Taking on the benefits blame game

This post was originally published on New Internationalist on 3 April 2013.

It may have been April Fool’s day but while Twitter announced it was going to begin charging for the use of vowels and Virgin launched a glass bottomed plane, big changes to the British welfare system began to bite in what is far from a comical prank.

One of the most high profile of these changes, which began to kick in on Monday 1 April, is the bedroom tax. If a claimant’s house is defined as having one spare bedroom or more they will lose 14 to 25 per cent of their benefit money. 660,000 people face losing hundreds of pounds a year and the threat of eviction if they can’t pay the rent. Two thirds of people hit by the tax are disabled, and single parents and foster families will also be among the hardest hit.

Opposition has been vocal: MP Frank Field has called for landlords to brick up windows and doors or knock down walls to help tenants facing the tax which he describes as ‘grossly unfair.’ Bedroom tax protests have already been held across the country and UK Uncut has promised ‘mass civil disobedience’ on Saturday 13 April, ‘bringing the cuts home to millionaire misery-makers.’

Also part of the welfare overhaul is the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance and major changes to legal aid which means thousands may lose access to legal services and be forced to represent themselves in court.

On 15 April the welfare benefit cap will be introduced to four London boroughs and is expected to be rolled out nationwide by the end of September. It is predicted that 80,000 households will be made homeless as expensive cities like London see a deepening of social cleansing.

There are now more billionaires across the world than before the global financial crash. But while the ‘feral rich’ get wealthier, 20 per cent of children in Britain already live in poverty and families increasingly need to use foodbanks to sustain themselves.

Meanwhile the ‘workers and shirkers’ demonization of benefit claimants, immigrants and disabled people by the government and the media has taken hold among those who feel that while they are working as hard as ever and getting less in return, somebody should be made to pay.

A 2012 poll by the Trades Union Congress found that while people mistakenly thought that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently (the government’s figure is 0.7 per cent), the most hostility was among those who knew the least about the benefits system.

In this climate, newspapers like the Daily Mail can publish a front page (3 April 2013) calling a man found guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children a ‘product’ of the welfare state and still sell plenty of copies. Claiming benefits does not make people more likely to cause the death of their family.

Where do we go from here? Local and national anti-austerity groups have been campaigning relentlessly across the country – networks like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut have mobilized thousands. Some mainstream media are trying to counteract the propaganda machine. But people need to be presented with more than the facts and protest; they need to be truly convinced that blaming benefit claimants and immigrants for their problems is not helpful, fair, or accurate.

However, the deeper austerity goes, the more people will see those close to them affected. Anti-austerity Britain is growing in size and anger. Over 420,000 people have now signed a petition to challenge Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 ($80) a week after he said on national radio he thought he could do it while defending cuts to benefits.

What’s key is a cohesive, accessible and communicative groundswell from the grassroots. Party politics is enough to leave people in despair as politicians jump aboard the blame train conducted by UKIP. Initiatives such as the People’s Assembly may be part of this, as long as they reach further than the usual suspects.

We also need to tell people’s stories, not just in the media, but to our friends and family, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And while we fight to keep what we have and strengthen community resilience to austerity, we need to show that we will stand by our neighbours when the blame game comes knocking at their door.

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Giving A-toss about disability

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website.

As the end of the London Paralympic Games draws closer, the legacy of the event for the disabled community is on the agenda. Will the inspiration and excitement have a lasting positive outcome for people with disabilities in Britain?

Many campaigners are unconvinced. They are also angry at the Games’ sponsorship by Atos. The company is deeply unpopular for its Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), which help the Department for Work and Pensions decide who receives health and disability related benefits and who is ‘fit for work.’

The tests have come in for a huge amount of criticism for being inaccurate and unfair as the government tries to cut the cost of the welfare bill, leaving many without the support they depend on.

When Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics was announced, it caused an outcry. Many found it offensive that the organization was going to be so closely associated with an event celebrating the best of disabled sport.

Last week saw the climax to a week of action by activists intent on ramming home the message that the French company don’t #giveatoss about disabled people. On Friday 31 August Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut teamed up outside Atos’ UK headquarters for a ‘Closing Atos Ceremony’.

Protesters also blockaded and occupied the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). As police broke up the demonstration outside, DPAC reported one arrest, several injuries to protesters and damage to one woman’s wheelchair.

In a poignant twist, Friday’s protest also coincided with the death from cancer of 51-year-old Cecilia Burns from Northern Ireland – just six months after DWP found her ‘fit to work’ following an Atos assessment.

Earlier in the week DPAC staged a vigil outside Atos, delivering a coffin to remember others who had died, including people who committed suicide after receiving their assessment results.

Elsewhere, actions included a mass ‘die-in’ in Cardiff’s city centre, which blocked a major road, as well as a blockade in Manchester outside an Atos office.

Paralympians themselves have voiced their concern about Atos. Former swimmer and seven-time medal winner Tara Flood played a role in the ‘Atos Games’ as part of a spoof ceremony where she had a medal awarded then taken away after an Atos assessment.

During the opening ceremony of the Paralympics it was thought Team GB were hiding their Atos-branded lanyards in an act of protest. However, team officials later denied this.

The Paralympics and whether they benefit the struggles of disabled people has become a thorny issue. Activists have been accused of drawing attention away from the games and the achievements of the athletes…

Read the rest of this blog here at the New Internationalist website.

Raising the curtain on Atos

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website on 31 July 2012.

A cockroach, a tapeworm, herpes, a blood-sucking leech – just some of the terms used to describe Atos Healthcare by people who have come into contact with the company..

Assessments for disability and health related state benefits, conducted by Atos, have been hugely controversial. The company is paid by the British government’s Department for Work and Pensions to help decide who can work and who can’t, who keeps receiving money and who doesn’t. Not only are their results often found to be inaccurate, but the process can be lengthy and debilitating.

In September 2011, the Atos Stories collective started advertising online for people’s experiences of Work Capability Assessments with the aim of making them into plays. Judith Cole [a pseudonym] decided to set up the project after reading horror stories in the press. ‘I think I first saw the story that probably went around on Twitter about a poor guy who’d died of a heart attack after an Atos assessment,’ she says.

Adam Lotun, 49, is one of the people who got in touch with his experience. He says he has had two assessments by Atos, one where he was considered able to work, and one where he wasn’t.

However, he feels neither was in-depth enough to determine the true impact of his multiple health issues which include mental health problems, learning disabilities, needing a wheelchair for mobility, and a machine to help him breathe at night. ‘If I was a horse they would put me down,’ he says.

By May 2012 the small collective had three play scripts ready: Atos Stories, a drama with music, The Atos Monologues and Atos Street Theatre, all available via their website for people to put on in their communities.

Campaigners can use the plays to raise awareness about Atos and the issues faced by people with disabilities. Interest has been building, including from activists angry at Atos’s sponsorship of the Paralympics.

Kerry-Anne Mendoza is a 30-year-old campaigner from Our Olympics. ‘There’s still a shocking amount of public ignorance about the stuff that’s happened with Atos and what the actual impacts are on the disabled community,’ she says.

Act Up, a community theatre company based in Newham, London is putting on a performance of Atos Stories. The group is made up of both people with disabilities and people without. ‘We are now trying to adapt it and make it accessible for our group,’ says Yvonne Brouwers their chair…

Read the rest at New Internationalist.