Thatcher ‘tribute’: on what she did, believed, and her effect today…

Margaret Thatcher rose to power in the context of a broken down Bretton Woods System, a system that formed after the Second World War in attempts to control the speculative financial flows and an unstable economic order that saw protectionist policies and the Great Depression occur in the inter-war period. With the US unable to withhold the convertibility of Gold and the dollar, however, the ‘Nixon shock’ (1971) saw the end of such guaranteed convertibility, alongside the fixed exchange rate coming to an end by 1973 with the rise of many floating currencies. With this renewed flexibility for the US that remained the reserve currency, able to run up ever-increasing unsustainable debts and deficits, this was accompanied by the rise of new social forces alongside an increasing attack on organised labour and welfare rights that had been won and granted after the Second World War. The rise of the right especially occurred in the UK, represented by Margaret Thatcher, and in the US with Ronald Reagan.

The 1986 Big Bang in London, one of Thatcher’s notable ‘achievements’, alongside the intensification and depth of Wall Street after the 1970s with the development of unstable dollar supply and the US’s special status as the reserve currency saw an expanding, inherently destructive finance sector. There was more and more financial shocks and increasingly bigger state bailouts of institutions that went wrong due to the risk and instability. In 1997, there was the Asian Crisis that the IMF and developed countries tried to blame upon the developing countries’ domestic policies, with the IMF imposing measures that made the crisis even worse in the long-term. However, with the recent financial crisis the developed countries have had to question their own economic ideologies more, with developing countries amassing a great amount of reserves to protect themselves against needing the IMF whilst supporting the US currency with the developing countries’ heavily reliant export model economy. How sustainable such an arrangement is, is up for debate.

It is important to stress this context and how the rise of right-wing Thatcherism and Reaganomics ideology and economic practices utilised such a context to intensify financial dominance, with profits being the thing people wanted, bonuses exploding and an individualistic logic Ayn Rand would have been proud of encouraged from the top down. People were told they were on their own. There was no such thing as a society. As unemployment ballooned, working class communities were shattered and called the ‘enemy within’, hospitals and schools were closed, VAT increased, social houses were sold through ‘right to buy’ so there was a massive shortage of council housing, alongside the Poll Tax, whilst Thatcher extended great support and friendship with a fascist dictator – Pinochet –  alongside terming Mandela as a ‘grubby little terrorist’ and supporting the apartheid regime. These were some of Thatcher’s notable ‘achievements’. 5475_437828659634462_976478196_n

I use achievements sparingly, as people have been referring to what Thatcher did as ‘achievements’. I don’t like the word, as it makes out these were positive things. I see what Thatcher did as a series of atrocities. The same thing happened with Reagan after he died. For instance, Thatcher and Reagan hated gay people. Thatcher introduced Section 28, to stop the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools – it only recently was repealed. Reagan, despite AIDS being first reported in the medical and popular press in 1981, only spoke voluntarily publicly about the epidemic in 1987 by which time tens of thousands of people had died from AIDS. In 1987, the US prohibited AIDS education that ‘encouraged’ or ‘promoted’ homosexuality – similar to Thatcher’s Section 28 introduced around the same time. But like the media within the UK since Thatcher has died, there was no real mention of this in Reagan’s obituaries.

This brings me on to this false pathetic claim that if you didn’t live through something you can’t comment on it. Essentially, this means having an individualistic logic where only anything you directly experience can be commented on. It’s an ahistorical argument where there is total ignorance towards how what Thatcher – and Reagan – did has such a profound influence on who we are economically, politically and socially today. Rather, we have to understand the context to their reforms – so this refers back to the inherent destabilising mechanisms within the Bretton Woods System that relate to the US dominance and ignorance towards Keynes’ warnings regarding the US as reserve currency and also unsustainable trade deficits.

Whilst Labour tried and succeeded in addressing many of the inequalities Thatcher brought in and Major continued, her legacy still has a dramatic impact on who we are today – and even the Labour party with New Labour. We are a selfish, individualistic and apolitical culture that often cares about only themselves and doesn’t have a respect for the legacy of the great struggles that got us the rights we so often take for granted: such as voting. This relates to this individualistic notion that we can’t comment on things we didn’t live in. After all, why would the right want you to see that they have always been on the wrong side of debate throughout history? The current government are also doing things Thatcher only dreamed of and are picking up where she left off, with full-scale privatisation, slashing of state support, social services, and benefits alongside rapid cuts to departments.

It is a selective use of the right wing economic discourse, however, as shown by William Hague’s comment regarding the funeral and how we can “afford” it:

When it comes to money, the rebate she negotiated for this country from the EU has brought us so far £75bn, which is twice the size of our annual defence budget. I think that puts money in perspective … so I think we can afford to contribute to a funeral.

Ok, if we are going to play the numbers game, it was Thatcher’s policies that sowed the seeds for the recent crash and the £1.5 trillion bank bailout. Why should the public, who were not responsible for this, then have to pay for such state support of a corrupt over-leveraged finance sector with benefit cuts, privatisation, housing shortages, financial aid cuts, education cuts, higher tuition fees, cuts in wages and so on? One minute we are told by Hague that cuts are “essential to the future of the country” and then we are told we aren’t actually nearly bankrupt and can afford to pay for the funeral of someone who hated and wanted to destroy the state and all it stands for. This illustrates their selective use of anti-state ideology, as does the state’s continual support for an unsustainable unstable finance sector and their ignorance to the 450% private sector debt as they decided to focus on public sector debt which is around 70% of GDP – when after the war, public sector debt was 250% and Atlee created the welfare state and helped turn Britain around!

There are long-term effects of Thatcher’s legacy all over the world. You look at places such as Russia even, which was ransacked by the Chicago Boys mentality – something Thatcher supported in Chile – after the fall of the Soviet Union. As mentioned, our culture is dominated by egos and individualistic rhetoric which relates to lack of workers’ rights and organisational labour power that only makes it easier for the finance cartel to employ race-to-the-bottom policies with their boys in Number 10 helping them given the Tories get 50% of their funding from the City.

Essentially, this relates to the right-wing media that Thatcher got on with so well, especially Murdoch, and how the media tells us what to care about. The media say that it is not in good taste to even discuss Thatcherism. We are told to ignore what she did, believed and promoted because she’s died, as though that makes someone so much nicer. The respect for all those people she screwed over doesn’t matter. For instance, the BBC are quite happy to play the pro-right-wing Thatcher song, I’m In Love with Margaret Thatcher, but will only play a 5 second clip of the Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead song, despite not being directly about Thatcher nor naming her directly, because of ‘respect’. What the hell. Firstly, not playing a clip when you usually would do is biased as you are changing what you normally would do to keep the right wing, especially those in government, happy. Then, secondly, what about the respect for all those people’s lives Thatcher destroyed? Who cares about them? Those people who died long ago, or who have had so much grief and hardship all over the world because of her policies, ideology and rhetoric. Why aren’t they the focus?

This relates to this idea that we need to respect how she was a strong-willed character. I don’t think her being strong-willed will make anyone feel better in South Yorkshire or in Chile who suffered the abuse and torture of her regime. Equally, I dislike this idea that just because she is a woman that we have to respect her determination and strong will and the fact she got to the top of a male dominated party as quite an ‘achievement’. And for what? Did she help women when she was attacking feminism and women’s rights? Did she care about women when she only ever had one woman cabinet minister? Just because she is a woman doesn’t mean she cares about women’s rights and was a good thing for women.

Relating to the objection to Glenda Jackson’s fantastic speech in parliament when the MPs were wrongly called back, which has only happened 14 times in the last 32 years, with over three thousand pounds travel expenses to use – you can’t complain that people refer to what Thatcher did and believed when they are giving demanded ‘tributes’. The whole point of a tribute is to reflect on what someone did in their life, what they believed and what they wanted in life. All what Glenda Jackson said reflected this, and was right but the Tories just don’t want to hear it. If when I die I have lots of right wingers outside my funeral protesting, I’d know I had done something right in my life!

People have every right to protest, celebrate and be glad that Thatcher is dead. When someone has such horrific, nasty damaging views and helps enact so much grief and travesty onto people around the world through such controversial and hateful determination I can’t see why anyone has any objection to people breathing a sigh of relief. Such relief, is nothing compared to everything she ‘achieved’. What should be happening in a decent society is a whole-hearted criticism of Thatcherism, what it meant and did and its effects upon society now and how we are going to move away from it. Rather, we live in a society where we have an even worse government than Thatcher’s, who hate anyone that aren’t rich upper class white non-disabled men. We have to question how we live in such a society, with so much resources, knowledge and wisdom. We need to use this time to help destroy Thatcherism and its legacy today, whilst giving respect to your ordinary person who is neglected, abused and misrepresented in the mainstream media and in political debates more and more.

I’m telling [my daughter] all about the Thatcher legacy through her mother’s experience, not the media’s; especially how the Thatcher government directly supported Pinochet’s murderous regime, financially, via military support, even military training (which we know now, took place in Dundee University). Thousands of my people (and members of my family) were tortured and murdered under Pinochet’s regime—the fascist beast who was one of Thatcher’s closest allies and friend. So all you apologists/those offended [by my celebration]—you can take your moral high ground & shove it. YOU are the ones who don’t understand. Those of us celebrating are the ones who suffered deeply under her dictatorship and WE are the ones who cared. We are the ones who protested. We are the humanitarians who bothered to lift a finger to help all those who suffered under her regime. I am lifting a glass of champagne to mourn, to remember and to honour all the victims of her brutal regime, here AND abroad. And to all those heroes who gave a shit enough to try to do something about it. – A Chilean who experienced the oppression of Pinochet.

Highlighting misconceptions with the EU In-Out Debate…

Cameron has finally given into the demands from his backbenchers and the growth of UKIP alongside feeding Euroscepticism ignorance within the UK by promising an in-out European referendum if the Tories get re-elected.

I’m not against referendums but voting on membership to the EU is stupid on two counts:1) There is so much ignorance, lies and misconceptions regarding the European Union and the Eurozone, which would only be intensified through right-wing media monopoly 2) The benefits far outweigh the negatives, and gambling with this through a vote is like a game of Russian Roulette.

Both of these points relate to the differences between the European Union politically and the Eurozone and the related Stability and Growth Pact and the recent Fiscal Compact. The UK are not in the Eurozone and so are not really effected by the Stability and Growth Pact and the recent tightening of these measures by the Fiscal Compact, given that we have opted out of the Euro and probably will never join.

The measures shaping the Eurozone include:

  • The Stability and Growth Pact (1998) was key to setting a debt limit of 60% of GDP and a deficit limit of 3% of GDP: “in general, the debt must be reduced by one twentieth each year. Countries which are already in the Excessive Deficit Procedure because of not meeting the 3% criterion are expected to work towards reducing their debt as well. They have a further three years to meet the 60% criterion after they have achieved the 3% criterion. At present, 23 of the 27 member states of the EU, including Ireland, are in the Excessive Deficit Procedure. Ireland has until 2015 to meet the deficit requirement of 3% of GDP. (In 2012, the target is 8.6% of GDP.) Ireland has until 2018 to meet the debt requirement.”
  • Stability and Growth Pact was reformed in 2011 through the ‘Six Pact’ extending surveillance to macroeconomic imbalances where the potential for intervention to promote liberalisation was intensified through supposed indicators of imbalance used to justify ‘reform’. The 2011 reform also increased pressure of financial sanctions on Eurozone countries.
  • The root cause of the current Eurozone austerity measures is the Stability and Growth Pact, not the Fiscal Compact.
  • The Fiscal Compact extends these conditions so “they further commit to pass a national law or an amendment of the national constitution that limits the structural budget deficit to 0.5% of GDP…For countries with a debt-to-GDP ratio “significantly below 60% of GDP”, the structural budget deficit may be as high as 1% of GDP.” The European Court of Justice can fine offending countries

This is also related to the European Banking Union proposals and development to regulate Eurozone banks and again the UK is not directly affected given its formal opt out from the Euro. However, despite the differences between the European Union and the Eurozone, Cameron utilises the Eurozone crisis and associated fiscal restraints as a way to support his move towards potential European exit for the UK:

Third, there is a growing frustration that the EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf. And this is being intensified by the very solutions required to resolve the economic problems. People are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent.We are starting to see this in the demonstrations on the streets of Athens, Madrid and Rome. We are seeing it in the parliaments of Berlin, Helsinki and the Hague. And yes, of course, we are seeing this frustration with the EU very dramatically here in the United Kingdom.

Other parties, including the Greens, have supported the referendum with a similar conflation of the EU and the Eurozone, as shown by the following quote from Natalie Bennett’s recent article on the matter:

So yes for change in Europe – but to a kind of Europe that isn’t a giant institution, bearing down on peoples and nations from above (as it has born down particularly oppressively on the Greeks).

It isn’t Europe as an institution, it is specifically the Eurozone with the related Stability and Growth Pact and the Fiscal Compact affecting countries such as Greece, which this referendum will have nothing to do with given we are not a part of the Eurozone or these related conditions.

The UK has only contributed relatively little to the IMF led European bailouts and has nothing to do with the European Stability Mechanism which is the new permanent rescue fund for the Eurozone countries and future Eurozone bailouts. If the UK cared so much about their money being used to promote austerity why are they committing so much of their own funds to austerity within the UK? Let’s also remember that Cameron’s problem is with legislation such as the Working Time Directive – which we already have a partial opt-out from – that “imposes employment rules such as limiting the working week and giving EU workers a minimum number of holidays each year.” Hardly caring about living standards.

Again, this is another victory for a government that is becoming an ever-increasing specialist in PR. If it isn’t turning a private debt and financial sector crisis into a public debt ‘crisis’ where the public sector, welfare claimants and social services pay for risky and speculative behaviours of the financial crooks, then it is the utilisation of the democratic deficit within the Eurozone – that the UK are not members of – to justify potential exit from the European political union.

Even if we were members of the Eurozone, given the UK’s commitment to austerity and neoliberal measures, we would hardly be able to criticise the austerity measures as Cameron has. Even the IMF have warned the UK about its austerity approach and its need to consider Plan B. The government isn’t listening though, as it harks on about the ‘global race‘. Sure, we should be very critical of it happening in countries such as Greece and Spain, but it can hardly be referred to as a justification for having a vote on European membership given how engrained austerity is within our own country because of the Tories.

So what benefits does Europe bring for the UK?

Many. Yes, there is need for democratic reform to European structures, as there is reform needed to local democracy in the UK, parliamentary structures and electoral systems. But even contemplating leaving Europe with ever-increasing regionalisation doesn’t make logistic sense, and will see the UK become increasingly isolated.

For information regarding the benefits of EU membership have a look at the following links:

Crucial benefits include:

  • “Critically, being a member of the EU, the UK is part of the procedure for making the rules and regulations of the single market.  Britain’s seat on the Council of Ministers is essential to enable the UK to put its case on proposed regulations and to argue for reform of existing rules.  Our MEPs in the European Parliament are also important because most of the decisions of the EU require the Parliament’s involvement.  Were the UK to leave the EU but join the European Economic Area (assuming we were admitted to the EEA), we would be bound by most single market rules but have no part in the decision-making process.”
  • “The EU Health Insurance Card is a free card which enables EU citizens to receive emergency healthcare on the same terms as the citizens of the EU country they are visiting (often free).”
  • “In addition to being able to live where they choose in the EU, pensioners can receive their UK state pension wherever they live in the EU.”
  • “The European Arrest Warrant (EAW) has been very important in bringing criminals to justice across Member State borders, preventing the long delays and sometimes politicised extradition processes seen in the recent past.”
  • “One of the EU’s most popular programmes is the university mobility scheme ERASMUS, which enables students and staff to study or work at another higher education institution in the EU.  Over 7,000 British students went universities elsewhere in the EU in 2008/09 and 16,000 students from other EU countries came to the UK in the same year”
  • “Research and development is a growing area of EU activity with substantial sums now spent on collaborative and cross-border research projects.  The UK has been particularly successful in winning research grants from the EU – €2.3 billion between 2002 and 2006.”
  • “Only 6.8% of UK primary legislation and 14.1% of secondary legislation have anything to do with implementing EU obligations – not EU diktats – agreed to, approved of and signed off by UK officials.”
  • Laws such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

If an EU referendum does present itself, we have to highlight the misconceptions, lies and myths circulated regarding the EU and the differences to the Eurozone alongside the real benefits being a member of the EU brings. There already is a sovereignty lock in place where any more transfer of ‘power’ from the UK to the EU will be voted on, taking things to a new level of whether we are even a member of the EU is ill-conceived and not based on logic of the real benefits such membership brings.

What we need to do is campaign against the increasingly neoliberal Eurozone but given we are not a member and given our own austerity measures, this isn’t easy. This is where the real work needs to take place. It is dealing with the Eurozone crisis, something we are not engaged in, that threatens the UK.

David Cameron has even boasted that a two-tier European Union will not undermine the UK after opting out of the banking union, saying:

What you’ll see is a growth of this multi-faceted Europe and I don’t think it’s something we should be frightened of at all, I think we should be very confident.

Similarly, Osborne said that it was “a good deal for Britain and a good deal for Europe.” With the expected treaty change required for increased Eurozone integration, this is where David Cameron hopes to change things. He doesn’t intend to attack the Eurozone, rather he hopes to claw back progressive environment, social and employment legislation. Importantly, the issues have to be clear and conflation of key terms and debates have to stop whatever happens.

Reading the Riots Conference Review…

It was only last week that Iain Duncan Smith was yet again forming a correlation, not causation, with the occurrence of the riots. This time, Smith argued that X-Factor was partly the cause of the riots. That’s right. The cause. Now, when I was younger, I was rather glued to the television when X-Factor came on. But now, I see it for what it really is. It’s glorified mass consumption, that removes the talent and meaning behind music to rather commodity, sometimes at the expense of the contestant, representing our instant gratification culture of excess, capital and agonising over becoming a millionaire. For me, rather, X-Factor, like the riots, is a product of a society and culture that has been consistently eroded by successive governments over the last few decades. Whilst Smith was correct in some of his statements regarding X-Factor’s vacuous nature, his analysis was skewed, getting things the wrong way around, as usual.

I wrote at the time of the riots regarding the racism, poverty, social segregation that many people taking parts in the riots experienced. The government wanted to take a different stance, however. They promoted the line that this was a subsection of the population, a small ‘uncivilized’ group of thugs, they advanced a crack down on gangs and social media – two things that The Guardian and LSE study into the riots, Reading the Riots, have found were rather trivial in terms of the cause of the riots.

The Guardian and the LSE hosted a conference regarding the Reading the Riots part 1 publication, with Theresa May and Ed Miliband amongst the attendants. The report is the first real in-depth sociological study into the riots. Whilst Cameron was busy arguing that the riots were a result of ‘pure criminality’ and the justice system became dis-proportional with the Court of Appeal arguing that sentences had to be a lot stricter than normal sentences in order to ‘deter’ others, with the recent Sentencing Committee for England and Wales legal guidelines review becoming stricter due to the riots and the potential for curfews to be placed onto areas in case there are future riots, all illustrate the backlash and law and order response the government had/has.Rather than sitting down, talking and listening ultimately to understand why such events could occur, we had the media and politicians teaming up to stigmatise those taking part. They were placed onto a scrap heap of so-called ‘degenerates’.

This heavy law and order, punishment approach was criticised by the report. The Reading the Riots report on the other hand managed to interview 270 people involved in the riots and talk to them about their reasons, experiences – as their voice has been consistently shut out by mainstream channels. With the use of methodological triangulation (qualitative and quantitative methods), the research offers initial data on understanding, not stigmatising, the rioters. For instance, the conference highlighted that despite David Cameron’s assertions that poverty had nothing to do with the riots, the data showed substantial evidence for a casual, not correlative, relationship. Poverty and desperation for wealth given the numerous amounts of constraints and lack of opportunities within society for people not as connected are often reasons many people try their luck on X-Factor, as well.

Paul Lewis talked about the opportunism of the riots – this is something again that relates to the desperation related to X-Factor and its instant gratification culture, encouraged by a society with a ruling elite based on greed, amorality, lies and corruption. Obviously, there are those critical voices of the Daily Mail and such forth that denounce the report as “left-wing claptrap”. Well hardly a surprise. To give the people they base their factitious hyperbole headlines on a voice would produce evidence to the contra and undermine their purely sickening ideological agenda.

Theresa May’s speech was framed by the usual rhetoric of the rioters’ being ‘irrational’ and ‘thieves’. She then claims to be using the study as a way to understand the riots, but you can’t call the rioters ‘irrational’ if you are willing to try to understand their rationalisation – the point of the study. It’s a prior undermining of the study’s findings! She annoyed the audience when claiming “The riots weren’t about protests, unemployment, cuts … They were about instant gratification.” Well, as I have been trying to illustrate with the X-Factor example, instant gratification culture relates to aspects such as protests and unemployment through the sheer ideological callous nature of this government’s economic political policies that are destroying the communities, mainly of the poorest. Instant gratification has been nurtured by a world in where bankers receive excessive bonuses for screwing over the country. A culture where people spend a few months in a talent contest and receive a million pound record deal. These are therefore surface events that reflect an underlying structural deficiency in democracy, fairness and equality. In other words, by blaming instant gratification May ignores the reasons for why we have such a culture; social and economic neoliberal policies, that is.

Regarding Theresa May’s announcement of a review into Stop and Search powers, it’s hardly going to be a revelation given the amount of criticism over years the powers have received, alongside promises from various politicians that the powers will be dropped, or restricted. As has been widely reported, there was a great deal of anti-police sentiment amongst the rioters. May pretty much defended the Stop and Search powers in her poor speech. One wonders why she even bothered turning up – she could have simply submitted an earlier speech on the topic, as the findings of the study clearly mean nothing to her and her millionaire out of touch friends. She even went against the study’s findings that gangs had NO significant effect upon the riots, arguing that we should be listening to victims not rioters (going against the entire meaning of the study) and that the government will press ahead with their anti-gang strategy, alongside supporting the court’s tough punishments. I repeat; why the hell did she even bother to go? She learnt nothing. The government learnt nothing. They don’t care. As long as they have their millionaire bubble. As Julia Urwin said, “if we say that any understanding of why people did it is only an excuse, we are really missing the point.”As the conference also pointed out; what about rioters as daily victims themselves of a political and economic agenda?

Jokingly referring to Theresa May as a ‘warm-up act’, Ed Miliband was better when it came to the content and tone of his speech alongside accepting questions at the end of it. Miliband criticised the view purported by the government that the riots were a result of ‘pure criminality’. There was a lot of emphasis upon values and morality, what this means in practice is hard to tell. Furthermore, he also backed the harsh sentences of the rioters. Whilst he addressed issues such as a living wage, as expected there is a genuine inability to connect the dots across the mainstream political channels. These riots are a consequence of a system that is beset with corruption, greed, conflict and where the ruling elite perpetrate their ruling agenda and ideology to the detriment of the mass majority. The study is a good building block to illustrating these problems, and I look forward to phase two of the study.

An analysis of UK disability policy with reference to international law…

With the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the optional protocol signed by the United Kingdom in 2009, the UK are now legally bound to the Convention and the protocol that enables individuals/groups to report – against government policies – to the Committee on Rights of Persons with Disabilities if they believe the government is breaking the Convention’s stipulations. However, many have recognised the problems of poor implementation regarding the Convention despite the Convention having the highest number of signatures on the opening day of a Convention in the UN’s history, alongside having the highest level of participation by civil society in a human rights convention.

For my degree, one of my modules involved an analysis of disability policies in line with international and national policy frameworks within a specific country. I studied France, finding that despite being one of the most advanced countries in the world, it still presides over a raft of poverty and authoritarian behaviour re disabled people shaped by ever-increasing neoliberal, European and international associated, pressures of deficit and debt reductions. Organisations such as Ni Pauvre, Ni Soumis are fighting the abject poverty many disabled people experience on a daily basis, given many of their benefits are below the poverty level. Ironically, a French company, ATOS healthcare (paid over £100m a year to run their ‘tests’) – a division of ATOS Origin, are primal architectures of the assault upon disabled people’s rights within the UK and the breaching of the UN Convention.

Below, I intend to demonstrate, through utilising specific articles from the UN Convention, how the UK are ignoring the framework they have ratified to law and why disabled organisations, disabled people and people in general are justifiable angry at the ideologically callous direction of this government and why the recent Disability Alliance legal challenge of the UK’s policies has power behind it.

Background Knowledge

Below is a quote from a recent Guardian article regarding a key change to disability benefits, just to contextualise the blog:

Since 2008, anyone claiming sickness or disability-related benefits for the first time has been required to take the Atos-administered Work Capability Assessment (WCA); from the end of this month (February 2011), all existing incapacity benefit claimants will be reassessed using this test, as the old benefit is phased out and a new system, employment support allowance (ESA), is brought in.

If they are awarded 15 points, they will be moved on to ESA, which has two levels – the support group, where claimants are judged to be too disabled or unwell to be expected to work, and the work-related activity group, where claimants are deemed to be capable of working, provided they are supported into employment.

If they don’t score 15 points, they will be moved on to the regular jobseekers’ allowance. This is around £25 a week less than incapacity benefit, and will leave people with their income cut by just over a quarter. This lower benefit also lacks the immediate, intensive support for getting back to work that ESA is designed to provide.

Article 13 – Access to justice

1. States Parties shall ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, including through the provision of procedural and age-appropriate accommodations, in order to facilitate their effective role as direct and indirect participants, including as witnesses, in all legal proceedings, including at investigative and other preliminary stages.

With the recent news that legal aid will be stopped for those on benefits, the government is clearly breaking Article 13, 1. I recount a recent blog entry, where I quoted a disability activist’s comments regarding the stopping of legal aid for disabled people and the deeply disturbing reasons, driven by neoliberal ideology, for why the government wants to end such provision:

It’s partially due to the failure of ESA – appeals are won at 40%, with an advocate, usually paid for by legal aid they jump to 70%. Cut the legal aid cut the number of people legally claiming what they are entitled to and it’s a double save. Also stops both the government and ATOS looking quite so incompetent and will stop it looking so necessary to reform or scrap the failing benefit and its corrupt test. They don’t want the same to happen with the new PIP – because it was legal aid that helped win the case-law that brought DLA into line with the equality legislation and therefore widened the criteria to all those who should be entitled not just the smaller group the government wanted to give as a gesture towards equality and independence for disabled people. The blind are a prime example, until very recently no one who was blind could get the higher rate of mobility – through challenges in the courts someone who needs a lot of support to get out and about can now qualify. That’s a completely new group of claimants who really do deserve the money who have been denied it for decades. It’s also why the claimant rate for DLA has gone up so much, because as legal challenges were made and won new groups became entitled to it and so they claimed and it made their lives easier and them more independent. They can’t get rid of the equality legislation no matter how much they drool over the thought, nor the payments towards independence, so they will fiddle around with the criteria, move the goal posts a bit and remove legal aid to make sure that no one can bring it back into line with what is actually fair and legal. Barely anyone outside the disabled community will blink because the propaganda about scroungers is so embedded into everyone’s heads they think we are all faking. They are so certain we are all faking they’ve forgotten if you look really ill your probably genuine and that the fakes are running around looking like the rest of them until they have an ATOS visit. 

Obviously, Labour signed the Convention and initiated many of the controversial aspects to the government’s disability onslaught, especially Employment Support Allowance (ESA). However, the current government is carrying out the plans with more ferocity; consider my analysis of the coalition’s initial agreement document where there was no mention of disability in line with equality, and the ignorance towards the independent living movement, instead focusing upon ‘care’ (interesting when considering Article 19 below). It was a year ago I wrote a blog regarding the BBC Scotland and the Citizens Advice Scotland’s report on ESA; the key findings, reported include:

  • It is “unfit for purpose”
  • It targets the most vulnerable
  • 2/3rds of claimants are being found to be fit for work – 20% more than estimated by the previous government
  • One of the most commonly appealed against benefit, with around 8,000 cases a month and around 40% decisions being reversed

The last point highlights the argument made by the disability activist above; the high number of appeals causes a problem for a government intent on pretending the system works and that the people are the problem. However, this doesn’t also consider the many stories of ATOS recalling successful appeal claimants for new tests, where one person for instance was said to have died through the stress and another who committed suicide because of it with the local job centre conceding there needs to be a review into the Work Capability Assessments:

Dismayed to find his benefit claim rejected, he had appealed against the decision, and won at tribunal. But shortly after that decision, he was called in for another assessment, and for a second time scored zero points and was told he did not qualify for the benefit. He began appealing against the decision again, but a few days before another tribunal date was set, he hanged himself.

It also says something when one of the main creators of the ESA system, Paul Gregg, has labelled the process a ‘complete mess’. There is no consideration of the waiting times involved when being assessed for ESA (discussed below), for instance. The Work Capability Assessments are what are used to analyse whether claimants are fit to work. These assessments have been heavily criticised, as has the company, ATOS, mentioned above. Even the TUC have been critical of the company, arguing that the tests are there to save money (especially when the government has estimated, because of the tighter conditions, it will save them around £1bn over five years; nothing when you think about the billions wasted by corporations and institutions such as bankers!):

 “The new incapacity benefit assessment is a much tougher test than previously and is designed to save the government money by excluding more people. The TUC has heard from disabled people all around the UK who feel the tests have been unfair and ineffective, and it is interesting to see that 39% of appeals against initial judgments are successful.”

To even believe that you can understand and assess competently someone’s disability through a computer led programme beggars belief. This is especially true when it comes to mental illness, but even the self-completion questionnaires that are often used to ‘track’ depression and hand out drugs are created by the drug companies themselves! Questions, alongside ‘side-ways’ questions such as “do you watch Eastenders”, included in the test illustrate the sheer ignorant and restricted nature of the assessment:

How did you get here, by train, by bus? How do you spend your day? Do you watch TV? Do you listen to the radio? Do you go to the pub? Do you drink alcohol? Do you have pets? Do you have a social life? What time do you get up? Do you do housework? Do you follow the news? What floor do you live on? Do you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm? Are you able to cook? Can you go to the shops? Can you get yourself dressed?

Whilst providing background knowledge beyond relevance to this specific article (13), the information above illustrates the government’s inadequacy when it comes to ensuring disabled people have access to justice. With a system so flawed, prone to a very high rate of appeals, to then reduce the legal aid available to those on benefits is deeply troubling and clearly a breach of disability rights – as is the system itself.

Article 19 – Living independently and being included in the community

States Parties to this Convention recognize the equal right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others, and shall take effective and appropriate measures to facilitate full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of this right and their full inclusion and participation in the community, including by ensuring that:

  1. Persons with disabilities have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement;
  2. Persons with disabilities have access to a range of in-home, residential and other community support services, including personal assistance necessary to support living and inclusion in the community, and to prevent isolation or segregation from the community

There are warnings by disability charities that such negative portrayals of disabled people, constructing them as ‘threats’ to society in order to take attention away from the government’s actions and rather to justify repressive policies that curtail the rights of those being attacked, will likely lead to violence against disabled people. As mentioned above, if claimants fail to score more than 15 points on the Work Capability Assessments they are placed onto job seekers allowance meaning that they lose around £25 a week. Furthermore, whilst waiting for the assessment to go through, claimants are placed on very low levels of income:

During the assessment phase you are paid a ‘basic allowance’. This is set at a similar level to that of jobseeker’s allowance. If you are aged under 25 you will receive a reduced rate of this basic allowance. Once you have completed the assessment period the reduction for under 25s does not apply.

This can make all the difference, especially when it comes to independent living given the extra costs associated with disability. As many have expressed, the employment market is poor in general – disabled people are often seen as too much trouble to hire and so inevitability many will be reduced to poverty with a quarterly long-term cut in income. Furthermore, there is the possibility that disabled people may find specific aspects regarding job seekers harder to meet and therefore end up losing or having their benefit suspended.

Rather than utilising a social model approach, which concentrates on the need to remove the social barriers, shaped by neoliberal political and economic conditions, so that disabled people are included within society instead of being shut out and then blamed – the government focuses upon the individual in a capitalist centric fashion. This point was highlighted by Labour’s Anne Begg who argued that without sanctions enforced upon ATOS when appeals occur:

“[It] adds to the suspicion that you are a private company, you are driven by a profit motive, and the incentive is to get the assessments done, but not necessarily to get the assessments right.”

This is especially concerning when considering the cost of appeals to the taxpayer, with some having their benefits stopped after not attending a test they weren’t told they had:

More than 150,000 people deemed fit to work by French IT company Atos have won appeals in a process costing taxpayers more than £30million a year, it found.

ATOS have been given the contract to assess claimants for the new personal independence payments, to replace the disability living allowance in 2013 and currently being piloted with 1,000 volunteers (which the Disability Alliance are critical of given they were not consulted), causing understandable concern across the disability community, especially the focus upon cost-cutting when it comes to the Welfare Reform Bill alongside limited testing criteria with Scope arguing that this is very much like the problems associated with the ESA tests:

PIP is in danger of being a poorly-targeted payment, which will see many disabled people, especially those with less complex impairments but high disability-related costs, losing out on vital financial support (Scope, Richard Hawkes).

Disability living allowance has already been cut back, including the potential removal of the mobility compartment of DLA for those living in residential care, confining and institutionalising disabled people en mass with 60,000-80,000 people affected. PIP will carry this on, as people in care homes, prison and hospitals will not receive it. However, Disability Alliance have launched a legal bid against the government’s cuts to DLA, citing the UN Convention as one of the laws the UK is breaking illustrating the Convention’s significance. In their statement outlining the reasons for the bid, Disability Alliance state their concern that the movement towards targeting the benefit to those with the ‘most need’ (illustrating connections to Scope’s comments above, regarding the ignorance of less complex impairments) will lead to many losing the lower rate of the benefit (around £19 a week):

Disability Alliance is especially concerned over plans to abolish Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for working age people (defined as 16-64 years of age by DWP) and introduce a new benefit (Personal Independence Payment – PIP) which will have a £2.17 billion lower budget by 2015. PIP will not provide an equivalent level of support for the 652,000 disabled people currently receiving low rate care DLA payments.

The practice of awarding DLA automatically to those with certain conditions will be removed, with regular assessments every few years introduced. Essentially, the desire to cut DLA by 20% is at the driving seat of these reforms. It is worth noting that the income-related Employment and Support Allowance, different to contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance, will be replaced by a generalised controversial Universal Credit system. The new PIP system is set to also further the time claimants have to wait until they can receive financial payments for their disability:

Under the old system, claimants would have to meet the criteria for three months before receiving payment (which was not backdated). I felt this was scandalous. PIP addresses this issue – by extending this period to six months, which is downright cruel…The proposed extension is for all long-term disabilities with the very specific exception of the terminally ill with a life expectancy less than six months.

PIP’s restricted requirements will again penalise disabled people, who often find themselves in poverty alongside trying to meet higher living costs – as the Disability Alliance have expressed, there is concern that such conditions will really undermine the benefit’s use and application:

This ‘real life’ aspect to the assessment is also affected by the rigid assessment which makes no consideration of where disabled people live and the accessibility of local produce.

Furthermore, in another attack against disabled people’s independence, the cuts to housing benefit are set to lead to 450,000 disabled people being affected, losing on average £13 a week, and potentially losing their homes. Again, the changes discussed clearly break a key aspect of the Convention, with disabled people’s independence being seriously threatened as their resources, living and freedom are attacked in a cost cutting neoliberal ideologically driven ‘exercise’.

Article 27 – Work and employment

2. States Parties shall ensure that persons with disabilities are not held in slavery or in servitude, and are protected, on an equal basis with others, from forced or compulsory labour.

For me, the Work Capability Assessments and ATOS – given the flaws so endemic within their practices – are central to the government breaking Article 27.1, as disabled people are literally forced into working or onto an inadequate job seekers allowance. This is especially true now legal aid has been cut, reducing people’s ability to appeal such provision. With independent living continually being threatened, this also undermines disabled people’s autonomy – again forcing many into situations that breach their civil, political and human rights.

This point is excellently evidenced in a recent Guardian article regarding the problems of the ATOS tests:

Since its preliminary rollout in 2008, people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work, people with mental health problems have complained their condition is not taken seriously, people with complex illnesses report that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems. A revised, even more stringent version introduced this month means that blind and deaf people will no longer automatically receive sickness benefit, and are unlikely to qualify for extra help finding work.

This relates well to the brief discussion regarding the effectiveness of computer based analysis for such a complex area of life. Disability Alliance are highly critical of the omission within the assessments of considering the impact upon claimants if they are prevented or lose DLA; not to mention their survey that found that a half of those at work would stop working if they lost DLA. Furthermore, the Alliance refers to the exclusion of disability organisations when creating the Work Capability Assessments – these omissions of disability organisations within the disability related policy processes is a clear abbreviation of the Convention and goes against the high level of civic engagement when writing the Convention.

Article 28 – Adequate standard of living and social protection

1. States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions, and shall take appropriate steps to safeguard and promote the realization of this right without discrimination on the basis of disability.
2. States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to social protection and to the enjoyment of that right without discrimination on the basis of disability, and shall take appropriate steps to safeguard and promote the realization of this right, including measures:

c) To ensure access by persons with disabilities and their families living in situations of poverty to assistance from the State with disability-related expenses, including adequate training, counselling, financial assistance and respite care.

Fundamentally, the article as a whole illustrates the government’s breaking of the Convention rather well, especially given a third of disabled people live in poverty. Disabled people are being forced into a position of poverty, where their rights, standard of living and resources are being attacked in an ideological vendetta of sickening neoliberal hatred and callous desire to punish the most vulnerable whilst the top 1% is heavily represented by the cabinet.

ATOS, a private driven enterprise, is the epitome of what is wrong with this government. Instead of people’s needs and interests being considered, the destructive desire for profit and greed is promoted as neoliberal cost cutting targets are implemented with a devastating effect upon people’s lives. MPs on mass, from different parties, have criticised the system – with many questioning the ability of ATOS to deliver the ‘substantial savings’ they promised when their contract was lengthened to 2015. Furthermore, ATOS as a centre isn’t very accessible for many disabled people, as stated in a competent blog post regarding the problems of ATOS:

More problems occur because at least a fifth of ATOS medical centres are not wheelchair accessible. Only one third of the centres have onsite parking, while visitors are required to walk from car parks several minutes away for other centres, and just one has a parking space for disabled people. 30 of the centres are not on the ground floor some don’t even have lifts! Considering that people only visit these buildings when they are sick or disabled and a huge number of them will be using walking sticks or wheelchairs, this is ridiculous.

In fact, there is a recent Work and Pensions Select Committee report regarding the changes to disabled people’s benefits, which has been highly critical of the loaded negative language and misquoting of facts by the media regarding disability (also see here for a good analysis of biased media reporting regarding disability statistics; also here for a good analysis of the facts that illustrates that in reality incapacity benefit rates have been declining since the 80/90s when there was an movement towards removing many unemployed people out of the labour market, and the disproportionate focus upon long-term claimants ignoring the short-term temporary nature of many claimants’ impairment). Specifically, the report concentrates on the 1.5 million incapacity benefit claimants currently being assessed by ATOS via the Work Capability Assessments. I am planning to do another blog focusing upon the report’s findings.

Work In a Neoliberal World

I have discussed the importance of work in our capitalist neoliberal framed society before. As I made clear then, work is important – but it shouldn’t be the be all and end all. It shouldn’t be so important that without it people are made to feel worthless, not ‘normal’ and have limited resources, opportunities and income. That’s not a society you nor I should want to live in. As demonstrated throughout the blog, these changes are clearly breaking an international convention that the UK are legally obliged to meet. This highlights the problems with the United Nations as an enforcing body, but also the potential for disability activists to use such a valuable tool in our fight against this government’s callous actions.