To be honest, Mike Moore needs no persuasion on these issues, though. When I interviewed him in the Summer, we spoke for a long time on welfare reform, and how he had actively sought out groups representing disabled people to feed back their concerns straight to Iain Duncan Smith. I thought it was great though, that he wasn't hiding away - he was there, chairing the meeting, and taking on board everything people said.
I can't write this post without mentioning the sacrifice RNIB Scotland's Director, John Legg, had made in attending the meeting - it was his daughter's 12th birthday. As mum of a 12 year old myself, I know too well of these conflicts. I hope she didn't mind giving up her dad for part of her day and that she had a great time with her friends. John told the meeting that he wanted us to do what we could to make sure that there weren't any unintended consequences in the legislation which would be to the detriment of ill,disabled, blind and partially sighted people. I'd been chatting to John and Ken Reed, RNIB Scotland's incoming chair, earlier in the morning. Ken had said how blind people often had to choose between having aids like a guide dog or claiming DLA as the guide dog would count as a mobility aid. I'm sorry, but a guide dog is very clever, but can't get you from one end of town to the other. It can't drive a car. Even with a guide dog, a blind person still has the expense of public transport or taxis to meet.
Ken is a really eloquent speaker and made the clearest argument I've so far heard against the arbitrary time limit for contributory ESA. He asked us all to imagine what it would be like if we lost our sight tomorrow. It would take us 12 months just to get used to life as a blind person. No way would you be ready to get into the job market again. You can see what he means. Imagine if it happened to you - once you've got over the sheer shock and can get around your own home without incident, there's becoming fluent in Braille to consider. Maybe you could have a look at an introduction to Russian or Chinese to see how quickly your brain could learn to process different symbols properly just to get a smidgen of an idea of what that would be like.
I wanted to persuade the audience that they all needed to go and write to our Lords to make sure that they worked to implement the terms of the motion passed at our Federal Conference in Birmingham - getting rid of the time limit, making sure people whose claims were turned down had access to representation (not a fancy lawyer, but a CAB or law centre, or welfare rights office) for their appeal, that there was a presumption for putting the most severely ill people with long term conditions into the support group and keeping strong tabs on ATOS and in the longer term bringing the assessment process back in house.
I'm hoping that Mike German, Celia Thomas and Archy Kirkwood, our people taking this Bill through the Lords have had full mailbags this week - and that if you're reading this please write to them. Mike also added in Nicol Stephen as another Scot to write to. His e-mail is email@example.com. Celia Thomas is firstname.lastname@example.org and the others can be contacted via House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW. Make this one of the jobs you do this weekend as the Bill is being considered by the Lords over the next 5 weeks or so.
The meeting was one of the best fringe meetings I'd been to. It was absolutely packed for a start. There were also some great contributions from the floor. I hadn't realised Cllr Jenny Dawe, leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, was once a welfare rights officer. She picked up on a quote from Steve Webb I'd given at the end of my speech and said that we can't look at the welfare budget in terms of affordability, but we have to look at it in terms of need. And she's right. She also said that when she was doing appeals, her organisation had an 85% success rate.
Ewan Hoyle (he of drugs policy amazingness) mentioned an example of someone winning an appeal under the old Incapacity Benefit at the same time as being given no points under the new Work Capability Assessment. He asked us to imagine the impact of basically being told that you were lying when you were in a fragile and vulnerable condition.
I felt that the whole thing was really constructive and that everyone in the room was pretty much in the same place. I hope that RNIB felt it was useful, too.
Below is the speech that I wrote - it's something like the speech I delivered. I chopped bits out and I didn't get quite as long to deal with the call centre changes as I'd planned, but you'll get the idea.
Dunfermline feels like home to me still because it’s where I worked for Willie Rennie for 4 years as caseworker. This was before the coalition was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. During that time I saw the failures of the benefits and tax credits system at their worst.
I saw a system that was inflexible and very bad at coping with changes in circumstances.
It was impersonal – dealt with by remote call centres by staff who weren’t necessarily properly trained in the benefits they were dealing with. And a common thing you hear from people is that they feel that they are being treated like criminals just for claiming benefits which are supposed to be the safety net for everyone.
I saw people being turned down for sickness and disability benefits who were clearly ill.
I saw the distress they went through because of the lengthy appeals process.
And then, almost worst of all, I saw the inability of Government departments to admit when a mistake had been made – and the extra stress that loaded onto the constituent.
I’ve written a fair bit about the Welfare Reform Bill. Much of it I agree with – the move to a universal credit is something we’ve been banging on about for the almost 3 decades I’ve been involved in politics.
Dealing with the poverty trap is also important – work has to be worthwhile. Who could blame anyone for choosing not to work if they were going to be significantly worse off than they would be on benefits, however much they might want to.
The disgrace of the current system is that it parked people on benefits, who could work and who wanted to work – and that’s pretty cruel to them and it’s also illiberal.
One of the positive changes the Government has already made is the Work Programme, the successor to things like the New Deal. To me, it is much more people centred. Unlike previous schemes, this one is much more tailored to the individual. The provider is allowed to do whatever they want to help someone into work, whether that means getting them a certain qualification, helping equip them with special equipment, or whatever. So rather than trying to force everyone through a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, it is tailored to every person. Very liberal. The payment-by-results part is weighted according to, broadly speaking, how difficult it is to get someone a job. Importantly, the majority of the payment to the provider is conditional on that person keeping the job. So people liable to drop out of a job for whatever reason (such as through lack of support for a particular disability) are targeted better for help, as the provider has an incentive to ensure that person is able to carry on working.
So some of the stuff being introduced is actually a great improvement on what we inherited.
However, there are bits of the WRB as it currently stands that I totally disagree with and am actively campaigning against – the arbitrary time limit for contributory ESA for a start. Yes, most people will recover within a year, but some won’t. It took me two years to recover from an encounter with the Epstein Barr Virus – not an organism to mess with in your 40s, believe me. Had I been reliant on benefits, I’m fairly certain I’d have been put on the treadmill of refusal and appeal simply because my condition was not the same every day. Some days I could barely lift my head off the pillow, others I was able to get up, but it was months before I could spend a whole day out of bed.
And then there are the problems with the Work Capability Assessment. If you have a situation where 40% of its judgments are overturned on appeal, rising to 70% if the people have help in preparing their case, something is clearly wrong. People in the middle of Cancer treatment, people with long term fluctuating conditions are being told they are fit for work when they very clearly are not.
If we’re aware that half a million people in Scotland are on out of work benefits, and we know some have been there for years, and have maybe never worked, I think it’s right that there’s a process for assessing people to see if something can be done to help them find work. This has to be seen to be fair, though – and people need to have confidence in it.
You need to draw a balance because you don’t want to automatically write somebody off, but nor do you want to impose a requirement to work on somebody who is unlikely to be able to – and a lot of it will be down to the individual and their circumstances. But I’ve seen it from the other side. My husband was made redundant from British Coal in 1994. He was 42 then, 2 years younger than I am now. He was pretty much told that he wasn’t expected to find work again.
Imagine that – being parked on the scrap heap at a relatively young age. It doesn’t do much for you confidence. Luckily, he had the support he needed, from an organisation called British Coal Enterprise which gave him tailored advice with pretty much every job application and helped him pick himself up after yet more rejections. By the time he was called into the DSS as it was then for his 6 months of unemployment interview, he had filled 2 lever arch files with job applications. They never even looked at them. Even with the support that he had, with a fairly impressive CV, in the economic climate of that time, he took 10 months to find a job. We’ve written too many people off like he was.
There’s a whole load of good intention in this bill – and one thing I know for sure is that our ministers will be fighting like hell in Government to try and make sure that it’s as fair as possible. I suspect that there’s a whole load going on behind the scenes that we’ll never find out – actually I know so, because Lynne Featherstone told the Guardian debate that at Federal Conference. I know that Mike and our other ministers and MPs have not been hiding themselves away – they’ve been getting out there and listening to people’s concerns – and they are now in a position where they can pass them on directly within the Government.
It doesn’t help, though, when we hear Conservative ministers, and most especially the Prime Minister, use frankly appalling language to describe people on benefits. When David Cameron implied that there were genuinely ill people and those like fat people and alcoholics and drug addicts whose problems were of their own making, I just about spontaneously combusted and I am fairly certain that no Liberal Democrats would agree with that point of view. I know that we have to be careful about the fights we pick in public, but I really think that Nick Clegg needs to call Cameron out when he says ill informed stuff like that.
Already, though, the Government has appointed Professor Malcolm Harrington to look at the Assessment and, crucially, he will continue to do that. All of his initial recommendations, including giving decision makers more to go on than the initial assessment, have been implemented.
Our party showed where its heart was when it debated the changes to ESA at Federal Conference last month. It passed a motion – with a high level of agreement in the hall which made 4 key points which, if enacted, would improve the Bill considerably. I have to claim a little bit of pride here that the successful amendment which had most of the good stuff in it was sponsored by Glasgow North local party.
Firstly, "Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA” sends a very strong message to our ministers and MPs about what we expect of them. If we really are a compassionate society, we do have to ensure that people who are sick are properly supported.
It calls for free legal representation (for example through organisations like the CAB and Law Centres for claimants who are turned down and can't afford to challenge decisions is absolutely vital. I learned in 4 years as an MP's caseworker that Government agencies make mistakes. They are run by humans, after all, so it happens. That's a given. What they do often, though, is dig their heels in and refuse to admit or rectify their mistakes because they know that in the vast majority of cases, they won't be challenged. Often we had to present them with the evidence and be quite robust on several occasions before they would put things right. It's not a coincidence that the percentage of appeals granted goes up to 70% when people have proper representation. You really have to understand some pretty complex stuff and if you are already sick, that can be very difficult, if not impossible to do. We can’t watch people being consigned to a life of poverty, unable to work, yet with no support and unable to fight the bad decision that denied them their benefit. That is wrong and we as Liberal Democrats should stop it happening. And if the process is sufficiently fair, then there won’t be so many wrong decisions.
There’s also a presumption that people with long term conditions will be put in the support group - you do have to look at people as individuals, of course, but there are some people who are clearly never going to get better. It is cruel to keep dragging them in for assessments. I know of a fair few people who were denied Incapacity Benefit (as it was), went through the stressful and lengthy appeals process, got their benefits back and almost immediately were plunged into the whole process again. Putting people under this sort of stress exacerbates their condition and makes recovery less likely. Give them a break.
The fourth part was all about keeping tabs on ATOS, who, in my opinion, treat people appallingly and make bad recommendations with a flawed assessment tool,. I am very nervous about having such a sensitive system run by a private company anyway. We don't have private companies running courts and the judiciary for a reason. The benefits system should be no different. The motion calls for this to be brought back in house in the longer term.
The Bill is on its way through the Lords – and this is a particularly crucial time. I would suggest that all of us who want to see these reforms changed should write to our team in the Lords – Mike German, Celia Thomas and our own Archy Kirkwood are involved – and ask them to do what they can to get the terms of the motion passed at Conference implemented in the Bill. I know that they are also aware of RNIB’s concerns about the visual capability elements being taken out of the Work Capability Assessment, too.
On DLA, I understand RNIB’s concerns about the transition to the new Personal Independence Payments – especially when we know that claimants will be assessed. Again what’s key is that we need a fair assessment process that people can feel confident with. People need to see common sense decisions being made. Bob Russell, our MP for Colchester, cited an example at Prime Minister’s Questions a few months back about a constituent who had lost the use of both his legs and who was working. He relied on his motability car to get to work – and a tribunal took it away meaning he couldn’t get himself there. Cameron at least saw the stupidity of that situation.
The lessons of the WCA will hopefully have been learned when the DLA assessment is implemented. I think what we all need to do is make it our business to report any incidents of stupid decisions or failures in the system to our ministers and MPs. They’ll be looking for feedback and we need to tell them, raucously if need be, what’s going on.
I do think there’s been some missed opportunities though.
I touched earlier on the fact that decisions about people’s benefits are now made in remote centres which people have to call. Now, the staff in there are given 2 minutes to deal with each call and, funnily enough, that’s not often long enough given the complex nature of many people’s cases. So they’re going to call in again and be frustrated all over again. You have to wonder how cost effective that process is. I can’t help thinking that dealing with someone local is actually more efficient and certainly more satisfying probably for everybody. One of the things I’m interested in is ways of improving the quality of service and communication people on benefits receive. Some of the letters sent out by the Department of Work and Pensions require a degree in rocket science to understand them. You can have 9 pages of writing that tell you precisely nothing.
I think we also have to look at what’s happening as a whole. One of Nick Clegg’s great interests is improving mental health. It was the subject of his first major speech as leader and he’s put £400 million in England into introducing talking therapies. Alison McInnes, our health spokesperson up here raised concerns the other week about the number of people being prescribed anti-depressants. Nearly 400,000 people are claiming ESA due to Depression. If some of them can be brought back to health and then work, surely that has to be a good thing.
The Liberal Democrats have consistently throughout a long history spoken up for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. Our hearts are in the right place and we are doing a lot of good things. Freeing people from “poverty ignorance and conformity is hard wired into our DNA. Our ministers are good people and I have a huge amount of confidence in Steve Webb, our guy in the Dept of Work and Pensions.
Our job as party members is to ensure that our parliamentarians know how we feel about these issues, that they have any evidence about how the system is working or not. My concerns about the benefits system and its fairness are not going to be totally resolved by this Bill, however much it is amended and we need to continue to be vigilant, looking out for how it affects people.
And what I’d say to RNIB is that if you go to one of our lot with evidence of a problem, I know it’ll be properly listened to and they will try to do something about it.
Steve Webb told our Conference in Birmingham that:
working to deliver an affordable social security system which supports those most in need, gives a leg up into work for those who can work, and builds a solid foundation for a secure retirement
That’s what we’re aiming for – I hope we’ll see a system that reflects those values.