By Sue Marsh
Well, those politicians put us through our paces yesterday didn't they?
The tension surrounding the much trailed speech from Ed Miliband on "scroungers" had us all on tenterhooks for hours. Twitter was frothing with Labour tweeters, sick and disabled tweeters, and journos all debating the merits of even going down the scrounger route to begin with.
As the transcript was posted on Twitter, I think there was a collective gasp of horror. Not from all, but from the sick and disabled. Those of us hoping to hear a different tone on sick and disabled people were in for a shock. We were the scroungers, the "irresponsible" society Mr Miliband wants to root out. Of just two examples he gave that "summed up" how society had failed under Labour (the other was sickening abuse and torture!!) was "a man on incapacity benefit with a real injury who cared for his children" who, nonetheless, Ed somehow knew could be working. He then went on to use this example as someone "not showing responsibility" "shirking his duties" "abusing the system because he could work but didn't" "ripping off our society" he was not a "good citizen" he was "abusing the trust of his neighbours"......
He then went on to say ""We should not demonise people anywhere in society" which seemed as though it had fallen onto the page from another speech. "I'll say no more" as Ed seemed to like to say.
From the moment Ed took the leadership, this was the one policy he felt he could support the coalition on unquestioningly. http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/2010/11/take-time-to-listen-and-learn-douglas.html I shouldn't be surprised that despite months of carefully and constructively trying to point out why ESA is failing, how it needed to be changed, why talking about sickness scroungers would only make it harder for those who were unwell or disabled to get work; yesterday we got our answer. Of all the scroungers, drug dealers, scallies and cheats Ed could have used as an example, he used us. From the very first paragraph. Wow.
But I didn't have time to rant and rage (which was probably just as well!) because I'd booked a place at the Progress event in London with Liam Byrne and Frank Field. I wanted to roll up in a ball and feel miserable. I wanted to lick my Labour-inflicted-wounds and give up, but I got on the train trying desperately to keep my mascara on my eyelashes, not dripping miserably down my cheeks.
I got to Victoria, bought a homeless crip a Pret sandwich in an act of defiance against Westminster council and wandered towards Parliament in the sunshine.
The meeting was in Portcullis House, that macho glass symbol of political opulence guarding the Thames. Slick suits and teeny weeny microphones and testosterone filled the small room. The panel, including Liam Byrne and Frank Field assembled and each spoke about the challenges of welfare reform. Responsibility was again the theme and to me, it felt like they were trapped in a nightmare of indecision. Must be tough but not quite sure why. Must reduce the welfare bill but not quite sure how. Must make the system fairer but little understanding of what "fair" might look like. It was depressing, safe, tinkering. I can't actually remember much of it, though the idea of re-enforcing the contributory principle was by far the most thought out and developed theme.
When the talks were over, questions were invited from the audience and I was primed with injustice and ready to go.
"Sue Marsh. I write the Diary of a Benefit Scrounger Blog and I'm Political Strategist for the Broken of Britain campaign group.
(Byrne grinned in sudden recognition and nodded)
"Employment Support Allowance is an abject failure. And it's a Labour failure. It's a failure because you took a work programme for able bodied people and tried to fit it to the sick and disabled. They are just 8-12% effective. You didn't engage business and explain why we could be an asset to them. You didn't look at flexible working schemes or business co-operatives. You simply asked how a business place might be modified for a physical disability, never how a working life might be. My question is : Will Labour admit that ESA is an abject failure and work on policies to change it?"
Byrne was genuinely listening. He asked me if I thought sick or disabled people would have liked support to set up their own businesses, and I referred to some of the suggestions that came up most when you all took part in our consultation http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/2011/05/welfare-for-people-by-people.html
-Genuine Flexible Working
-Help to set up micro businesses
-Re-Training or Further Education
-Support in work - for employers and employees that really works with our independent needs and acknowledges the extra time off we might need.
He answered that "it was probably a fair critique". He said Labour came too late to realise any of that and though they started to put a fund together, it was too late and they lost power. I don't know anything about that, but I genuinely got the impression that he knew about this stuff. He passionately and personally opposed the Time Limit and he repeated the line that "We should be pushing the unemployed into work, not pushing the sick and disabled into poverty."
Frank Field answered that "if job seekers spend just 8 minutes a day looking for work they don't have the intelligence to set up their own businesses. You might say we're kicking the wrong target but they just don't have the intelligence."
Earlier I'd tweeted "Field talking now, I feel dirty" and with that answer he confirmed my disdain in a blaze of glory. I imagine he either misheard me and thought I was talking about the unemployed or he entirely links those "on the sick" with "the feckless work-shy." Either way he's a plum.
A ripple of "Huh?" went round the room and Byrne seemed to give him a "Huh?" frown too. Or it could have been an interested frown. Or indigestion. Who knows?
After the meeting Byrne said he read my blog. I'm sure he doesn't. But I think he almost left me with the impression that he might have. Or even that he might actually realise that some of us exist. Or maybe he's just got a nice twinkly veneer over a scrounger kicking soul, it's so hard to say isn't it? He did ask if I'd send him our consultation and ideas though, so I will.
We're used to being ignored by politicians so nothing ventured nothing gained eh?