Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Incompetence will destroy this government, not Cuts

I know, I've said it 100 times. I've said it since June. It won't be the cuts themselves that destroy this government, it will be the unprecedented incompetence.

It seems astonishing to me that a Conservative Party that spent 13 years in opposition have such poorly thought through policies.

First we saw Gove scrap the Building Schools for the Future fund, finding that, in fact he was breaking contracts left right and centre. This led to a high court Judge ruling that,

"Gove's actions over the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative last year had been "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power"

Then there are the aircraft carriers that will never carry aircraft.

Then it turns out that Lansley's health reforms could in fact mean that the NHS comes under the jurisdiction of EU competition laws - surely something no Conservative government would ever want?

Yesterday, just as I was hoping to switch off my laptop-slave-driver, a flurry of articles appeared that would surely leave even the most loyal Cameron-flag-waver feeling a little discombobulated?

First, the ONS confirmed that they have lowered growth projections for every year but one of this parliament. They have also raised the unemployment projections and the debt projections for every year until 2015. Effectively, growth will be lower, unemployment and debt will both be higher than projected by 2015 and Gideon has only been in charge for 10 months.

Next, someone posted this astonishing clip of the Baby-Chancellor which shows he hasn't a clue how much revenue the Treasury earns from petrol - literally no idea at all, not even in the right ball park. Please do click on the link - it really is a worry! I can't imagine either Ken Clarke OR Gordon Brown giving such an answer.

Then, Fact Check released this startling analysis on plans to cut Police budgets. After natural wastage and possibly the use of an archaic little loophole to force officers with the most experience and over 30 years service into early retirement, there will still be thousands of posts that need to go. However, it seems that you cannot sack a police officer! Fact Check point out that :

"The problem is that a fully-sworn police officer is technically not an employee of a police force but a servant of the Crown, and as such, cannot be sacked."

The answer? Seems the only way out is to sack back office staff instead and make frontline staff take up the slack answering phones and taking on admin roles. It seems that quite apart from going completely against Cameron's aims to "see police on the streets fighting crime, not stuck behind their desks fighting paper.” It will also lead the coalition into a legal minefield.

But there's more! Fact Check also looked into Gove's 180 Million "bursary" to replace EMAs - a reduction of 380 Million from the original scheme - which is seen across the board as a successful way of keeping disadvantaged young people in education. It found that the IFS take issue with Gove's claims and believe them to be misleading.

Finally, False Economy found that Osborne's plans to reduce a 147 Billion deficit will increased household debt - our debt - by 245 Billion. Effectively, we'll be footing the bill, with eye-watering interest. It seems the Baby-Chancellor will simply shift the debt from the Treasury to our credit cards. 

Cuts don't even take effect until next month and already up to half a million people have taken to the streets in protest. Can you even begin to imagine the fallout as all of these "oversights" kick in at the same time?

Oh yes, and we're going to force 2.2 million sick or disabled people off benefits and into work at a time of rising unemployment; cap housing benefit, potentially displacing 200,000 people; scrap the Independent Living Fund and Time Limit sickness benefits, forcing thousands of the most vulnerable in society into 100% state dependency; slash council budgets by over a quarter, privatise the NHS; close half of all women's refuges; make it illegal to feed the homeless and triple university tuition fees.

I can't watch, really I can't.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Divide and Conquer - Will the left EVER learn?

So, I see the debate is still raging over how, where what and why the March for the Alternative has become the "March that all went a bit Wrong"

Well shame on commentators, is all I can say. The TUC haven't fallen for all this divide and conquer nonsense. UK Uncut haven't either. The march didn't all go a bit wrong, it was a terrific success, but people like me, who spend their time offering opinions that they assume the country want to hear have lined up to criticise, analyse and judge.

I was fuming when the BBC and Sky switched away from Ed Miliband's speech to show split screen footage of a few rowdy vandals smashing up Oxford Street.

"What about the other half a million?" I yelled in frustration at the TV screen? What about the people patiently waiting to hear exactly what approach the Labour leader would take? What about the carnival-family-day-out atmosphere that was obviously the overwhelming message of the day?

I was cross with the media, not the protesters per se. It is totally inevitable that at any march where 100s of 1000s of people take to the streets with a host of different objectives and fears, a handful will try to spoil the party. Is that news? Really? Is it more newsworthy that 150 or so hooded rebels threw a few paint bombs than that up to half a million people turned up to make a very important point? A footnote perhaps, but the main story?

It was perfectly clear to anyone watching all day on Saturday, that the TUC march, the UK Uncut peaceful protest and the Black Block anarchists were three very distinct groups. That the media chose to morph them into one, was entirely predictable too.

I didn't comment before last night. Not once. The media had shown me police officers acting with incredible good nature under attack, but I'd also seen protesters kettled and dragged to the ground. I wasn't there. How can I say who started it? Who was at fault? More to the point why does it matter?

In every protest throughout history, those with power and influence have sought to divide and conquer those without. If I criticise UK Uncut, or even the balaclava'd rioters, I fall for the oldest trick in the book - judging those that are broadly on my side and I divert the debate from the very cause we aim to highlight.

I chose to support the TUC march from home. I desperately wanted the peaceful, reasonable voices of the "silent majority" to be heard.

At the same time, I am a great supporter of Movement for Change, the direct action group that first David Miliband and now the entire Labour Party will be pursuing as a grass-roots movement to re-engage those who think politics has let them down. What better way of doing that; what better example of firm but peaceful direct action could there be than sitting amongst the luxurious goodies of Fortnum and Mason's food hall eating curled up packed lunches and drinking pop. As anarchists go, it all looked terribly middle class and good natured to me.

Finally, (and I couldn't give a fig if controversially) if a small (less than 0.01%) group of dispossessed, disenfranchised public feel they have no other outlet than to throw a few paint bombs and smash a few windows, well is that a capital crime? Was anyone hurt? Killed? Injured? I haven't heard that they were. The argument that violence against property is a legitimate response to violence against the fabric of our society has at least somevalidity. It always has and it always will. Surely we ought to be asking ourselves why these people feel more peaceful forms of protest won't achieve anything? Sure, they should face prosecution for criminal damage, but in the end, the suffragettes felt that breaking the law was the only way to get their message across - none of this is new.

The front pages of our newspapers the following day gave the UK flaming streets and balaclava'd hoodies - does that mean the rebels high-jacked the march or that the media insisted that they did?

With column inches stretching into miles on who was at fault and why it all went wrong, didn't we just play right into their hands? Well done to the "Progressive Majority" for falling for divide and conquer - have we never learnt anything at all? We didn't refuse to be drawn, we didn't focus purely on how successful the day was overall, we didn't take the line that EVERYONE in London that day were simply trying to make their voices heard and move on to the main issue - an alternative to swingeing cuts that will harm us all. Oh no! We bickered and we judged and we criticised.

By blaming others and looking to create our own divisions, we allowed the media and politicians to achieve exactly what they hoped to. We've spent nearly 4 days gazing at our own navels rather than focussing on just what an enormous overall success the day was.

Whether you lean towards anarchy or democratic opposition, the real fight is over there - look! -  over there! Where the cuts are being made, where the sick and disabled have no voice, where students and other young people face a terribly bleak future. The real fight is over the privatisation of the NHS and the cuts to the arts, sport and pensions. Will we EVER learn?

The next time there's a march, let's assume the following : (We don't need a crystal ball)

-Most of it will be peaceful.

-A few will choose to take direct action.

-A tiny few will want seek to make a more violent point. 

However hard the media and vested interests try to tear us apart, however hard the coalition try to imply that all protesters are ignorant, radicals, can we PLEASE not give them a single column - in fact not a single word - not a single apostrophe - that does their job for them?

Monday, 28 March 2011

Is there REALLY a consensus on Austerity?

With a news schedule this busy, it's easy to miss the wider picture. With our screens full of conflict in the Middle East, disaster in Japan, marches in London and cuts that need to be opposed, it's easy to forget that the world must still turn and that we need a coherent strategy to ensure that it does.

During the credit crunch there was a broad consensus. The only way out of the financial meltdown, the only way to avoid a worldwide depression was through stimulus. Across Europe and America, governments stepped in to support ailing industries, protect home owners from repossession, bail out the banks and keep interest rates low.

With the formation of the UK coalition and the debt crisis raging, Europe largely abandoned this Keynesian approach and raced to announce austerity packages. Anglea Merkel and Geroge Osborne took the lead and first Greece, then Ireland, then Spain and Portugal, started cutting their way out of debt.

Since then, growth projections have fallen, unemployment has risen and both Ireland and now Portugal have been forced into taking bailouts from the European bank. Bonds have soared - exactly the effect austerity measures are supposed to avoid.

Over the last few days however, there are signs that this consensus of austerity is falling apart. The Portuguese Prime Minister, Jose Socrates, resigned on 23rd March stating that

“I know what this (EU bail out) meant for Ireland and Greece, and I don’t wish it on my country,” he said. “Portugal must demonstrate that it is a country that can resolve its own problems.”

Mr Sarkozy just faced a damning vote in local elections, receiving just 20% of the vote with the opposition Socialist Party receiving 36% on the lowest turnout ever in this kind of vote.

Angela Merkel, the Queen of austerity, suffered an historic defeat in state elections, beat by the Green Party over a debate raging on nuclear power.

Finally, in perhaps the most damning blow to right wing economics of all, the Canadian government, held up by our own coalition as a blueprint for austerity measures and deficit reduction, were toppled over the weekend in a vote of no confidence. The charge?

"failing to disclose the full financial details of its tougher crime legislation, corporate tax cuts and plans to buy stealth fighter jets."

So effectively taking the route our own coalition are so fond of - saying one thing but doing entirely another.

Worryingly, these defeats saw the National Front (under the charismatic Le Pen) surge in popularity in France, winning 11% of the vote, while our own BNP and EDL also claim a foothold in the public psyche.

So, a series of news stories, add up to a narrative which must make very uncomfortable reading for centre-right governments around the world : You can cut all you like, you can sit back as unemployment rises, as growth falls, as inflation soars, but you need the people with you. In democracies, the people have the final say, even if it doesn't always feel that way.

With local elections looming here in the UK in May, it is likely that the Lib Dems will face collapse. But what of Gloucester and Surrey and Berkshire? Will they reject the Conservatives as soundly as Merkel was rejected in a state her party had held for almost 6 decades?

People may say that local elections don't matter. That by-elections don't matter. That up to half a million people marching peacefully in London don't matter, but Cameron and Clegg know very well that in the end,
they start to matter very much. 

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Songs to keep you Marching.....

Liar! Liar!

"Andrew Lansley, greedy Andrew Lansley, Tosser, the NHS is not for sale you grey haired manky codger"

"Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men, it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again"

"I know that change is gonna come"

"The higher you build your barriers the taller I become. The farther you take my rights away. The faster I will run...."

So there you are, if you're stuck at embankment or too squished to move, or tired, or thirsty, slam on your iphones and play them to the crowds!!!

From the TV, it looks like vast numbers have turned out - Hyde park is already filling up. Well done all.

Today's March and some advice for Mr Cameron

Us political types find it very hard to look at the other side of an argument unless forced to. Cameron will know what he thinks about today before it happens. He also knew today would come long before he was elected. Any government proposing even a fraction of the cuts this coalition are unleashing were always going to face large scale public protests.

He will, I'm sure feel fairly unruffled about the fact that hundreds of thousands of people will give up a precious Saturday today. They will travel to London from every town and every village of every country of the United Kingdom to give him a message.

I'm sure he thinks he knows what that message is. He thinks that today will be about a minority who want to oppose for the sake of opposing, who just don't want to understand the details of his policies. He knows that just a small percentage of the country will be in London today and I'm sure, believes that these are people who would never vote for him anyway. To him, I imagine they are an amorphous mass of public-sector-worker-leftie-benefit-scrounging-student-radical-militant-crusty-drains-on-society.

I'm also sure that he thinks it's a gift that Ed Miliband will be speaking at the rally today. "Red Ed" eh? First chance to take to the streets and he couldn't resist. Oh how those Tories and Cleggs will laugh at the sight!

I would like, this morning to give Cameron a little piece of advice that I'm sure he'll ignore.

Ask yourself Mr Cameron, are people marching against your cuts or are they marching against your policies, against your incompetence?

How many of the people marching today have made the effort because you've let them down? How many are marching to save the NHS from privatisation? How many are sick or disabled, marching against plans to cut their lifelines? How many are marching because you tried to sell off our forests and it opened their eyes to other things they can't accept? How many are students facing £9000 tuition fees? How many are terrified that you are destroying our economy?

Just 30% of the public approve of your government. Around 60% think you are cutting too far and too fast. For everyone marching today, 100 people sit at home and will them on.

Did you see those oh-so-well-heeled Gloucester ladies on the BBC News last night Mr Cameron? The "Marks and Spencer's 12"? Clutching their petition of 15,000 names, hoping the 12 of them look like 15,000 today. They're marching. When asked about Big Society, they sneered. "This is the Big Society? - No it's the Big Corporate Society (genteel approving claps) and we're all saying no! 

Will you see those too ill or too disabled to march today Mr Cameron? Because we'll be taking over the internet and jamming emails all day long.

Will you see the frightened Mums or the desperate Grandparents or the sons and daughters left without hope?

When you sneer at Ed Miliband, do remember those Gloucester ladies and middle-England forest protesters and academic librarians too, won't you Mr Cameron. And remember that he might just be on the right side of public opinion after all.

Most of all Mr Cameron, don't for one minute think that because this is Britain, today means nothing and will come to nothing. Don't for one second lull yourself into believing that today's protest is anything different to protests taking place around the world - in the Middle East, In North Africa, in Europe.

An out of touch leader, acting without a mandate, causing fear and division can be rejected just as surely in the UK as anywhere else.


Friday, 25 March 2011

"Assessment" is a dirty word joke

Life really is the best comedy of all isn't it?

Today, Labour are holding the Fresh Ideas event in Nottingham. It will be the largest Q&A session a political party has ever held.

I tried to submit this :

"Admit that Employment Support Allowance is not working. Work Capability Assessments are unfit for purpose. Move to consultant led assessments and start treating vulnerable people with dignity again."

I kept getting the error message "Please remove inappropriate word"

Heehee, which word do we think the Labour Party might find inappropriate in 2011? Dignity?

Turns out it was "assessments"

Because it's got an "ass" in it.

You said it Labour.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Winter Fuel Payments Cut

How many times can I write that a Tory announcement beggars belief? How many times can I highlight the total lack of regard or honesty they show? Seriously, I'm running out of adjectives.

Remember this?

Please note the indignant rage, the spluttering denial and the total commitment to a promise.

Yesterday, it "slipped George Osborne's mind" to mention that he would be cutting Winter Fuel Payments.

"George Osborne secretly cut the winter fuel allowance, paid to most people who are 60 or older, in yesterday's Budget. The information did not form part of the 100+-page Budget document."

Pensioners will now receive £200 instead of £250 if they are aged between 60 and 79. Older, more vulnerable pensioners will lose £100, seeing payments fall from £400 to £300.

And the Baby-Chancellor wasn't even man enough to tell us. He left it out. Is that even legal? 

Gordon's Legacy

During coalition talks, I didn't want a Labour deal, but one thing - just one - struck terror into my heart. 

It would mean that almost any level of incompetence on the part of the Baby-Chancellor could be wiped out at a stroke. It meant that he could rampage through our country, indiscriminately making sick people and poor people and elderly people hurt, then, with the wave of an old magic wand, left behind by Gordon Brown, he could give vast tax breaks to Tory voters just in time for the election. 

Are we that naive? Oh hell yes. 

Are we that shallow? Well, I don't like to say it......

When the banks failed, there is one act, that no-one - surely not even the most arch-Tory - could deny was a master-stroke. Of course George Osborne opposed it - he opposed just about everything that worked. But Gordon pulled off a coup so canny, so well timed, that in Monopoly terms, it was the equivalent of building a hotel on Mayfair. 

He bought 41% of Lloyds TSB at an all time low share price (ave) of 74p per share. It cost us, the UK public, £37 Billion. Shares which at their peak pre-credit-crunch price had been trading at over £2.60 per share. 

He bought 84% of RBS shares at an average price of 50.2p per share. It cost us, the UK public, £45.5 Billion. Shares which at their peak pre-credit crunch price had been trading at over £6 per share. 

If anyone, in the history of the stock market ever made a better trade, I'd like him or her to step forward. 

Today, Bloomberg report that :

"A sale of the British taxpayer’s 65.8 billion-pound ($107 billion) stake in Lloyds Banking Group Plc (LLOY) and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc (RBS) is likely to start next year, creating a one-time budget windfall before the next election, according to four people familiar with the talks."
“That level of windfall would open the way for tax cuts in the run up to the next election,” said Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of politics at Bristol University. “That could be a remarkable opportunity for the coalition.”

It almost doesn't even matter if these shares make a profit any more. The money is long spent, and no-one will say too much if billions flood into the treasury, even if they aren't quite the billions we already spent.

Doesn't it make you want to vomit into your cornflakes?

So between now and the next election in 2015, I will occasionally devote this little corner of the internet to reminding everyone that this was our money. It added to our debt. And every last penny of profit these shares make was Gordon Brown's legacy. 

Politics is a dirty game and I don't doubt for one second that if the tables were turned, Labour would capitalise on a huge heap of free cash too, but none of us should forget that Gideon thought we should let these banks fail. Had he been in charge, there would only have been loss - no profit. 

I imagine that in a flurry of smugness, just before the May election, the Baby-Chancellor will cut the top rate of tax from 50% to 40%, possibly cut inheritance tax and maybe garnish with a marriage tax break. With some of Gordon's banking billions, he'll throw us a few hospital crumbs or a few billion here and there to stick a plaster over the huge devastation he's otherwise caused. 

Oh how we'll cheer! Oh how glad we'll be that finally, Osborne's plans have paid off and we can spend, spend, spend again. 

But they won't be Osborne's plans, they'll be Gordon's. Yet again, Gordon Brown will be saving the UK economy, but this time it will be from greedy, arrogant Tories rather than greedy, arrogant bankers.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

So, Osborne's Budget...

Growth. Down, down, down.

Unemployment. Up up up.

Nothing about the sick or disabled

Nothing about the squeezed middle.

Nothing to help those struggling to get by on inadequate wages.

Nothing to help people on fixed incomes facing inflation of 4.4%

What did it add up to? "We'll cut tax for businesses and hope like hell they pull us out of this mess." It was like listening to Douglas Hurd circa 1983. Nothing new, no new answers, no new strategies, just tax cuts for businesses.

Business which is sitting on a £600 billion surplus.

If business wanted to pull us out of this they could. They could invest, they could train, they could expand, they could employ. But they're not.

The banks aren't lending, businesses aren't employing and wages certainly aren't rising.

I'm talking to "everyman" here. Do YOU trust business to pull us out of this? Do YOU think tax cuts for banks and businesses will mean that you get a nice fat pay rise and a bonus next year?

Under Osborne's plans, since the coalition came to power, borrowing will now be 44 BILLION more than projected. Because growth has fallen. Because inflation has risen. Because unemployment has risen.

Today's budget in a sound-bite? "PLEASE business, please help us - we'll give you all the money, PLEASE help us?"

Their answer? Take away protection for workers, reduce tax from profits, reduce employment, reduce care, reduce child care, reduce educational opportunity.

Since this government came to power, EVERY serious indicator of the state of our economy has worsened. How long are we going to believe that "There is No Alternative?"

There IS an alternative. There always WAS an alternative. We invest, we create jobs, we build, we research, we invent and we train.

Sit back and do nothing and guess what?

NOTHING will happen.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Sickie Friend Slam-Dunk

Now this one is tricky.

It's not a "poor me" post - I got over the slam-dunk years ago. It's not a "people are rubbish" post - no-one can understand what they don't yet know. It's a "solidarity spoonies" post. Only spoonies will understand it or even perhaps completely believe it.

(A spoonie is someone with a long term illness or disability, often one that can't be seen or easily explained. You can read about it here )

Chronic illnesses come and go. Some weeks they're bad. Some weeks they rage through your life, scattering pain and misery beyond comprehension. They leave you bed ridden or writhing in agony or fighting for survival.

Other weeks, you might look just like everyone else. Of course, that doesn't mean you feel like everyone else, but it means you can make a fairly good stab at pretending. You can "play well" with a few naps and some carefully targeted lip gloss.

Chronic illness often affects young people too. The teenage lottery of life can play it's genetic give-away cruelly, at any time. Just as you're meant to be partying and studying and falling in love it rolls up with callipers or sick bowls or chemo.

Nothing is more at odds with nature than someone who is young and sick. Our Darwinian evolution cannot compute. Millennia of genetic experience tells us, somewhere deep in our souls, that this "cannot be right."

And it scares us. A whisper creeps into our hearts : "That could be me."

At first, a sick friend is a brave friend. New acquaintances gape at your drug drawer or hear your medical stories with horror. They marvel as you dislocate your own wrist or shove a needle deep into your own thigh. The trouble is, after a while, a sick friend is a boring friend. You can't make that long-planned spa weekend or 30th birthday party or meticulously planned wedding. You stay in bed too much, you can't do the housework or eat the meal a friend has carefully cooked for you.

You forget birthdays. (Though if anyone had asked, you probably couldn't remember your own name that day). You can't work and have to make the best of it with a wall to wall diet of daytime TV. If you're really lucky, like me, your partner eases quietly into becoming your carer (again) and has to bring you meals and cups of tea and change your sheets and take over the childcare.

Weeks go by, months even and you disappear from view. No school runs, no days out, no trips to the park, no weekends away and you don't even notice. Your focus has shifted. All that matters is "I must survive this" (again) You don't notice that the phone has stopped ringing or the doorbell is quiet.

Later, when the crisis has passed a little you take stock : Alive? Check. Roof still over head? Check. Friends? Not so much.

Every single time, someone, somewhere will have slipped away. You realise they haven't popped in for coffee. You realise the phone never rang. Soon enough you hear why and though it hurts less over the years, it  never quite stops hurting altogether.

A few days ago, it occurred to me that "School Mum 1" and "School Mum 2" were being a bit weird. Despite it being 3 months since my operation, it's only really now that I'm able to walk to school or tidy up or go out for lunch again. The School Mums are not close friends, they're acquaintances. Nonetheless, we've had some fun, helped each other out and dried each other's tears.

As the story unfolded and I did a little digging, I found my 2011-post-op-Sickie Friend Slam-Dunk.
The gossip is familiar. I'm lazy, I "play on" being ill. I treat my husband like a doormat.
I never tidy up, my house is a mess, I neglect my children.

Ouch, ouch and ouch. "Ouch" because though I know it doesn't mean anything, every criticism is based on a little truth. When I'm sick I do appear lazy. My husband does have to do everything, I can't tidy up or look after my kids. All of my secret fears and guilt exposed and confirmed.

Happily, other school Mum's stepped up. They knocked out of the blue and took my kids out for the day. They called now and then to see how I was. They supported Dave at the school gates with his dark circles and face etched with worry. My neighbour regularly appeared with home made Gumbo or bags of supplies.

So why am I writing about it at all? What does it matter if some thoughtless, selfish Ms Average judges me?

Well, on a personal level, it doesn't matter at all, but on a national level it matters very much. If people who know me and see me vomit and see the tube in my nose or the needle in my leg decide that chronic illness is just an excuse to lie about the place like Victoria Beckham on a Malibu beach, then what hope do I have of persuading the cabinet that people like me should be considered in the benefit system? Or helped into work? Or treated with compassion and understanding.

The sickie-friend-slam-dunk always reminds me just what an uphill battle that is.

Monday, 21 March 2011

We Didn't Vote for This

Bestest-Niece (22) has decided she wants to go on the "March for the Alternative" on Saturday. ( Not only does she want to go, but so does her flatmate and two of her friends.

These are four young people who suddenly talk about politics. A lot.

Since last May, if the bus is late or the milk is sour or someone has a hangover, the standard response in their shared flat has been to shake one fist and mutter darkly "Cleeeeegggg!"

Recently though, this has turned to bewilderment, and at at times, horror. A generation who, until now, haven't really thought about politics much at all are suddenly finding that it does matter to them.

A few weeks ago, my mobile rang and it was bestest-niece, shaking with rage. We all have something that matters to us more than other things. She had just heard that half of all the women's refuges in the country were to be closed as part of the austerity cuts.

She didn't believe it at first. "How can they do that?" She spluttered. "Don't they know what this will mean? How hard women have fought for this tiny bit of protection?? Don't they know we need more refuges not less?"

It hasn't had much press - most people probably don't even know, but for bestest-niece, it was the moment that she started to question exactly what is being done in her name. It was inconceivable to her that something so vital should be affected by cuts and however bad our financial situation might seem, she suddenly saw clearly how counter-productive some cuts could be. She saw how they would almost certainly cost more than they saved and most importantly of all she started to ask whether the human cost could be counted in pounds and pence.

Anyway, decision made, much hilarity followed as we tried to decide on the perfect banner slogan -

"Tories - Putting the "n" into Cuts"
"Eton Trifles"
"The light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off due to budget cuts"
"We're all in the shit together"

Quite a few more are unprintable, in Cameron's parentage, Clegg's honestly issues and Osborne's reproductive ability, but in the end, we decided on the truth :

"We didn't vote for this"

Because no-one did. If Cameron had been honest as he stood behind that debate podium, he would have finished off any chances his party ever had of being elected again. Can you even imagine it?

"As I stand before you today, I vow that everything in this country will be opened up to privatisation. Schools, Hospitals, everything. We will close your libraries, raise VAT, sell off your forests, privatise the NHS, slash the military, close women's refuges, sack policemen, close hospitals, ban the homeless, evict the poor and take wheelchairs away from disabled people"

It is quite wrong to say "Oh well, politicians always lie." Until recently, manifestos were considered binding and pre-election pledges more or less adhered to. Never before, in the history of UK politics has a government taken power with such an absolute disregard for the mandate it received (or didn't receive) at the ballot box. Worse still, this government has no mandate for these cuts. The LibDems fought the election on the same financial platform as Labour - halving the deficit and waiting until recovery was assured before cutting.

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people will arise from their sofas, put down their remote controls and sacrifice a day off work to go to London. They are going to remind this government that they have no mandate for the destruction they're causing. They are going to warn this government that a mandate is a mandate and it can be removed at any time.

While Mr Cameron focusses his attention on Foreign Affairs, while he defends the oppressed of Libya, he must not forget for one second that democracy is in the hands of the many not the few and he must not for one second fall into the trap of believing that Saturday will be all about a bunch of crusty militants causing some fuss. Saturday will be the first chance that bestest-nieces up and down the country get to show this government that they are concerned, that this is not what they voted for.

If bestest-nieces in Sussex care enough to march, then you can bet that young people, disabled people, pensioners, Mums, Dads, teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, councillors, professors, students, judges and many, many more will be marching too.

Their message will be clear : leaders acting like dictators can be opposed in any country, not just the Middle East.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Weekly Round Up

Today's headline's read "Cameron : Britain must do the right thing and oust Colonel Gaddafi." 10 months into the coalition and Cameron's got a war. With a straight face, he talks of regime change and intervention to oust an evil dictator slaughtering his own people. I was always fairly ambivalent about Iraq and won't allow myself the hypocrisy of being anything else about Libya, but I would ask "Why?" Just as I did over Iraq.

Why this dictator? Why this massacre? Why this regime? Surely there are others around the world killing just as many of their own citizens? As ever, the finer details of military intervention escape me, just as they escape most of the public.

To demonstrate just how much news there is at the moment, TV presenters find themselves using the impossible segue "And in other news, Japan faces nuclear disaster" In what scenario did we ever imagine total nuclear meltdown in Japan would come second on the bill? These are tough times.

As for us sickies, after two years of pleading, explaining, lobbying and ranting, the government finally announced that they would hold an inquiry into Employment Support Allowance. Members of the public who've been affected by ESA are invited to make a submission here before 14th April. Please do consider writing a short suggestion for improving ESA or sharing your experiences. This is for you, to change something you know is unfair. If you don't respond, you lose your own chance to change it. Never assume that "everyone else" will write. The government will judge ESA on the number of submissions that they receive, not just the points they make.

To cheer everyone up though, Cameron bought Red Nose Day. In an act of PR that would have made even Blair blush, he agreed to donate £10 million from the International Aid budget. A noble aim and affordable! Just under a quid for everyone who voted for him last May. What with "Cameron's War" headlines and privatising a national telethon, I predict a Tory poll boost just in time for next weeks budget. Ed Miliband may have to kiss goodbye to ten point leads for a while,

Friday, 18 March 2011

ESA week ends in Success!

As if fate knew how hard we've worked this week, (ESA week) how much it has cost us to write and to fight and to explain, yesterday, the government announced that they would hold a public inquiry into ESA.

I will work on my own submission, however, Anne Begg MP has suggested that many individual submissions will always carry more weight than a collective response. Please take a few moments to read the issues outlined in the enquiry below and if you feel one or more have affected you, I urge you to write a short statement. It might be a description of how unsuitable your assessment was, your experiences of ATOS, or how time limiting the benefit could affect your partner's ability to keep working. If you have been through the worry and fear of a tribunal, we need to explain how this fails too and how hard it is to always be fighting.

Obviously, you can respond to all of the points if you feel you have personal experience to share. Contact details for sending in submissions can be found by clicking on "How to submit Written Evidence" at the bottom of the DWP quote.

However, I have set up a new email address, to enable anyone who wishes to, to write their feelings and thoughts and contributions without having to make their personal details available on my blog. It is vital that each submission is accompanied by a name address and telephone number to ensure that as many submissions can be made as possible.

You don't need to be a writer or a campaigner - far from it. It doesn't matter what you write or how. No submissions will be censored or altered. I will simply collect them together until the submission date. If you've never been actively involved before, I urge you to think about joining in. This is the best chance we, the public, have to be heard and hopefully, to change the most damaging aspects of ESA.

"Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) replaced incapacity benefits for people making new claims from October 2008. To be eligible for ESA, a person must usually undergo a Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
The introduction of ESA in 2008 was initially limited to new claimants. Existing incapacity benefit claimants are now being reassessed under the Work Capability Assessment. The process will last until 2014 with around 1.5 million people being reassessed.
Reassessment commenced on 11 October 2010 with a trial in Aberdeen and Burnley.  At the end of February, Jobcentre Plus began a limited introductory phase, and will move to full national reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants from April 2011.
In particular, the Inquiry will focus on the following issues:
  • The Department’s communications to customers going through the assessment and whether the information, guidance and advice provided by the Department and Jobcentre Plus is effective in supporting customers through the process.
  • The Work Capability Assessment including: the assessment criteria; the service provided by Atos staff; the suitability of assessment centres; and customers’ overall experience of the process.
  • The decision-making process and how it could be improved to ensure that customers are confident that the outcome of their assessment is a fair and transparent reflection of their capacity for work. 
  • The appeals process, including the time taken for the appeals process to be completed; and whether customers who decide to appeal the outcome of their assessment have all the necessary guidance, information and advice to support them through the process.
  • The outcome of the migration process and the different paths taken by the various client groups: those moved to Jobseeker’s Allowance, including the support provided to find work and the impact of the labour market on employment prospects; those found fit for work who may be entitled to no further benefits; those placed in the Work Related Activity Group of the ESA, including the likely impact of the Department’s decision to time-limit contribution-based ESA to a year; and those placed in the Support Group.
  • The time-scale for the national roll-out for the migration process, including the Department’s capacity to introduce changes identified as necessary in the Aberdeen and Burnley trials.
Short submissions (no more than 3,000 words) are invited from interested organisations and individuals.
The deadline for submissions is 14 April 2011."
That last line is the link that gives details on how the submission should be presented. (just click on it) If you can follow the suggestions, please do, but if they daunt you, don't be put off, just send your story with name, address and telephone number to and I will attempt to put as many as I can in the format the inquiry requests. (always asking for your approval before submission.)

Most of all though, know that this is great news. It is an enormous achievement that this blog and hundreds of other blogs and campaign groups and charities have highlighted the faults of ESA so effectively that we now have a chance to make our views heard officially.

Please pass this on to anyone you know who might want to participate, and again, share as widely as possible to make sure that as many people are included in this process as possible. 

Once again, the email for submitting via this blog is

On a less serious note : YAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYY!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Unearthed : The CHAOS of the government's sickness benefit reform.

As you might know by now, this week, I have been focussing on government plans to reform sickness benefits.

Perceived wisdom amongst lobbyists and campaign groups is that this government aim to force 1.5 million of the 2.2 million currently receiving Incapacity Benefits (IB and ESA, employment Support Allowance) off benefits and into work.

This will be done in two ways :

1) All people currently entitled to Incapacity Benefits will be reassessed under the much tougher new Work Capability Test assessments conducted by the private form ATOS.

2) Those found able to do some work will have their entitlement limited to 1 year if they have a working partner or savings of over £16,000.

As I've been researching this subject, it has become clear that the government have no coherent message at all and "estimates" and attitudes to this reform have changed with the wind.

In opposition and well into this parliament, Conservative ministers were claiming that 1.5 million of those on sickness benefits would be found capable of work. As late as June 2010, IDS claimed that this would be the case. 

"Mr Duncan Smith said: “I intend to move 1.5 million off incapacity benefit by 2014."

Yesterday however, someone sent me this astonishing article from the Telegraph In which Chris Grayling, the Employment Minister contradicts everything his department has always maintained.

First he says that medical assessments will be about “saving lives not saving money”. Currently, hundreds of thousands of people are being found "Fit for Work" who are not. The report into ESA, the Harrington report, found that assessments were 

“impersonal and mechanistic”, with many people feeling they were treated unfairly.
In some cases this could "lead to psychological distress with effects on physical and mental health" among claimants.

Mr Grayling then refuses categorically to repeat Mr Duncan-Smith's assertion that 1.5 million will be taken off Incapacity Benefit, instead claiming 

 “We have no idea how many people will be found fit for work, and not. It is all about saving lives not saving money.
“I do not have a single financial target attached to this process. We have made some guesstimates about what might happen but we genuinely don’t know.
“I stand here today, I have no idea and there is no number sitting in an inside drawer of my desk that tells me how many of these people who have been on incapacity benefit for a long period of time.”
The Telegraph article even claims that 
" well-placed Government sources stressed last night that the “working assumption” was that one in four claimants will be judged fit for work".
This is vastly less than the 65% or two thirds currently being found "Fit for work" during pilot programmes in Aberdeen and Burnley. What's more, the time limiting of ESA has not yet come into effect, meaning that hundreds of thousands more will lose all of their benefits over the coming years. 
Even more astonishingly, Mr Grayling claimed that he would not  "use the language of shirkers and scroungers. I genuinely don't believe that's the biggest problem we face".
This from a minister who's press releases have been so misleading, that they led to headlines like these from the Daily Mail and Express 
"400,000 'were trying it on' to get sickness benefits: 94% of incapacity claimants CAN work"
The Mail have repeatedly been reported to the Press Complaints Commission over these inaccurate headlines and Mr Grayling has also been reported to the Cabinet Office for repeatedly breaching the ministerial code on issuing press releases that are clearly politicized. 
For a while yesterday, I thought there had been a momentous change of tone from the DWP, but the article was written in November, in response to the Harrington Report and it's conclusions that Work Capability Assessments were not working.
Even Maria Miller, the minister for disabilities clearly has no idea at all how these changes will affect sick and disabled people.  
Initially, she claimed that time limiting ESA to one year would affect almost nobody. As Neil Coyle wrote for Left Foot Forward, 
This remained the government’s response as late as November 2010 when the Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller, was asked at a national conference how time-limiting would provide £2 billion in reduced welfare expenditure if no-one lost out.

The £2 billion cut comes from disabled people losing support as Maria Miller later revealed in Parliament. DWP estimated in December 2010 that 280,000 disabled people will lose all out of work support - but the Welfare Reform Bill impact assessment reveals the figure is closer to 400,000.

Since the CSR, George Osborne has not made a single speech or given any interviews on Welfare Reform. (Actually, just for a matter of interest he has barely been heard of at all. If you Google "Osborne speech" or interview, you will find almost nothing since last October.) There are no articles at all that I can find confirming whether what Mr Grayling says is true or not. I can find no statements at all from ministers, the DWP or the chancellor re-iterating that 1.5 million people would be taken off of Incapacity Benefits, yet early results from the IB to ESA pilot schemes indicate that this is roughly the number who will lose out. 

So who is telling the truth? Are Osborne and Duncan-Smith correct with their hard-line assurances that 1.5 Million will lose sickness benefits or is Mr Grayling closer to the mark with his "1 in 4"?? 

Or maybe, just maybe, was Mr Grayling burying a damning report into sickness benefits with kind words? Words he knew were untrue using figures that could never be achieved unless huge concessions were made to make the assessment system fairer?

Concessions haven't been made. The assessments are as unfair as they always were, but by accepting the Harrington report in full, did Mr Grayling just rely on platitudes to bury some very bad news indeed for the government? And is there a secret target of 65% or so sitting in Mr Grayling's desk after all?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Burnt out sickies

ESA week will face a short intermission.

We have all worked ourselves into the ground. Broken of Britain are temporarily, erm, broken, and I can barely lift a finger to type.

I was just going to post "Bastards" and be done with it.

Instead, I'll post this comment from someone who actually works in the Job Centre and knows from first hand experience that everything us campaingers have been saying is true. The sickness and disability benefit system is failing like a very. very slow car crash.

If you read my blog and think what I do is important, please take over today. Tweet links, write your own blogs, find a juicy bit of research but get the message out. I'm going to bed.

" I'm a DWP worker sticking his head above the parapet and hoping not to get shot... I work in a busy Jobcentre and my customers are those 25+ who've been out of work for 13 weeks or longer. Probably 60-70% of the one hundred or more people I see every week are evidently not fit for work and yet, in theory, it's my job to whip them through the same hoops as everybody else, persecute them, attempt to stop their benefits and generally shame them into applying for all manner of wholly unsuitable jobs that they're never going to be able to do. In reality, what I do is tell them the system sucks and advise them of ways they can stay beneath the radar, or suggest they sign off JSA and move onto ESA and do whatever I can to make the transition as trouble free as possible. On the other side of the office to me are the Pathways team, who deal with customers on ESA. We all know that over the coming months most of them will be forced to migrate over to the JSA bods like myself and we won't be able to cope with either the numbers or the particular problems that this customer group represents. The point of all this waffle is that the policy makers have embarked upon their catastrophic journey without consulting the frontline workers who, without exception in my experience, KNOW that the planned changes CANNOT work. I would advise people worried about a forced transition from ESA to JSA to be brave and try not to lose too much sleep about's just not do-able in the real world, there'll be a horrible mess and people's lives will face some awful but shortlived disruption and then it'll be business as usual. Also, for those who face the indignity of having to venture into a jobcentre from time to time, please be assured - the majority of those who work in them are actually on your side, and have probably less faith in our political masters than you do, and just as much awareness as yourselves that all their vitriolic guff about benefit scroungers and feckless layabouts is simply empty, venomous scapegoating..."

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The ESA Quiz

I know it's easy to just become noise. "In the third quarter of the blah ESA was tripled by the WCA DLA blah until 2002 when the IB, CA blah......."

You've all been very patient, but it's a bit like trying to learn Russian at night school. At some point you wonder exactly when you stopped having fun. 

So, today, I bring you, the great ESA quiz. ESA is Employment Support Allowance. It used to be Incapacity benefit and before that it was "on the sick".

Yep, we're the "scroungers". The one's that became too ill or disabled to work. The one's that pretend to limp before setting off for a nice game of golf. We all know one don't we? May be two or three. Lazy feckers who don't want to work so invent imaginary bad backs and find it incredibly hard to breath when a DWP agent walks into the room.  We've seen them on Saints and Sinners, we've read about them in the Daily Mail. Our brother's girlfriend's boss always lives next door to one..... Don't they? See how accurate YOUR "facts" are.

Q1 How many people claim ESA in the UK?
A) 2.6 Million     B) 4.7 million     C) Everyone except me and my hard working family. 
Answer : 2.6 Million. This figure has not risen since 1997

Q2 How much is ESA per month?
A) £388.45     B) £732.80     C) £3,650.12 including a company car and a free house. 
Answer : £388.45 per month. If your partner works, you get no other benefits at all. 

Q3 Is ESA means tested?
A) Yes     B) No     C) Don't be silly. Millionaires can claim it. 
Answer : Yes. If you have more than £16,000 in savings, you do not qualify for ESA
If your partner works, you too will not qualify for ESA for more than a year. 

Q4) ESA is means tested. How much can a couple earn before they lose all ESA?
A) £26,000 pa     B) £16,000 pa     C) £7,500 pa
Answer : If household income is above £7,500 pa, you will lose all ESA after a year. 

Q5) What is the rate of ESA fraud according to the governments own figures?
A) 0.5%     B) 15%     C) 93%
Answer : 0.5%, around 13,000 people. 

Q6) How many people do you think are really fit for work but claim ESA instead?
A) 9%     B) 43%     C) 93%
Answer : If fraud is 0.5%, one would imagine the % losing their benefits would be around 0.5%, but in fact, the government are forcing 93% of previous claimants into work. 40% of cases go to appeal with up to 70% of the original decisions overturned.

Q7) Is ESA easy to get?
A) Quite, your doctor just signs you off. 
B) Yes! Anyone can get it, they just tell the DWP their back hurts. 
C) No, you must fill in a 40 page form and attend a harsh face to face medical.
Answer : C) Almost no-one (just 7%) qualifies for ESA on a long term basis.

Q8) What costs more :
A) Scroungers on the Sick     B) Tax avoidance     C) Bankers
Answer : C) Bankers cost us £1.4 Trillion, Tax Avoidance costs around 40 Billion per year, ESA is 12 Billion

Q9) Can you work and claim ESA?
A) No     B) Sometimes     C) No, but they all do!!
Answer : A) No. ESA is an out of work benefit. though some very limited "permitted work" can be arranged with the agreement of the DWP

Q10 Do you believe we should pay ESA to those who are genuinely sick?
A) Yes, of course     B) Maybe     C) No! Survival of the fittest, the weak should live in workhouses
Answer : A) I have never met anyone who says they don't believe we should pay benefits to those who are genuinely sick. Odd then that we're standing by unconcerned as up to 2.4 million people out of 2.6 million have ESA taken away.

So then, how did you do? 10 out of 10? Thought not. There are answers to this quiz that shocked me and this is what I do!!

**What can you do to help today? This is a light-hearted bit of fun. Please send it to the most rabid right wing, Daily Mail reading, stereotype-abuser you can think of. We will never break these myths down unless we challenge them. (Obviously remove this comment first of they might not be very happy ;)  )
As ever, click on the Twitter and Facebook buttons to share, or link to other sites, thanks.