People have had enough of being called scroungers

21st June 2012

John McDonnell MP, LRC chair, speaking in the House of Commons debate on disability benefits and social care, 20 June 2012

This has been a helpful discussion about policy, but the best policy is informed by our own experience of what is happening in our own constituencies. I want to put on record what my constituents are experiencing at the moment. In addition to surgeries, we now have an open-door policy four days a week, and in some ways I wish that we had not. Sometimes we want to hide, because we have been inundated with people who have problems with lost benefits.

I also help with disability living allowance appeals. This is not just about legal aid cuts; it is about the cuts overall. We have lost advisers in the area, so I represent people at DLA appeals, and we mainly win. That is not because of my articulateness, as you can tell; it is because once those presiding over the appeal see the people concerned, they can see that they have been wrongly assessed. Another problem is that people’s appeals are taking so long to arrange, once they have lost their benefits. They can wait for up to six months for their appeal, having lost their benefit, which is causing immense problems.

On the work capability test, I opposed the privatisation of the process and the bringing in of Atos, but if we are going to have a private company doing this work, we should at least be able to understand the contract involved. We should at least be given open access to what has been agreed with that company in our name, and be told what level of performance it is supposed to undertake. I am not sure what other Members have found, but when people come to see me, having gone through an Atos assessment, they tell me that they feel degraded, shamed and abused. I raised the point about suicides with the Secretary of State some weeks ago, and I was not exaggerating. Other Members will have experienced this as well. People come into my constituency office and tell me: “I can’t take any more of this. I’ve had enough.” I am really worried by the anecdotal reports of individual suicides, and it behoves the Government to monitor the situation and assess what is happening on the ground.

People have had enough of being called scroungers. We have seen the increase in hate crime towards people with disabilities because of the atmosphere that has been created by the media and by some politicians using loose language on this subject. Those people feel shamed, simply because they are claiming the benefits to which they are entitled. That is the experience in my constituency office at the moment, and it just goes on.

This is carers week. Other London MPs will also tell the House about constituents who have gone on to personal budgets, and that those budgets do not cover the wages of the carers whom we want to care for our people. It is virtually impossible to pay enough to get someone to stay overnight. Most of these arrangements have now been privatised, and people are getting a different carer coming in every day. The relationships with the carers have been broken down by this process.

Respite provision is now critical in my constituency, but what is my local Conservative council doing? It is closing the centres where people used to get respite. This is all part of the modernisation programme. It is closing three centres and modernising one. Of course, two of the centres that are being closed completely are in the most needy area of my constituency; a working-class area. It just goes on.

After the Southern Cross debacle, the company was broken up and some of the residential homes were given back to their original owners. I give this warning now: that arrangement is beginning to break down already, because the management in those individual homes are not competent to manage the process of disaggregation and the long-term planning of care. Why? The local authority role in providing those services has been so undermined and the resources have been cut, even for the management of those individual contracts. We are facing a crisis. A number of people are trapped in this whirlpool of deprivation, and it will be almost impossible to pull them out if we continue with these policies.

I went to the GMB conference last week, spoke to the manufacturing section and met many Remploy workers. They are now absolutely desperate, and they feel completely betrayed. They might not have agreed with the Sayce report, but at least there was a process there that they saw they were working through. That has now been torn up and everything in that report has been reneged upon. They feel absolutely vulnerable, with some saying, “We will not work again.”

In the early 1980s, I sat on the first committee established to remove restrictions against people with disabilities. It was called CORAD— the Committee on Restrictions against Disabled People. I was nominated to sit on it by the TUC. It took us 25 years before we secured anti-discrimination legislation. I congratulate the last Government on achieving that. I was one who wanted to mainstream employment. In fact, I was an ardent advocate of that; over the years, experience taught me that we always need an element of supported employment. That is what Remploy does well. What does it do badly? As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) argued, the management has been abysmal. All the workers are saying is, “Listen to us; we can manage these resources more effectively than the current management, but we also need the support of the Government.” As my hon. Friend said, what happened to the commitments about public procurement that we were promised over the last two years? If it had not been for the individual efforts of people such as my hon. Friend and others, as exemplified today, no procurement would have happened because the Government have done nothing.

Finally, the Government should not think that this issue or these people are going to go away because they are not: these people are mobilising. We now have a disability movement in this country of which we have not seen the equal before. Black Triangle occupied Atos offices in Scotland; members of DPAC—Disabled People Against Cuts—chained themselves in Trafalgar square. These people are not going to go away. They will be in our face—and rightly so. I will support them, including if Remploy workers opt to occupy their factories.

Read the full debate on Hansard

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