A little bit political this time. Not in a party sense but in the wider scheme of things.

We are repeatedly told that in the current financial crisis “We’re all in it together”, implying that the pain of cuts, job losses etc will be shared out across the whole of society. A few things lately have let me know that this is far from the truth.

Last week RBS admitted that bankers’ bonuses had been funded by taxpayers as part of the ‘bail-out’. This when vital public sector jobs and services are being cut, potentially putting the lives of vulnerable adults and children at risk. When local authorities are forced to look more and more into the private sector and smaller organisations with less effective scrutiny and governance processes bid for parts of these contracts, the probability of incidents like the sustained abuse that occurred at Winterbourne View increases. I’m not saying the public sector is without blemish but the more fragmented the sector becomes; the harder it is to monitor and maintain standards.

@Lisybabe, in a piece for Where’s The Benefit, reported on Ed Miliband’s ‘responsibility’ speech. In it he describes:

While out campaigning during the local elections, not for the first time, I met someone who had been on incapacity benefit for a decade. He hadn’t been able to work since he was injured doing his job. It was a real injury, and he was obviously a good man who cared for his children. But I was convinced that there were other jobs he could do. And that it’s just not right for the country to be supporting him not to work, when other families on his street are working all hours just to get by. [My emphasis]

As others have said, obviously Ed has special powers that enable him to decide, after a short doorstep meeting, that this man is fit for work. This attitude underlies the flawed Work Capacity Assessments (WCA) initiated by Labour and now gleefully carried on by the coalition. In the WCA, someone medically trained (not always a doctor, could be a midwife) fills in a computer based questionnaire based in their assessment. There’s no reference to variable conditions, no medical notes from specialists in the individual’s impairment and often no guarantee that the answers given are what makes it on to the records. Channel 4 reports that:

DWP figures from October 2008 and November 2009 show that one-third of people judged unfit for work have already taken an appeal to the Tribunals Service and 40 per cent of those initially judged to be fit for work have that assessment overturned on appeal.

Any system that flawed must be reformed as it’s almost forcing the whole benefits tribunal system to grind to a halt under the workload. Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) is already having the right to appeal against removal taken away (Speech by Ian Duncan Smith, November 2010) so it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the right to appeal WCA decisions will go too. This isn’t the sort of ‘reform’ I had in mind. The process is already biased in favour of DWP/Atos with their assessor’s account of events carrying more weight than the claimant’s. If you wish to record the examination and use it as evidence, you have to use an evidential quality recorder that has been tested as accurate that day, by an audio engineer trained in that field. This is a higher standard than is imposed on the police or DWP’s own investigators. Also, if you do wish to record, the assessor can refuse to carry out the assessment and your benefit will be stopped while they reschedule your appointment. All very fair and equitable, I’m sure you’ll agree. The stress this causes can, and has, proved fatal.

I’m ‘fortunate’ as I’m not on Incapacity Benefit (IB), moving to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) as I am fit enough for work, so I’m just job hunting. But here’s the other problem. I’ve worked hard all my adult life, studied, got qualifications, made sure I’ve got experience too. All the things we are supposed to do to ensure we remain employable. I’ve had to work harder in these areas as I can’t do jobs that require lots of walking, standing, lifting or carrying. The experience has now become a double edged sword. I can’t go back to my old profession as I’ve not done it for 6+ years so they don’t want me in a post at my ‘level’. If I apply for lower level posts, I’m significantly over qualified and, again, don’t get an interview. In my ‘proper’ profession, there have only been 10 or so jobs advertised in the whole UK in the 9 months I’ve been looking. I’ve applied for all of these, had interviews for two, coming second in both by a very narrow margin.

If this is what it’s like for me, a disabled person with qualifications, experience and proven skills, how much harder will it be for those moved off IB/ESA into JSA? In a ‘buyers’ market where the number of unemployed is significantly higher than the number of available jobs, what chance do they stand? In a recent conversation with someone in the know, I found out there are around 7,000 people unemployed in my area and around 1,500 vacancies. Very few disabled people will be employers’ first pick to fill these posts, even if the jobs are suitable.

Politicians talk about job losses and job creation as if jobs are totally interchangeable. One minister said that the number of new jobs created in the private sector exceeded those lost in the public sector. Superficially, this is great but what sort of jobs are they? Unskilled, semi-skilled, management? Zero hour contract jobs in retail? All that investment in time, money and effort will be lost and at what long-term cost to the economy?

I’m not saying I have any answers and I’m not denying that some benefit fraud does occur but it’s a pittance compared to tax avoidance. Removing benefit is far easier (and more popular with party donors) then closing tax loopholes. I’ve rambled a bit but all these issues are interlinked and none of the mainstream parties has any effective non-punitive plans for improving the life chances of disabled people.

We may all be in it together but some of us are deeper in it than others.

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