigning because this is important and there's not enough time for me to be self indulgent. Well, hopefully I'm ready to do that now - especially since I've finally caught up on my sleep after several nights of not enough.

So. The final two updates on the meeting with Jenny Willott are coming later today. And then I'm going to see about getting sponsorship for the emergency motion.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Meeting with Jenny Willot: ESA and the WCA

As promised, here is what happened at my meeting with Jenny Willott MP. Because so much was discussed, I’m going to be splitting up my account of it into different blogposts each dealing with a particular topic as well as a summary blogpost at the end.

This blogpost covers the time limiting of contributory ESA and the Work Capability Assessments.

I met Jenny Willott in her office in Portcullis House. Also present was her young son (who spent the duration of the meeting fidgeting on Jenny’s lap) and Giles Derrington, Jenny’s Parliamentary Researcher, who knows the details of the Welfare Reform Bill inside and out.

The first thing I did at the meeting was to give Jenny a draft copy of the emergency motion which I intend to submit to Spring Conference (really need to sought out getting the signatories for it). After that I started asking various questions about the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill to make sure that there was no confusion and that I’d got all my facts right.

This was where I got the first bit of good-ish news. The DWP’s impact assessment of the impact of time limiting contributory ESA said that 280,000 sick and disabled people in the Work Related Activity Group would lose ESA entirely by 2015 as a result of the time limit. This is something that I’ve felt is probably one of the worst and least justifiable elements of the bill.

However, according to Jenny and Giles, this impact assessment was done without taking into effect the impact of the introduction of Universal Credit in October 2013. I (and I think a lot of other campaigners as well) was under the impression that Universal Credit wouldn’t be introduced until 2015 which would mean that, while Universal Credit will offset a lot of the impact of the time limit, there’d be a three year gap between it being introduced and the impact of the time limit – meaning that 280,000 vulnerable people would be left without support. But, if Universal Credit is introduced in October 2013 then that means that the gap shrinks to one year and seven months.

Taking the DWP impact assessment of 200,000 people being affected by the time limit by 2012/13, and 400,000 by 2013/14, of whom 30% will lose ESA entirely, and doing some rough calculations (assuming that the number effected will only be 300,000 with Universal Credit coming in halfway through 2013/14) then that means the number who will lose ESA entirely because of the time limit drops down to about 90,000 people. These 90,000 will be the ones who have household savings of £16,000+ or a household income above a minimum of £7,500. However, because the threshold is so low, some of those affected will be earning considerably more than £7,500 which means that the number whose lives will be genuinely damaged by the time limit will be at least a bit less than 90,000.

I’m still convinced it’s utterly immoral and wrong to penalise people just because their partner works, especially after they’ve been paying in National Insurance contributions all their lives, but less than 90,000 being hurt is at least a little bit less awful than 280,000 being hurt. Why the government couldn’t have let the public know about this, and possibly reduced the number of people being terrified that they might be one of those caught out, I don’t know. Not to mention that campaigners, like myself, would probably have welcomed finding out that the situation wasn’t quite as bad as we’d feared if only someone from government had bothered to tell us. And, for the record, vague assurances by Lord Freud that everything will be fine do not count.

Anyway, I pointed out to Jenny that the time limit would (and will) still mean that at least some people would be forced into poverty because of the time limit but she objected rather strongly to this by asserting that housing benefit and tax credits would prevent anyone affected from being forced into actual poverty. I’m sure that that’s the theory but, to be honest, I highly doubt that things will work out nice and cleanly like that in real life. And I still don’t see that as any kind of justification for what is, at the end of the day, financially penalising people for a) being too sick or disabled to work and b) having a partner working more than 24 hours a week at the minimum wage.

I did also ask whether the government would be doing a revised impact assessment to which the answer was no due to the government preferring to see the impact of the changes as they are implemented. I think this is utterly stupid as MPs and peers should know what the impact of legislation will be before they vote on it but this way of doing things is apparently standard government practice.

The next point I made was that a lot of these people affected by this shouldn’t be in the Work Related Activity Group in the first place but are in it because of the broken nature of the Work Capability Assessment which, in turn, is being fixed by the annual Harrington reports. But, because the Harrington Reports aren’t due to be completed until 2015, the WCA won’t be fixed until then at the earliest – despite the time limit coming in (as I already said) from April this year, meaning that people will be deprived of support on the basis of an assessment system that isn’t working.

Jenny’s response was that the DWP has now changed the nature of the Harrington reports so that any recommendations made by Professor Harrington are implemented as soon as physically possible after he proposes them. In fact, according to Jenny, he’s now actually got an office at the DWP so that he can hand recommendations to the DWP without any delay as soon as he’s written them. At the moment he’s meant to be looking at the descriptors which determine whether someone passes the Atos assessment or not and is looking at ways to make the whole Atos assessment much more flexible. And, believe it or not, apparently IDS and Grayling genuinely want to improve the WCA (probably because of the PR nightmare it is) so the recommendations should all be implemented.

Again, however, it seems that the public and campaigners have been left in the dark about the shift in the workings of the Harrington reports. God knows why as I imagine that most campaigners and disabled people would be very happy to engage more and sooner if they knew that recommendations they help contribute to will be implemented as soon as Harrington makes them.

Also, according to Jenny, some of the changes made to the WCA have already made a difference in the sense that the number of successful appeals against decisions is falling (which hopefully means that the decisions are more accurate.

Three changes that have been made so far are that the WCA as a whole doesn’t depend pretty much entirely on the Atos assessment, that people going for assessments have the right to demand a recording is made of the interview and to bring an advocate (who can be anyone they want) into an interview with them. On the other hand, quite a few Atos staff have been saying to people this isn’t allowed so, if you ask to bring an advocate in with you and they refuse you then you shouldn’t tolerate it as they’ve got no right to do so. Another change is that people whose condition has deteriorated by the time they’ve reached the end of the contributory ESA will be able to reapply for it. As I said to Jenny, that’s not much good to people whose condition has remained stable but still prevents them from work but, unfortunately, this isn’t something that the DWP is going to budge on.

And, of course, people using these new rights is heavily dependent on them knowing that they have the rights in the first place – something which I pointed out at the meeting. And, in fairness to Jenny, she did acknowledge this and does hope to do something about it – what precisely she intends to do is something I’ll cover in a separate update.

So that’s the good news, such as it is, in this update. Now for the bad news.

Basically, the time limit in its current form is here to stay. This is because the treasury worked out exactly how much each department should spend in the Comprehensive Spending Review and won’t budge any further. And, since the DWP has already had to accept some amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill which reduce the depth of cuts (though not by much) they’ve already forced the treasury to give them some more money. But, as a result, the Treasury now apparently won’t give a penny extra to the DWP. The only way it could do so is, in my opinion, if there was enough political will to force it to do so. But, unless a substantial chunk of tories decide to side with Lib Dems on this, then that’s not going to be possible.

Because of that, the only way to prevent the time limiting is to find the £1.6 billion it will save from elsewhere in the DWP. And that then leads us onto the political dimension of all this which is something I’ll cover in another update given how long this one has already become.

Report on my meeting with Jenny Willott

I met with Jenny Willott MP (and her research assistant Giles, and her toddler who she was babysitting at the same time) on Monday evening to discuss the Welfare Reform Bill. Unfortunately I haven't had a chance to write up what happened until now.

Because quite a lot was discussed, and because I was busy yesterday and will be again today, I'm probably not going to be able to publish a full account until this evening.

However, just to summarise very briefly, the good news that things aren't quite as bad as we thought but the bad news is that the government doesn't seem likely to be able to be forced to give in on anything else - mainly because the Treasury has shut, bolted and barricaded its doors and won't give the DWP a penny more. Which, of course, means that the only way that stuff like time limiting could be reversed is if the DWP took the money from elsewhere in its department which of course means that other vulnerable people would be penalised instead. That or if the Treasury doors were forced open with a battering ram - something that seems unlikely given reality as reality as perceived within the Westminster Bubble.

A few good things came of the meeting though - it looks like IDS and Freud and Grayling and co have been yelled at to the extent that they won't be coming out with any more deliberately misleading "scrounger" press releases again, for example. And I did manage to mention the issue of DWP consultation documents not being available in accessible format for disabled people and it looks like that's something which Jenny Willott should be able to get fixed soon (either by herself or by her successor).

But I'll go into the detail properly this evening. Like I said, there is some good news - not that that will make the bad news any more acceptable.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Complaint to the BBC

Here's a complaint I sent to the BBC last night (not that I expect it to do much good):

Complaint title:
Biased coverage of tax allowance increase

Complaint description:
I am astounded by this article on the BBC news website: 

In it you discuss Ed Balls and his decision to support a range of measures including increasing the income tax threshold to £10,000. In it you use the word "conservatives" four times and "labour" six times. The Lib Dems are mentioned precisely once in the context of: 

'As well as Mr Balls' proposed VAT cut, "in an attempt to put pressure on the chancellor ahead of next month's Budget, he also sets out an alternative menu of options which he thinks might appeal to some Conservative and Lib Dem backbenchers", says BBC political correspondent Iain Watson.'

Not once do you mention that raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 was a key Lib Dem 2010 manifesto pledge (mentioned on the front page of their manifesto) and one of the headline Lib Dem policies being implemented. Nor do you mention Nick Clegg's speech earlier this week outlining ways to increase the tax threshold to £10,000.

I think that this article shows shocking anti-Lib Dem bias by omission and also deprives those reading BBC News online of the full story. I'd very much like to see how you claim to justify this.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A collection of articles on the Welfare Reform Bill

One of the things that frustrates me is that, whenever I say anything about the Welfare Reform Bill in the Lib Dems, I run smack bang into people who, for whatever reason, think I'm being disloyal, or that I'm exaggerating or that I don't know what I'm talking about.

And the problem is that I've explained the issue so many times now that I get tired and snappy whenever I'm confronted with someone, out of ignorance, expressing an opinion that everything is fine with the result that I lose my temper. And that's really not good for trying to persuade people. And I know it isn't which is why it's even more frustrating when it happens.

So, to save both myself and others the unpleasantness of me yelling at them online, here is a collection of links to things I've already written about the Welfare Reform Bill. There's a lot of writing here so apologies to anyone who tries to read it all but, when 750,000 vulnerable people are going to be affected by this, I'm afraid that this volume of material is necessary to explain it all. However, for those in the hurry, just read the first three please as those are the most comprehensive and important.

What Lib Dem MPs did yesterday
Concise disability benefits fact sheet
Opinion: What's happened to democracy in the Liberal Democrats?

Feeling angry with Jenny Willott again
Opinion: Welfare reform – LibDems must stand up for the vulnerable
Opinion: Why you must lobby parliament over the Welfare Reform Bill
Opinion: Our Parliamentarians must fight for our benefits policies
Response to Jenny Willott on the Welfare Reform Bill

The disabled: slave labour for Tesco?

This week news leaked out about the government's plans on how the long term sick and disabled should be "helped" back into work:
Some long-term sick and disabled people face being forced to work unpaid for an unlimited amount of time or have their benefits cut under plans being drawn up by the Department for Work and Pensions.
From the Guardian article which broke the story. It continues:
The new policy, outlined by DWP officials in meetings with disabilities groups, is due to be announced after legal changes contained in clause 54 of the welfare reform bill have made their way through parliament. 
The policy could mean that those on employment and support allowance who have been placed in the work-related activity group (Wrag) could be compelled to undertake work experience for charities, public bodies and high-street retailers. The Wrag group includes those who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer but have more than six months to live; accident and stroke victims; and some of those with mental health issues. 
In official notes from a meeting on 1 December last year, DWP advisers revealed they were not intending to put a time limit on the work experience placements.
So yeah, this is one of the nasty little details that Lib Dem MPs voted for. I wonder what Jenny Willott MP will have to say about it when I meet her on Monday?

And. for the record, this is nasty. I object to the principle of forcing people to work unpaid at all (it's called "workfare" and has been tried, tested and failed in the US) but it's even worse when you're talking about disabled people. Especially given that the current assessment system for disability benefits is so broken that it has been known to class terminally ill cancer patients as belonging in the Work Related Activity Group which would place them in the position of being forced to undertake work such as unpaid night shift jobs at Tesco.

Tesco are currently furiously back pedalling after the bad publicity hit but, had it not been for the bad PR, they would almost certainly have continued with the scheme which would have given them unpaid labour and saved them from having to actually go through the hassle of properly employing new workers. This isn't a specific judgement on Tesco by the way - all big companies (and plenty of small ones) are more than happy to save money wherever possible, regardless of the human cost, as long as the public doesn't find out about it.

And of course, it's not like there are any historical examples of government ministers coming out with statements and press releases encouraging the depiction of the disabled as "fakers and scroungers, while forcing them to work without pay are there?

(That's sarcasm by the way, click on the links - especially the second one.)

Still, at least no government spokesman has yet come out with saying something like "arbeit macht frei". So we can be thankful for small mercies. Except of course that the DWP believes in the "bio-psycho-social" model of disability which basically states that the only thing stopping the sick and disabled from working is that they're not working hard enough at overcoming their disability.

Meanwhile of course, we have such jollies as Atos, the company which carries out the assessments to determine whether disabled people should be forced to work or not (and which has benefited from a lucrative government contract to provide IT for the London Olympics later this year), offering help to employers in managing the impact of heart disease and how best to support employees returning to work whilst simultaneously telling people with heart disease that there's nothing to stop them from working despite, in one tragic case, the condition being so severe that the poor man died just three weeks after being deemed fit to work.

Still, Atos now are about to get a shiny new director who might change things. Well, apart from the fact that he used to be a director of Unum - a nice big health insurance company that has been described in the US as "an outlaw company", which refuses to recognise that illnesses like ME even exist and that has (along with Atos) a long record of trying to manipulate and influence DWP policy. So maybe things won't change then.

If you're interested in the incestuous, corrupt and unhealthy relationship between Unum, Atos and the DWP then all you need to do is go and read this Private Eye article which does a good job of exposing the whole sorry tale.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Cowardly excuses

I read a comment on one of my blogposts this lunchtime and it's sent me off into something of a rant. Such a rant, in fact, that it won't fit in a comment box. So instead I'm going to  post both the comment and my reply here:

Original comment:

"Preserve your party, no matter the cost"

Well, when the cost is being unable to influence government policy because of the navel gazing noise generated by stories of splits, then yes party unity matters.

As for morality and conscience, I think you need to get off your high horse. Politics is about making very difficult decisions. Spending £2bn on ESA may seem 'moral' to you, but that money has to come from somewhere in the DWP budget. Would you rather it came from poor children perhaps, or disabled people able to work, or impoverished pensioners on Pension Credit? Which is the 'moral' answer?

Of course you can dodge the question and argue about HS2 (deferred expense, generating investment) and so on. But that wasn't a question which our parliamentarians could tackle in the WRB. They had to make £12bn of cuts. I actually think that those on contributory ESA who have another source of income or savings are better able to bear this than other places where £2bn might be saved from a Department which spends a huge amount of money on sick, disabled, poor and old people.

We can agree to disagree, but it's those kinds of decisions which define politics.

My reply:

Ben, there wouldn't be even a potential of stories of splits if our MPs had listened to conference in the first place. To be blunt, when conference unanimously supports one policy and principle, and 46 of our MPs vote exactly opposite to that without any attempt to find a compromise, then we definitely have a split in what the party thinks acceptable and what our MPs think acceptable.

This isn't about spending extra money, it's about not cutting support to vulnerable disabled people. And yes, there are more vulnerable people - if I show you 100 terminally ill cancer patients then some of them will be in a worse situation than the others. But that doesn't for one moment make it right to keep following the lowest denominator and taking support away from people who need it while using the utterly pathetic excuse that otherwise you'd have to take it away from people who need it more. Quite frankly, that's bullshit.

Enshrined in our constitution, and on your own membership card, is a committment to building a fairer society where none are enslaved by poverty.

Well many of the 280,000 people who are going to lose support (and, please note, despite being ineligible for ESA they will still be ineligible for stuff like JSA) genuinely need it. And support to the sick and the disabled, to these ESA claimants who have been found unable to work, should be based on need and not on cost cutting.

Have you ever tried supporting an entire household on an income of just £7,500 a year? One with a disabled parent and two young children? One where the other parent has to work a job to bring home a meagre income and then act as carer for their partner and their children? Where they've already suffered two mental breakdowns? Because, let me tell you, this is what this means. I know families in exactly that situation.

This is taking support away from people already living with debilitating conditions, people who are already disproportionately likely to be living in poverty.

This is a question of priorities. We entered government on the claim that we would bring fairness and protect the vulnerable. That claim will be a total lie if we push ahead with these cuts to disability benefits. Because we can afford it if we want to. Quite frankly it was utter idiocy to insist on forcing the same proportion of cuts on every department when the impact of those cuts will differ enmormously between departments. Yes, if we kept the cuts to the DWP the same then we'd have to take the money elsewhere - from wealthy pensioners perhaps, or by means testing stuff like free bus passes and the winter fuel allowance.

But that's a fool's game because the simple fact is that £2 billion over five years is incredibly easy to find in the context of the overall budget. If we actually put some effort in on this then our MPs could find the money. After all, when the Olympics budget keeps on overrunning we don't see the government say "oh, we'll have to cancel them, there's no money left" do we? Instead the government finds the money to pay for it because it deems it a high enough priority.

And that is what this is about. Priorities. Fucking priorities and fucking principles. If we think it's acceptable to take support away completely from 280,000 people, whilst also cutting disability benefits for people in work by 20% and whilst halving support for disabled children living in poverty then we have failed utterly.

Because make no mistake, people will die because of this. Sometimes it will be through subtle things like stress, or pneumonia due to being unable to afford to heat their house (costs which are higher for people who are forced to stay at home all day due to their disability). And some will be the very direct cases of suicide due to people deciding that death is actually a better prospect than the misery they're living in. I know that because it's already happened on several occasions. Disability campaigners are very noble and decent people who are determined to campaign on the facts rather than heart sting tugging but I'm less scrupulous than they are because I know that this policy will mean blood is on our hands.

So, please, don't give me a load of bollocks about our parliamentarians having no choice because they did. If they'd put the effort in, if our leadership had given the slighest damn about the vulnerable and about conference then they could have done something at least. And, even if they found themselves unable to do anything, then at least they'd have tried their best. But they didn't do that. They didn't even fucking try.

And yes, you are absolutely 100% right. These kind of decisions do define politics. And I believe that deciding to take support away from 280,000 long term sick and disabled people, people who are unable to work, people who are already likely to be living in poverty, just because their partner has the temerity to earn £7,500+ a year, is wrong. We're a rich country, we can afford to protect the vulnerable, even in times of austerity. And I believe that we have a duty, as human beings, to look after those who are unable to look after themselves. Like it or not, those are fundamental liberal principles which are enshrined in our constitution. And, whilst I'm perfectly happy to compromise on policy, we should never, never, never, ever compromise on our principles. Especially when lives are at stake.

So, go on, support this policy if you feel like it. Support it because you think it's politically expedient (despite the fact that we've just permanently alienated 3 million sick and disabled voters). But if you do so then you are not a liberal and you clearly don't believe in liberal values. And you are in the wrong party.

Accuse me of being on a high horse all you like. But if you do then I'm proud of it. I'm proud of it because I still have enough integrity to be furious when small minded idiots in power decide to penalise disabled people for a financial crisis that they had no part in creating simply because it would be slightly harder to do the right thing and protect them. And if you don't like that then I'd say that that reflects badly on your own character and integrity rather than mine.

(Apologies for the swearing as you might not particularly deserve being sworn at but I am completely and totally fed up with the kind of cowardly, feeble, immoral excuses that what our MPs have done is in some way acceptable.)

Monday, 13 February 2012

Greece should default

Yesterday we saw the Greek parliament pass yet another round of crippling spending cuts amidst rioting in Athens. In return for more and more austerity, they will be loaned yet more money to add to their national debt, in order to pay off, for a few more months, the creditors hammering at the door.

And, whilst billions of money are being added to Greece's national debt, millions of Greeks are without jobs, and even many of those with jobs aren't getting paid enough to live off of. The situation is so desperate that there is a small but significant number of children being given up for adoption or left at orphanages simply because their parents literally can't afford to look after them. In short, the Greek people are suffering terribly for a crisis not of their own making. Because, let's fact it, Greece went into the eurozone, before it was economically ready, due to richer countries, such as Germany, giving them cheap credit and other incentives so that their own economies could benefit by gaining new export markets. After all, the German economy made billions through exporting to uncompetitive markets like Greece.

And now the Greek people are being forced to pay a horrible price for the mess dumped on their heads by a wealthy elite - many of whom spent the good years lining their own pockets.

So it's not surprising the Greeks are angry. But the massive, monumental pressure being placed on Greek politicians to make further cuts in exchange for further bailouts (e.g. more debt) means that any government the Greeks elect will end up following exactly the same economic policy.

And, given that the German public seem determined not to put their hands into their own wallets to back eurobonds (which would end most of the eurozone crisis almost instantly) but still want the benefits of a currency union with uncompetitive economies, this means that for Greece all that will happen is more austerity meaning more money being sucked out of the economy, less consumer confidence and an even greater fall in Greek GDP. And, at the end of it, after all that penury, Greece will still be saddled with a monstrous debt that it'll never be able to pay off.

So, if I were the Greeks, I'd simply say "up yours" to the eurozone and default on their debt. Yes, their country would be bankrupt but they wouldn't be in much worse a situation than the one they're already in and at least they'll be able to start rebuilding their country and their economy free from what is, effectively, dictatorship by eurozone economists and bureaucrats and politicians. If I were in their position I'd definitely much prefer being slightly poorer and in charge of my own destiny than poor and with my fate in the hands of foreign governments without any interest in my own well-being.

And, I should point out, I'm not a eurosceptic or someone who's a left-wing socialist - I support both the principle of the EU and the coalition government's economic priorities. But Greece is not the UK and, the way I see it, they're in a very deep hole and all the rest of the world is doing is giving them drilling equipment. And, from my (admittedly very) limited knowledge of economics, I'd say it's time for them to stop digging.

Plan of action for #WRB Lib Dem fightback

I'm still, ahem, not best pleased about Lib Dem MPs voting overwhelmingly (46 to 6) in favour of the Welfare Reform Bill and its devastating cuts to disability benefits.

And I really don't think that many grassroots members are happy either.

So, here's the plan for Liberal Democrat Spring Conference (9-11 March).

The first step is to submit the following emergency motion to conference. This is the draft version and I'm currently about to begin work on getting sufficient support for it for it to be able to go forwards (the rules mean that either ten reps or one statutory associated organisation have to sponsor it):
Emergency Motion to Censure the Parliamentary Party

Conference notes:

1. That policy motion F6, including a call for “Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA [Employment and Support Allowance]”, was passed unanimously by Autumn 2011 Federal Conference.
2. That, on 01/02/2012, Lib Dem MPs voted, by a margin of 46 to 6, to reject a House of Lords amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill (WRB), which raised the contributory ESA time limit to a minimum of 730 days.
3. That, as a result receipt of contributory ESA will now be time limited to a maximum of 365 days.
4. That the DWP Final Impact Assessment (16/02/11) of this time limit shows that 280,000 of those removed from contributory ESA will be ineligible for income-related ESA.

Conference believes:

1. That, by voting against Lords amendment 17, Liberal Democrat MPs were voting for an arbitrary time limit.
2. That this contravenes the spirit, as well as the letter, of policy motion F6 which stated that “It is the duty of a compassionate society and government to provide the necessary support for those who are unable to support themselves.
3. That the collective impact of the PLDP’s voting on the WRB is to show disregard for the will of conference and its role as the democratic and sovereign policy making body of the party.

And, therefore conference resolves to:

1. Censure the PLDP for their collective voting record on the elements of the Welfare Reform Bill relating to disability and sickness benefits.
2. Expresses its dismay at the continued inclusion within the Welfare Reform Bill of an arbitrary time limit that will penalise long term sick and disabled people for having a partner who works.
3. Criticise the PLDP for ignoring the will, and undermining the constitutional position of, conference.
Unfortunately, there's only enough time at conference for one emergency motion to be debated and the one that gets debated is determined by a vote of the reps in the conference hall. Given that opponents to the NHS reforms are more organised than those of us opposed to the WRB, in all probability it will be an emergency motion on the NHS reforms that gets debated. I still hope that my emergency motion will be chosen for the debate but we have to be realistic. On the bright side, the presence of the emergency motion in the conference papers will hopefully bring the issue to the attention of a few more party members.

But the real area where I'm hoping to kick up a fuss is on the official report by the parliamentary party. This includes a question and answer session at 9am on the last day of conference.

Here I intend to get in contact with like minded people and follow a three stage plan:

1. Get a formal question submitted to the report (submission deadline in early March) which will have to be replied to by the parliamentary party.
2. Get conference attendees to ask questions about the cuts to disability benefits during the Q&A session.
3. Move for the report by the parliamentary party to be rejected by conference - this will, if nothing else, ensure a brief, public debate about the Welfare Reform Bill and give the issue some much needed media attention.

Quite frankly, I can't think of anyone who can genuinely justify taking all support away from 280,000 long term sick and disabled people just because their partner earns more than £7,500 a year and I'm sure that most conference reps would be vehemently against our parliamentarians on this if given the chance of a proper debate.

Unfortunately, a proper debate is going to be very hard to get at this conference. This is because a) the vote in the House of Commons happened after the deadline for submission of non-emergency motions to conference and b) because the constitution has a rule that any subject can't be debated at conference if it's been debated in the past two years. This rule is utterly incompatible with the nature of being in government and it's something that can hopefully be changed at autumn conference - but in the meantime I've got to work with the methods that are available.


If you want to help right now then the Welfare Bill is back in Lords tomorro, meaning that it's the last chance for the Lords to help disabled children and ESA claimants.

So please sign Pat's Petition by Tuesday to tell the Lords to keep fighting for disabled people and carers.

Pat herself has said "As a severely blind person, I am sick of the way this government is treating disabled people, going against everything the Lords, and campaigners, have fought for by hiding behind financial privileges. I hope that on Tuesday the Lords will continue to fight on our behalf."

Thursday, 9 February 2012


Wow. Okay, I just got home from work, logged onto facebook and saw this:

For those of you that don't know, Biggles is my nickname (Biggles being a fictional RAF pilot from the world wars and me being someone who apparently sounds like him: "tally ho" and all that, etc.).

The picture is a truly brilliant piece of, out of the blue, photoshopping by one Paul Wild - a member of a Lib Dem facebook group that I'm also a member of, and a true master at the art of coming up with billboard designs, leaflet graphics and generally anything political that involves the use of images. Why the national party haven't got him on board to work for them I really don't know - he's an absolute genius at this stuff and it's criminal his talent isn't being put to good use for the party

Anyway, I was so impressed by this picture that I had to stick it up here. I had intended to blog about the trade deficit shrinking to the lowest level since 2003 but I think this takes priority as far as I'm concerned ;)

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Article on LibDemVoice #wrb

I had hoped to do a blogpost this lunchtime but I've found myself (once again) without enough time to do so.

So instead please go and read my article over on LibDemVoice and perhaps consider engaging in the debate in the comment thread underneath :)

Monday, 6 February 2012

A reply from Jenny Willott MP

Earlier today I blogged about how Jenny Willott's article on LibDemVoice had got my blood up. But, in fairness to her, following the vote on Wednesday I emailed her expressing my disappointment at the vote and asking to meet with her prior to my submitting an emergency motion to Liberal Democrat Spring Conference.

And today she's replied - not bad timing I suppose for someone who's just been shifted from one job to another. I won't post her email but in it she says that she'd be happy to meet me to discuss the matter and that I should contact her parliamentary researcher in order to organise a meeting - something which I've just done.

Out of respect for confidentiality (she does at least have the courage to justify her voting record, unlike many tory MPs) when I find out the timing of the meeting I won't make it public and I won't make the details of what's said public either but I'll certainly be blogging the gist of it for those who are interested.

Throughout this, I've always wished I could have a chance to meet the people supporting the disability cuts face to face so that I could convince them of what seems obvious to everyone outside of the Westminster bubble. And, even though I fundamentally disagree with what Jenny's done on ESA, I'm grateful that she's at least giving me the opportunity to do that.

That being said, I will still be submitting an emergency motion to spring conference - details of which should be blogged in the next week or so.

Feeling angry with Jenny Willott again

Another day, another article by Jenny Willott MP on LDV attempting to justify the government's cuts to disability benefits.

A lot of the arguments she's made are so transparent that I'm surprised she even bothered. For example, when she says:
"6 out of 10 people will continue to receive some or all of their ESA after the end of their year on contributory benefit"
What that actually means is that 4 in 10 (which is about 280,000 sick and disabled people) won't get anything at the end of the year and will lose ESA entirely. Given that there's no other support that they, as an individual, will be eligible for this amounts to pulling the rug out from under the feet of over a quarter of a million people - the majority of whom, according to the government's own figures, will still be unable to work at the time that they lose support.

And that's not even mentioning cutting Disability Living Allowance by 20% when the fraud rate is less than 0.5%.

I think Jenny's article is fully debunked in the comments thread and I hope to have an article on LDV replying to her article. My comment on her article itself can be found here.

But even then, we're just looking at the narrow picture of the direct impact of the cuts. But the wider impact is also an increase in the hardening of attitudes to disabled people, something that leads to vulnerable people being subjected to verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis by morons to stupid to think that maybe, just maybe, disability isn't always apparent from a glance at someone and that, just because a small minority cheat, it's not right to attack random strangers because of it.

In fact, here's a quote from a case study in the Guardian today. The woman in question works at my university and has never claimed disability benefits but is still subjected to abuse by complete strangers on a regular basis:
Ferrie says she is most likely to be insulted or abused on the street after a media article on supposed welfare abuse by the disabled. On a recent occasion, a group of students refused to share a taxi with her, she recounts. "After the next articles came out I tweeted, 'I wonder how long it's going to be this time before someone says or does something to me?'"
It took five days. On another occasion, she was rushing for a bus about to depart from a bus garage when her way was blocked by a staff member standing in the vehicle's doorway. "I said to her, 'Excuse me, can I get on the bus please?'. She looked down at my stick, looked up at my face and said, 'No. You should have walked faster.'"
Ferrie explained why she could not move more quickly, and met a response dripping with more scepticism: "Oh, really?"
"In the end I had to push past her," Ferrie said. "I burst into tears on the bus. I couldn't believe someone would say that to me."
And then, after I've read something like that, people criticise me for getting angry about this stuff.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Losing my temper

Ahem. As my regular readers will know, I'm renowned for my considered, well-tempered and cautious approach to events.

Okay, so that's a lie.

But I do try not to lose my temper in debates as it just undermines the argument. And I also try, despite how passionate I feel, not to come across as too abrasive or insulting.

Unfortunately, given the number of times I've seen people been told lately, or been told myself, that concerns and dismay about the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill (passed thanks to Lib Dem MPs) is actually nothing more than "hyperbole" or "exaggeration" or "falling for Labour propaganda", I'm actually feeling rather fed up with it.

So that's why, earlier this evening, I said this in a comment thread in a Lib Dem facebook group. I've removed the names from it as I think it would be unfair to spread them around without the permission of the people in question.
[Name deleted], I've been researching and campaigning on this for well over half a year. Without wishing to be insulting, I probably know a damn sight more about this than you do. I doubt I'm the most knowledgeable about this within the party but I'm probably within the top fifty or less when it comes to the issue of the WRB's impact on disabled people. I'm not falling for Labour propaganda, I'm reaching a conclusion based on evidence and hundreds of hours of research. 
I'd suggest you listen to people like [name deleted], who is on the exec of the Lib Dem Disability Association. The people in he LDDA know what they're talking about - especially as they're directly affected by this. They're not being led astray by opposition rhetoric - they know damn well what's facing them. If this was the LGBT+ Lib Dems talking about an issue affecting them then I highly doubt there'd be so much sneering and claims that they don't know what they're talking about. 
Get your head out of the clouds. Our party is not perfect, and our MPs are perfectly capable of doing the wrong thing so stop acting like the sun shines out their arses.
But, to sum up, quite frankly, unless you have any actual FACTS to back up your assertions, I suggest you stop making sweeping claims about something which you seem to know very little about.
The reason I'm blogging what I said is because I think that, aside from the obvious irritation in my tone, the points I made are fairly valid.

And, because I was already asked what I meant about the comment about LGBT+ Lib Dems, here's my reply to that question:
[Name deleted], what I mean is that, when LGBT+ Lib Dems experience, for example, a legislative measure that discriminates against them and makes life harder or unfairer, such as the blood ban, if they raise their voices about it then their word usually seems to be taken at face value and they don't encounter anywhere near the same level of vitriol as disabled people are experiencing. 
In short, I suspect that there is, at least in part, an undercurrent of disability discrimination when you look at the way they are being treated when they complain about this. When LGBT Lib Dems complained about section 28 I highly doubt that they got people within the party telling them that they were "falling for propaganda", or being hysterical, or using hyperbole. 
Basically, while I'm not saying for one moment that racial, sexual or gender equality have been reached, people campaigning for them seem now able to do so with far less vitriol than the disabled encounter. 
You wouldn't for example, get a columnist for the Sun saying nowadays that homosexuality is a "choice" and that people decide to be gay just in order to get sympathy and because it's "trendy". It's simply unthinkable because, if they did, then they'd be immediately sacked following the public furore. 
Yet only last week we got Rod Liddle saying [in the Sun] that several severe, debilitating conditions, such as ME, were "made up" and "trendy". That's what I mean.

One quick question about Chris Huhne

I'm on a short lunchbreak today so I don't have time for a proper blogpost but the resignation of Lib Dem Chris Huhne from the cabinet today, due to being charged with perverting the course of justice, makes me want to ask this one question:

Chris Huhne must know whether he's guilty or not. I'm not going to pre-judge someone who has yet to be found guilty in a court of law but, if he really is guilty, then why the hell did he wait until now to resign when he could have stepped down months ago and saved everyone, including himself, the bad publicity in the event he is actually foudnd guilty?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Tim Farron's reply to my questions on the #WRB

Yesterday I spoke to Tim Farron MP, the party president, on twitter and asked him why he had voted the way he did on the Welfare Reform Bill. He told me to email him as 140 characters was not enough to explain and so I did. Here is his email back and here is my reply to his email. I publish them only because they are the only explanation from the leadership so far that I have been able to find:

Hi George,

Thanks for sending your email and for giving me a chance to explain why I voted the way I did yesterday.

My four main concerns about the Welfare Reform Bill, which we were voting on through Lords’ amendments yesterday, were to do with the exemption of cancer patients from Means-Tested ESA; the withdrawal of contributory ESA for young disabled people; under-occupancy penalties for social tenants; and the time-limit on contributory ESA.

I’ll go through these one by one to try and explain my decision.

The exemption of cancer patients from Means-Tested ESA:
-          As you may be aware, my mother died of ovarian cancer some years ago – so I fully understand the impacts cancer can have both of the sufferer and their family. However, while this is a difficult time for all those affected, I do not feel that it is fair to single out cancer, as in effect this relegates other very serious illnesses to some ‘lower rank’ of consideration. Additionally, as is the current status quo, those with cancer who are struggling financially will obviously still receive the benefit.
Withdrawal of contributory ESA for young disabled people:
-          Having spoken to many people about this issue, my understanding is that 90% of the young disabled people will still qualify for income-related ESA, which importantly will be paid at the same rate as contributory ESA. The only people who will no longer be eligible for this ESA are those who have received either a medical payment or a large inheritance.
Under-occupancy penalties for social tenants:
-          This was one of my biggest concerns when deciding how I would be voting yesterday as I was unsure whether it would unfairly penalise, for example, those who are disabled and need additional rooms to store large pieces of equipment or potentially divorced fathers who only have their children living with them on weekends. However, I have been reassured that one third of savings generated through this measure will be passed directly back to local authorities for their discretionary use in alleviating the problems of those most affected such as the examples I gave above.
Time-limited contributory ESA:
-          The sad fact of the matter is that having no cap on contributory ESA would be so extraordinarily expensive that even Labour has admitted that they would instigate one. Their cap would be at 24 months, however this is still extremely unaffordable and would cost the Government an additional £1.6bn each year. Instead, what we are trying to ensure is that there are measures in place to improve the quality of the Work Capability Assessment to ensure that those who are genuinely unable to work are not placed in the wrong group.
I also want to reemphasise that the changes to contributory ESA only apply to those in the Work Related Activity Group, those who are currently unable to work but whose condition is likely to change in the future.  They do not apply to those in the Support Group, who are the sickest and most disabled. These people will not see any change to their benefit.

The changes will also not apply to the poorest. After 12 months those with no other source of income and less than £16,000 in savings will still be entitled to Income Related ESA for as long as they are unable to work. Around 6 in 10 of those affected will receive some Income Related ESA after 12 months. We absolutely must protect these groups from these changes – and we are.

Like many people who have written to me, I am extremely concerned that any assessments made are appropriate and sensitive and it’s blindingly obvious that one of the most important things to get right is that people are put into the appropriate group of ESA, ensuring that those in need of the most help go into the Support Group. Thanks to the hard work of our Lib Dems in Government, people with deteriorating conditions such as MS or Motor Neurone Disease can enter the Support Group if their condition has got worse, even after the twelve months has passed. This will help around 4,000 people by 2016/17.

We realise that this is an absolute priority, which is why we are continuing to improve the Work Capability Assessment so that people are more accurately assessed when they first make an ESA claim. In particular, I am very pleased that the Government has accepted Professor Harrington’s recommendation to make sure that the assessment takes better account of chronic pain and fatigue. This will help ensure that people with hidden or fluctuating conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, are given the proper level of support.

Finally, the clincher for me was the promise that there will be a one-year review of the measures, and that £0.5bn is being made available to plug any unforeseen gaps and ensure that no-one in dire need goes unaided.

I have been on benefits myself in the past. I was raised by a single mum and I have family members who are disabled. So I understand how these issues are likely to impact people. However, I believe that the negative effects have been overstated and that the review in a year’s time will readdress any imbalances.

Given the extreme financial constraints in which we are currently operating, our choices are limited. These are not circumstances any of us would choose, but we have to act nonetheless. That being the case, I very much hope that these measures will address the urgent financial issues of the country whilst essentially safeguarding the most vulnerable to the greatest extent possible.

Thanks again for getting in touch, and I hope that this has gone some way to answer your concerns and hopefully help you on the doorstep.

Best wishes,



Thanks for your reply. Regardless of everything else, I do appreciate you taking the time to do so.

If you'll bear with me, I'd like to explain on each of the points why I think you made your decision based on incorrect information and I hope you will reply to this email as well.

The exemption of cancer patients from Means-Tested ESA:

My mother died of cancer when I was 7 so I know just as well as you the impact that cancer can have. I agree that it isn't fair to single out cancer patients for special treatment but I never thought I'd hear you, of all people, argue that, because we can't treat everyone fairly, we should treat no one fairly. Someone dying of cancer, not just being treated for it but dying should not be forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops, or be deprived of support simply because their partner earns more than £7,500 a year. So please could you explain to me, with regard to the points I've just raised, why you think it is in any way justified, or compatible with liberal principles, to have overturned that amendment when it would have cost so little in terms of the overall budget yet have been a huge relief to so many families facing bereavement.

Withdrawal of contributory ESA for young disabled people:
The problem with income related ESA is the level of the means test. If these young disabled people ever are lucky enough to find a partner who works, or if they ever save up more than £16,000 together, then they will lose ESA. They will never have the chance to experience the things that we take for granted. Maintaining the practice of treating them as being eligible for contributory ESA would have only meant that £10 million of savings a year would have to be found from somewhere else - yet the government found twenty five times that amount (£250 million) to bring back weekly bin collections. A medical payment or inheritance greater than £16,000 is not "large". If you really believe there was no alternative to this change, if you really believe, despite the reasons I've just given, that there wasn't even any scope to amend the proposals even slightly, then please tell me why you think so.

Under-occupancy penalties for social tenants:
The problem with your reasoning on this is that the government does not appear to have put in place any measures to require councils to spend this money on the purpose for which it is intended or, for that matter, measures to check how the money is being spent. I fear that, just like the social fund, this money will be diverted to other purposes and, with the government, as you must surely know, moving to have the Welfare Commons did not have time to scrutinise them on Wednesday.

Time-limited contributory ESA:
No one has argued against the principle of a time limit. However, you must know full well that the 12 month time limit is entirely arbitrary and based on no medical evidence whatsoever. In fact, the medical evidence is that most people effected by the time limit will take significantly longer than 12 months to be ready to return to work and therefore will be penalised by this cap purely for the sake of saving money. A two year time limit is also somewhat arbitrary but at least it would protect more people. A two year time limit would not "cost" money as this is not about spending extra money - it is about making lesser savings through cuts to disability benefits.

When people pay National Insurance, when you and I do so, we do so on the understanding that we do so in order to pay towards a system that will take care of us when things go wrong and we are unable to care for ourselves. If you were blinded in a car crash tomorrow then it would take you well over a year in order to be able to return to work. After paying into the system all your life, why should you be penalised after a year? Why should you lose all access to the benefit if your wife earns as little as £7,500 a year? For that is the really dmaging thing here - if the means test was higher then the situation would be far less severe but you voted in favour of the time limit knowing full well that people moved off of contributory ESA in April will be deprived of support if their partner works. How exactly can this penalty for families and for disabled people with working partners be justified? And why did you vote for it?
Above all, the simple fact is that the current Work Capability Assessment, which defines whether people are placed in the support group or are moved onto contributory ESA, is "not fit for purpose" - the words of the man who designed it. The governments attempts to reform it are excellent but they will not be fully implemented for five years and, in the meantime, many people who belong in the support group are being placed in the Work Related Activity Group. Have you ever read the descriptors for the WCA? You can find them here if you haven't:

People with long term, degenerative illnesses are being placed in the contributory ESA group. And this will continue to happen for the next three years until the WCA is fixed. In the meantime, the DWP's figures show that 40% of people in receipt of contributory ESA will lose all ESA entirely after one year because their partner works. I heard you speak movingly once about how the birth of your daughter motivated you to return to politics, how you wanted to make the world a better place for your children. Imagine, god forbid, that it was one of your children who found themselves in this situation, of being forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops while coping with a debilitating condition. Imagine how it would feel for them to know that they will be penalised because their partner works. Imagine how they would wonder why they should be forced into poverty after a year because of the way you and other MPs voted.

That is the reality facing thousands of vulnerable sick and disabled people. Please, read what I've written and then tell me if you still think voting for the time limit was the right thing to do. Or, better yet, go and visit some fo the families in your constituency who will be affected by this and see the human cost for yourself. I believe you're a good, decent man, which is why I voted for you as party President. But, even after your email, I still can't see how you can justify your voting record on Wednesday.

If nothing else, you voted against the spirit and the letter of a motion passed by conference. I wrote that motion and I worked hard to get Liberal Youth to sponsor it and to get it passed. Last September, you spoke to us at Liberal Youth, you told us how the party would have died out in the seventies had it not been for our predecessor organisation. But why should young people like myself work for the party and stay as members when even you, a man who promised to listen to the membership during your election campaign, completely disregarded our wishes when you voted in parliament on Wednesday. Aside from anything else, this was a massively idiotic political mistake as far as I'm concerned. When people in your constituency start suffering, when people living in constant pain are forced into poverty, when people commit suicide rather than face a future without support (as has already happened on several dozen occasions under the existing system) then the media will start to pay attention.

Because of your hard work, you will probably be able to be confident of re election as an MP, should you seek it, but in many parts of the country this will be a devastating blow to our party and will wipe out decades of hard work amongst some of the poorest people in society. By voting the way you did you enabled Labour to get off the hook for their own appalling record on disability benefits and, if they have any sense, they will now use every single incidence of suffering because of the changes as a big political stick to beat us with. I was upset about tuition fees and I was upset about the NHS reforms. But I've got over them and I accept that some good will come of them. But I cannot get over or understand what you and our other MPs did yesterday. It breaks my heart. I cannot see any good at all in what you have done.

I'm begging you, please tell me that I'm wrong, please tell me that my fears are unjustified, show me that all the evidence I've seen to the contrary was wrong. Above all, tell me why, because you last email leaves me asking that same question again and again: Why?

George Potter

What Lib Dem MPs did yesterday

This is something I wrote this morning for a Lib Dem facebook group and which should be published here later today automatically:

Okay, so I've taken several deep breaths and am going to do my best to stay calm and rational. I want to explain what happened with our MPs and the welfare reform bill last night and why I think it was wrong.

I've been campaigning on this for well over six months so it's easy for me to forget that not everyone knows as much about this as I do or feels about it as strongly as I do. I know that many of you know, like and respect our MPs. So did I until last night which is why I know how hard it might be to believe all this. So I'm asking you to just read this and to read all of it before coming to a conclusion on it all. I'm not going to lie, I'm not going to use hyperbole. I'm going to tell the whole truth and, if you doubt what I say, then you can easily verify it. I'm purposely not going to talk about the benefits cap here. I disagree with it for several reasons but the government did make some concessions on it and it's not something I've campaigned on so I'm going to avoid talking about it so that it doesn't muddy the waters when it comes to the issue of disability benefits. If you want to discuss it, please discuss it somewhere other than the debate on the cuts to disability benefits - otherwise the good arguments about both issues will be drowned out by the noise.

Yesterday the House of Commons voted on the House of Lords' amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.

These amendments were as follows:

• Amendment 36a: Protects young disabled people's eligibility for contributory Employment Support Allowance (ESA)

The government wished to end the practice of treating children who were too severely disabled to work, and therefore unable to accumulate NI payments, as being treated as though they had made NI payments and therefore giving them access to the higher rate of support called contributory Employment Support Allowance. The government's plan would have instead meant them going on to the means tested version of ESA where the cut off point for receiving benefits is a household income of £7,500 or £16,000 in savings - this change would save £10 million a year. The arguments in favour of the government's plan was that otherwise disabled children could potentially inherit large amounts of money and yet still receive benefits and that a european court of human rights ruling meant that it might also allow people who could claim they had a link to Britain to receive the benefit even if they lived abroad.

The House of Lords collectively felt that these arguments and savings did not justify the blanket ending of the practice, especially as the human rights ruling was being challenged and had consequences far beyond this particular practice, and because the means test threshold was so low that it would effectively limit severely disabled children from being able to ever live with a partner or save for old age without being penalised and therefore the Lords passed this amendment to prevent this change.

• Amendment 38: Raises to 24 months the proposed 12-month limit on claiming contributory ESA.

Contributory ESA is a higher rate of benefit for those who have made sufficient National Insurance contributions. ESA itself is the successor to Incapacity Benefit. The people who receive it are those who are assessed as being potentially able to return to work at some point in the future as opposed to have a condition so severe that they can never work. The government wanted to limit the amount of time claimants could receive contributory ESA to a maximum of 12 months, coming into effect retrospectively from April when the bill is due to be signed. However, the argument against this change is that the majority of contributory ESA recipients take substantially longer than a year to return to work, indeed, when the benefit was set up it was imagined that most recipients would take 2 to 5 years to return to work. Those who reach the end of the time limit would be moved onto income related ESA which has the same means test as above of a maximum of a household income of £7,500 or £16,000 in savings before it is taken away completely. This could potentially penalise families where one partner is working as it would make the family financially better off by splitting into two households or by the working partner giving up work.

The other argument against the change is that the work capability assessment (WCA) that determines whether people should receive contributory ESA as opposed to unconditional ESA is deeply flawed and has an appeals system which is costly and where 40% of appeals at tribunal are successful. The government is reforming the WCA through a series of annual report but the changes won't be fully implemented until 2015 meaning that, at the moment, many of the people affected by the limit will include those suffering from degenerative conditions such as Parkinsons or cancer and who cannot be reasonably expected to work and that this would mean a three year window where people were affected by a time limit despite the fact that the assessment system which put them in the time limit was broken and described by it's designer as "not fit for purpose".
The lords’ amendment raised the time limit to a minimum of two years as it was felt that this would reduce the number of people caught by the cap and give those affected more time to be able to return to work.

• Amendment 38a: Exempts cancer patients from the contributory ESA limits

This is fairly self-explanatory. This amendment would have stopped cancer patients from being affected by the contributory ESA time limit and the associated Work Capability Assessment. Personally I think this should apply to other severe conditions, such as Parkinsons, but that's just me.

• Amendment 1: Passed last night, this drops proposals to cut disability living allowance payments by up to £1,400 a year for around 100,000 children.

Currently poorer families with a child getting Disability Living Allowance can get a payment of £53.84 a week via the "disabled child element" of the Child Tax Credit. Those with children with the highest care needs get an additional £21.73 a week. Under the new Universal Credit, the government proposes that those on the higher rate will get £77 a week - £1.43 more than currently. Children on the lower rate would get £26.75 a week, a weekly reduction of £27.09. In effect, this means giving a slight increase in support to severely disabled children whilst cutting it significantly for those with "medium" disability. The lords amendment sought to alter the bill so that the lower rate of disabled child benefit would be no less than two thirds of that of the higher rate.


Every single one of these amendments (as well as others relating to child benefit and the benefit cap) were voted down in the House of Commons with the overwhelming support of Lib Dem MPs. About a dozen or so Lib Dem MPs abstained or voted against the rejection of some or all of the Lords' amendments. The government has also stated it's intention to declare the Welfare Reform Bill a "money bill" which would enable it to go to royal assent without returning to the Lords.

Now, our autumn conference unanimously passed a motion against the one year time limit to contributory ESA and made it party policy to oppose any arbitrary time limit - something that was a key point of the motion and my original purpose in writing it.

The argument made in the Commons by Jenny Willott was that since policy was that the two year time limit was just as arbitrary and should therefore the one year time limit should be supported. I disagree with this fundamentally as I think that a) the lords amendment was for a MINIMUM of two years and b) it was a damn sight better than what the government proposed and was for more in keeping with the spirit of the motion passed at conference.

Basically, I think that the way our MPs (and our peers before them, as they overwhelmingly voted against these amendments in the Lords) is disgraceful as the bottom line is that vulnerable sick and disabled people will suffer. The argument made time and time again by the government, when pushed to the wall, was that these amendments should be rejected as they would disrupt planned savings. I don't think we should balance the budget by cutting support to the most vulnerable for no reason other than to save money. The IFS today said that Osbourne has room for £20 billion of tax cuts due to lower than expected borrowing costs. The total savings the government intends to make from disability benefits is £3 billion - and these amendments don't even touch one of the major savings which was cutting DLA by an estimated 20% whilst also introducing a new assessment system at the estimated cost of £545 million.

In the long term, universal credit and the improved WCA will counter some of the most harmful elements of the changes but, over the next three years, sick and disabled people will be caught in the three year gap of the implementation of universal credit and the new WCA. Human beings will suffer unnecessarily through no fault of their own.

Danny Alexander said that we shouldn't balance the books on the back of the poor. But that's exactly what I view this as doing.I think it goes against everything our party should stand for, especially as these changes to disability benefits weren't in the manifesto of either coalition party or in the coalition agreement.

I've emailed Tim Farron and Jenny Willot asking for an explanation for the way they voted but I have yet to receive a reply.