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 ;)