Existing on benefits

Everyone knows someone that they think is a benefit cheat, either because they work while claiming benefits or they do things that they shouldn’t be able to do while receiving sickness benefits, or because they have expensive possessions or a new car.

The thing is, nearly everyone is simply wrong. Some benefits, for example DLA, are paid whether a person is working or not; and many people carry on working as long as possible despite their health problems, so working and claiming sickness benefits is often no indication of fraud. Many people have variable illnesses and can carry out a necessary task, but at massive cost to their health, so what you see them doing is no indicator of “worthiness” for sickness benefits. Many people have TVs and gaming consoles given to them by family, or had such things before going on benefits, or are running up large personal debts to keep up, so what you see in their home is no indication of fraud. Many people receiving DLA get a new car every three years through the Motability scheme, so having a new car is no indication of fraud.

Disability Living Allowance is paid whether the recipient is working or not. DLA is given specifically to make up for the extra expenses caused by living with a disability. My own father receives DLA which pays for him to have a car on the motability scheme. DLA also pays for suitable seating, extra heating bills, easy-to-access food, and other extra costs. My father is still working, and since he only has low paid temporary work, if he has his DLA taken away from him, he would lose his car and be unable to get to work.

As regular readers will know, I have a variable illness. There are days when I can walk to the shops. There are days when I can’t get out of bed or as far as the bathroom. There are times when I go out without using a walking stick but I have to use one to get home. (Staggering all the way.) There are times when I am well enough to ride a motorbike. There are occasions when I have ridden that motorbike for four hours, but then an observer has no idea what I go through after doing that. If someone sees me walk to the shops without a stick, they can’t make any assumptions about what I can do the next day, or even an hour later.

A major flaw in public thinking, and in the Work Capability Assessment, is the idea that if a person can do something once, they can do it again. I can choose to do a task at the expense of a day, a week, or however long in bed. I couldn’t do that task every day. I certainly couldn’t do it all day every day. I can sign my name, but I can’t write a page of text. I can commute to work, once, but couldn’t get home again. I could set up a whole website in a couple of hours in the middle of the night, but I couldn’t do it all day every day for a living, or tell you when I could next do it. Other people with health problems might be able to mow their lawn, put up a shelf or paint a wall, but at a similar cost to their health along with the associated recovery time. Living on benefits, as many of these people do, they are poor. They can’t afford to pay someone to do these jobs necessary in everyday life, and so they do them themselves, and pay the health costs later. Yet neighbours and passers-by see them doing these tasks, and instead of asking “can I help?” they phone the DWP and report them as a benefit fraudster.

580,000 people use the Motability Scheme to get a car, wheelchair or scooter. Getting an appropriate vehicle to allow freedom of movement is the whole point of the mobility component of DLA. If they have chosen a car, they receive a new one every three years simply because the Motability scheme, (which is not government run), makes the finances work by giving new cars to the disabled in return for a chunk of their DLA, and then selling the car after three years to recoup the rest of the cost. Since Motability is responsible for the maintenance of the vehicles too, this works out cheaper than giving people second-hand cars, and also doesn’t leave disabled people stranded when their used car breaks down. And yet many people denounce this as fraud. Why should they have a new car? Well they have one because that costs them less than buying their own used car. It isn’t benefit fraud just because you are jealous of their car.

Then we have the household with electronic entertainment devices. Big screen TVs, games consoles, expensive Sky or Virgin TV subscriptions, smart phones. First off, an outsider won’t know where or when these items were obtained. They might well have been purchased before the owner started to claim benefits. The might also have been purchased later using credit, which is then repaid out of the benefits, which of course means less money for other living costs. That isn’t fraud; it might be unwise spending, and I don’t necessarily agree with that either. In some situations these items are purchased using cash from a loan shark, or from a catalogue or pawn shop with weekly collections of the repayment.

You also can’t necessarily argue that these items are unnecessary. There is a big argument to be made that television is part of our social glue, and that depriving someone of their TV, especially if they don’t go out to work, is just cutting them off from sources of news and entertainment and social connection to the rest of society. I say it is a gross injustice to remove a TV from someone that may not be able to get out of the house easily and may have no other source of entertainment. Equally, a games console is a way of passing the time, and for children might well be important for their social acceptance.

Basically, if someone spends their entire benefit payment on a games console instead of food, that’s not fraud, that’s bad planning. Benefits do not usually come with a specification of what the money can be spent on; in the rare cases that they do, the recipient is given milk tokens, or Tesco vouchers with “Not to be spent on alcohol” stamped on them to make sure that the cashier knows your embarrassing situation.

I know that there are benefit cheats out there. I know that there are people working while claiming Job Seekers Allowance, some of the time managing to live extravagant lifestyles, have mansions, lots of cars, and so on. The thing is, you have probably read about every single one of them in the Daily Mail. They are rare. Those people go to prison, and rightly so. But most of the people that YOU might think are cheats, probably aren’t. You don’t know their details, you don’t know anything about their health, their abilities, their financial situation, or where they got anything from.

Compare and contrast

This morning I have come across two contrasting news stories.

The first has been reported across all the news media, but I will link to the BBC story.

Bizarre benefits fraud excuses revealed by government

“Ministers have tried to highlight the impact of benefit fraud by publishing some of the more unusual excuses used by people found guilty of cheating.”

The second is in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog.

Cancer has shown me the injustice of disability cuts

“My diagnosis means I have experience of the terrible impact of welfare cuts. I will use my time left to shame those in power.”

The first story above reports on the most absurd excuses made for benefit fraud after the government have made them public today. The release of anecdotal evidence of fraud by government ministers is shocking spin. Of course the ridiculous nature of these excuses makes good publicity for the government and has been quickly picked up across all the news media. It comes on the back of minister for the disabled Maria Miller announcing on live television news that more people receive benefits for drug and alcohol addiction than for blindness (They don’t.) and employment minister Chris Grayling stating that 75% of people claiming ESA were fit to work. (They weren’t.) These are just some of many inaccurate or over-simplified releases of information by the government.

The current government, backed up by the tabloids, has a clear agenda to denounce the sick as scroungers so that their funding can be reduced or even cut off. It is a lie that is all too easily swallowed by the public. Reports of benefit fraudsters in newspapers makes good stories that cause the necessary amount of outrage in their readers to sell more newspapers. Unfortunately they grossly misrepresent the amount of fraud that actually goes on and distort the views of the people. I have two points to make here really; the amount of fraud is FAR lower than most people think, anecdotal evidence or not, and that people judge others far too easily and decide that people are committing fraud based on things that they see when they have NO idea of the actual circumstances. I am saving my arguments on this for another article, but I have already written about this in my previous article People on benefits? They’re all scroungers aren’t they? and mentioned it numerous times on this blog. I have also mentioned the assumptions that people make about my walking stick in Embarrassed to be me where I wrote about how people question why I need a stick or give verbal abuse because they think the stick is simply a badge to gain sympathy and benefits. Those people think that I am a fraud, when I can barely walk sometimes. Basically, people are horrible and make all sorts of negative assumptions about other people with no basis in reality.

The second story above gives a glimpse at the reality of trying to get benefits when they are actually needed. Although his gripe about DLA not being backdated to diagnosis or ending work, that isn’t anything new or particularly shocking but it does show that the benefits claim process is already quite harsh enough. Again, I have written about my own problems with claiming benefits on this blog, particularly in The benefit claims ordeal. Claiming benefits is hard. Very hard. The application process is hell. The forms are long and very difficult to fill in. It is nearly impossible to highlight the problems that an illness or disability can cause without getting a professional to fill in the form. The Work Capability Assessment is heavily weighted against the claimant and deeply flawed. While 40% of cases that are found fit for work are eventually overturned at appeal, many people give up before the appeal and for those that don’t the process is long and torturous. People even die from their illness before winning their appeal.

Even when successfully claiming benefits for illness or disability, living on them is no easy task. In the story mentioned above, a charity has to provide much of the care and resources needed by the writer of the article, but their funding has been cut too. When living on benefits management of the household accounts has to be perfect or people soon find themselves in bank charges hell. Shopping has to done on an incredibly tight budget and principles have to be compromised in order to get things that are needed. Lisa Ansell wrote about this in her article I can’t get this out of my head. Cooking  can often take the form of desperation stew – see Poverty Cooking for that recipe. Living on benefits means never quite having enough to live on and to pay all the bills. Parents on benefits often go hungry so that their children can eat.

Once again I have to say that the government, the tabloids and the general public disgust me. Current thinking is not very far from repeating history. It has to change.

Bust and boom, a spoonie tale

Yes, I know that the title has the phrase the wrong way around. But bust and boom perfectly describes what has happened to me in the last few hours.

Last night after dinner and watching Doctor Who my wife and I decided that we wanted cheesecake for desert. The nearest cheesecake was at the co-op which is about half a mile away from us. My wife asked me if I wanted to come out for the walk to go and get the desert. I stood up, stretched, checked whether I was able to stand without wobbling and walk without hurting, and said yes. I regretted it almost immediately, with pain in my left leg and foot, and I was putting weight on my stick from the start. After a short distance I had to stop and lean against a lamp post for a minute while I waited for pain to go down and dizziness to stop. A bit further and we started to go uphill. I was using my stick to push me uphill and was leaning on the hand that my wife was holding too. I was dizzy and out of breath, I had pain coursing through my feet, my legs, my arms, back, shoulders, neck and probably other bits if I thought about it. At the top of the hill was a low wall. I sat on it. I couldn’t move for fifteen minutes.

Having sent my wife on without me to get the cheesecake and waited for her return, I managed to stand up (just about) and stagger home, held upright by my wife and leaning heavily on my stick. On getting home I collapsed in bed, ate a slice of cheesecake, looked at twitter, and then promptly passed out. When my wife came to bed at 9:30 I took my medicine and went back to sleep. Although I woke up for a few minutes after midnight, I slept the whole night through and woke up shortly before 5am feeling pretty good! I amused myself with twitter, trying to stay in bed a bit longer until the rest of the world woke up. Sometime around 6am my wife woke up too, and she helped me fill up my medicine tray for the week. That was actually a fairly interesting half hour, as I talked her through the medicines I take and what they are all for. The only problem is that while distracted by talking about my medicines I accidentally took two doses of paracetamol. We checked up on it, and apparently the toxic dose for my body mass is 16g and I took 2g so I am not too worried about it.

Since I was obviously feeling quite well this morning I suggested that we go out for breakfast. This time although I was using my stick I wasn’t leaning on it that much. We walked all the way up to the pub, about the same distance as the co-op, with only one pause to sit on a bench halfway there. So now I am sitting in the pub writing this on my netbook. My wife has gone off to church, and I’m writing, websurfing and drinking coffee, and not feeling too bad. Which almost makes up for my disastrous walk last night.

Frozen

Frozen

Despair

Staring, unblinking at the wall.

Thoughts spiral down,

so far down that they cease.

 

Numb

Hopeless

Sitting, not moving.

No longer comfortable,

but not moving.

 

The world screams at me

Endless tasks await

I consider making me stop

to make it all stop

but I can’t, because I am frozen.

 

Embarrassed to be me

Sometimes I have to use a walking stick. I walk with a stick because sometimes the pain is too much to put weight on my legs, or my muscles are too weak to hold me up, or I am too dizzy and lack the balance to remain upright. I especially need the stick when I am standing still as without it I can fall over due to all of the above.

I hate my walking stick.

I hate it because it is awkward to use.

I hate it because it prevents me carrying anything with that hand.

I hate it because it stops me holding hands with my wife.

I hate it because it is noisy on the pavement.

I hate it because it allows me to walk further when I should stop and rest.

I hate it because it transfers the pain from my legs to my hands and arms and back.

But most of all, I hate my walking stick because it is a symbol of my weakness. It is a sign to anyone that sees it that I am sick. Weak. I feel self-conscious when I use it, because people look at the stick and judge me. Many of them see a thirty-something man with no visible problems using a walking stick and decide that I don’t need it. Some of them assume that I use a stick in order to look sick to get benefits. (Even when I wasn’t on benefits.) Some of them actually question my use of it, and in the worst case, verbally attack me, even swearing at me.

So I leave my stick at home. That doesn’t work out so well, because what happens is that I walk all the way to the doctor, the pharmacy or the shops without too much of a problem apart from stopping to lean on a wall every so often. Then comes the problem. I get tired. I get pain. I am out, ten minutes walk from home, rapidly losing the ability to stay upright, and I don’t have a walking stick. Having to ask for a chair and stop for a fifteen minute rest in a shop is even more embarrassing than using a walking stick in the first place.

I have got around the problem of not having my walking stick when I need it by using a folding stick which can fit in the (large) pocket of my trenchcoat or in my bag. It’s still a pain to carry around so I don’t always take it, but it’s better than never taking it. I can also surprise people by pulling the stick out of my pocket suddenly and having it click together in a most satisfying way!

Given my embarrassment at using the stick, you can imagine what I think about using a wheelchair. I’ve never used one but the thought fills me with fear. Fear of what people will think, especially if I get out of it occasionally when I have no need to be in it. People do not understand that health problems are variable and that it is possible to need a stick or a chair on some occasions and not others. Or that I could use a wheelchair for a journey but walk around inside the building at the end of it.

I was thinking about all of this again because I have been offered an electric wheelchair that used to belong to a family member. My immediate response is NO NO NO but actually that is stupid of me. There are many times when it would be useful to have one, and there are plenty of occasions when I could actually use it to get around the house. There are times at the moment where I cannot get from the bed to the bathroom or the kitchen, and so I go without food and drink until someone can arrive and help me. I will soon be living several miles from my nearest helper rather than next door, but with an electric wheelchair I could get food and drink several hours earlier than I would otherwise. I might even get more hours in the day because I would start to feel better earlier.

I have to learn not to be embarrassed to be me.

 

Privacy Injunctions and holding the press to account

Believe it or not, I believe in personal privacy. I have more or less sacrificed mine by choice through my writing on this blog and through my use of twitter but for most of my life I tried very hard to keep most things about me private; certainly away from the internet. I explained in my blog post “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it” why I think that we are voluntarily giving up much of our right to keep our lives private but I still believe that we must have the option of privacy if we want it.

I also have much contempt for tabloid newspapers and celebrity gossip magazines that do all they can to expose the private lives of the rich and famous and the not-so-famous if they happen to have appeared in public life for a few minutes. While many desperate wannabe celebs may give their information out to be published voluntarily, many more do not and yet still find their image plastered all over the media and people everywhere discussing the intimate details of their sex lives or of their family. I find it particularly vile when tabloids discuss the private lives of ordinary people with the intention of destroying them or simply of making a titilating story. These stories often expose and condemn actions of ordinary civil servants, teachers and other underpaid hard-working people, destroying their lives just to create a tiny bit of outrage for their readers. (And that not even deserved – why shouldn’t civil servants and teachers enjoy the same right to go to the pub and drink that every other person enjoys?)

On the other hand, I do think it is right that the press expose relevant information when politicians and people with responsibility or power do something that compromises their job. That probably doesn’t include who they sleep with unless they committed a crime in doing so or endangered their impartiality.

How, then, do we call an end to this voyeuristic exposure of people’s lives in tabloids and gossip magazines while still allowing the proper reporting of things that actually affect us? Those who can afford it have turned to the courts and to injunctions. Injunctions have been used to order the media not to report on something that they have discovered such as a celebrity sex scandal. More recently we have had super injunctions which have prevented the press from even reporting that they are subject to an injunction. Then we have hyper-injunctions, where people subject to them are forbidden from talking to their own lawyer or even to their MP. John Hemming MP took great exception to this when he discovered it, and he used “Parliamentary Privilege” to expose an injunction by discussing it in parliament. Parliamentary privilege allows MPs to discuss anything they wish in a parliamentary debate without fear of prosecution. This of course is necessary for the law to function properly, however everything that is discussed in parliament is also recorded in Hansard and broadcast on BBC Parliament and therefore is in full public view. Once discussed in parliament the newspapers and tabloids felt free to discuss the injunction although judges have questioned whether that was legal or not.

In many cases the injunction has become the story and the injunction has fuelled the story and given publicity to the scandal behind it. I have heard from people over and over again that they had never heard of the people that were the subject of an injunction, but that now they had because of the injunction.

The important point is that once exposed, whether through discussion in parliament or through simple gossip and leaks, the internet and social media can get hold of the details and repeat them endlessly. Some of those repeating the information are not even in the UK and are not subject to UK courts so there is nothing that the courts can do to prevent this. In the most recent case twitter has been full of endless tweets and retweets about a certain footballer and Imogen Thomas, fuelled by outrage at his injunction. Some 30,000 people are estimated to have repeated this information. Clearly, in the age of social media, these injunctions are useless.

I think that injunctions have been misused. I believe they are supposed to protect innocent parties from damage caused by pointless publicity but they actually seem to be a tool of the rich. People like you and I cannot afford an injunction; a footballer or a media boss can. Being available only to the rich does not in itself make injunctions wrong, but being used simply to hide infidelity does seem to me to be wrong. If a footballer thought that his reputation would be damaged if people knew that he slept with a Z-list Big Brother contestant, he could have refrained from doing so.

What is the solution to irrelevant gossip destroying people’s lives then? I believe that we need much better oversight of the media industry. The Press Complaints Commission is a toothless, meaningless body that hardly ever rules against the newspapers. We need something much stronger, with much more power, and perhaps much more democratic. Newspapers need to be accountable for inaccurate or even fictional stories, and justice needs to be accessible to everyone and not just those that can afford a libel lawyer. We also must require corrections and apologies by newspapers to be of the same prominence as the original story. That means the an incorrect front page headline must be followed up by putting the correction in as a front page headline. A recent complaint about the Daily Mail making a factually incorrect claim that “Half of claimants are not asked to prove eligibility” has been “corrected” by simply publishing a letter of complaint at the bottom of the story on the website. While that may be seen by future viewers, nearly everyone has seen that story and moved on. No one is going to revisit the story just to see if there is a correction! The PCC considers this to have been “amicably resolved.”

Social media has made injunctions useless. Even the prime minister thinks so, so perhaps now we will see some change. We must have better regulation of the media while at the same time ensuring freedom of the press, which is absolutely necessary for a democratic society to function. We must reform the Press Complaints Commission, and we must stop this purchasing of the law by the rich.

 

Related Links

Forty Shades of Grey: Ryan Giggs Shagged Imogen Thomas

Telegraph: ‘Hyper-injunction’ stops you talking to MP

Guardian: Privacy law unsustainable in age of social media, says Cameron

Tentacles of Doom: You have zero privacy anyway, get over it

A True Story Of Daily Mail Lies

Baskers World: Sticks and Stones. Perhaps it’s time to go?

News Statesman: The weekend Twitter mocked the English Courts

 

 

 

Technological Isolation

Overjoyed as I am at the fact that we have got a flat to go to and won’t be homeless at the end of the month, there is a problem. When we visited the new flat last week a quick check of all the mobile phones present showed that there was little or no mobile signal on 3, Orange, T-Mobile or O2. My dad did actually receive a call while we were there, but my identical phone on an identical network didn’t pick up a signal at all. Later I looked at coverage checkers at all those networks and Vodafone too. They all show that the signal strength there is “Outdoor only” which means that the signal is so poor that it can’t penetrate walls to allow reception inside the house. As for mobile internet or 3G and mobile broadband, forget it. Not gonna happen.

So having accepted that our mobile phones will probably only ever ring if left on the windowsill, I asked about the landline at the flat. Apparently there is a phone socket, but the current tenant doesn’t actually use it. It will therefore have to be re-connected by BT. Re-connection takes time, and broadband is likely to take ten days after that. In all likelihood, I will not have any telephone or internet for a couple of weeks after moving in. I will also be several miles from people that I know and in no fit state to walk or ride anywhere to see them. I’m going to be cut off.

No phone and no internet makes Steve go crazy.

Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m an internet addict!

Help me.

The benefit claims ordeal

Today I made the major step, to me, anyway, of getting my ESA50 form filled in at last. ESA50 is part of the process of applying for Employment Support Allowance, which should be my income while I cannot work. It is a form where I have to describe in great detail every part of my illness – each problem that I have, every drug that I take, and describe how it affects my life from walking and sitting to washing and going to the toilet. This daunting form has been hanging over me for weeks because I have been unable to face filling it in.

To recap, I have had ME for more than a decade, with all of the resultant problems like extreme fatigue, muscle pain, brain fog, insomnia, all much worse after any movement or activity. I also get frequent migraines, sometimes every day, and have suffered from those all my life. I’ve had diabetes for two and a half years, progressing at a disturbing rate, and a host of other problems as well. All of that combined makes me pretty flaky when it comes to getting anything done and it has ensured that I have a very intermittent work history. I’ve managed to work some years, but I have been stuck in my bed or my house for years at a time too. The last few months have been particularly bad and to cap it all off I started to get depressed about it all. I suppose it isn’t really surprising that I ended up suicidal given all of my health problems plus a sprinkling of my business going down the drain as a result, and imminent homelessness.

Unfortunately filling in an ESA claim form is very difficult for me. The simplest problem is that I can’t use a pen to write more than a sentence before my hand is in excruciating pain. Then there is the problem of concentrating enough to write every detail without forgetting anything or making mistakes. My ME causes severe brainfog a lot of the time and I often cannot concentrate or remember anything. Since it is also important to write problems in a way that correlates to the assesment criteria, most people don’t stand a chance of getting this right, never mind trying it with my concentration problems.

The biggest problem preventing my filling in the form has to have been my depression. Since I became depressed a few months ago I have frequently found myself paralysed by despair, literally unable to move, unable to do anything except focus on despair and on all my problems. Attempting any serious task or responsibility has usually resulted in this state and the ESA form has been the biggest trigger of them all.

It isn’t just filling in the form that has been difficult for me; after I applied I also had to deal with the DWP claiming that my sick note had run out after a week and demanding another one, despite it being for a month, and with them claiming that I hadn’t told them that my wife was working, when in fact they were told at the time that I applied. These two problems added to my mental block on completing the form.

Anyway, the story does get a little bit better. My sister works for a charity that is part of the DIAL network. (Disability Information Advice Line) She pointed out to me that I could get help from my local DIAL and so I gave them a call. My form was already late, and so despite their normal waiting time of six weeks they managed to get me an appointment within two weeks.

Today I met with a lady from DIAL and she went through the form, asking me questions and breaking down each question into small parts that I could answer. She took all the information that I told her and wrote it on the form in a  structure that matches the assessment criteria. She also talked to me at length so as to build an idea of everything that needed to be written in as additional information and wrote a whole A4 page about my illness. Having done this lots before, she already knew a lot of the problems that I face and so I did not have to drag it all out of my brain fog.

Despite all her help, the meeting was two hours long and was an ordeal for me to get through. I had already taken my maximum dose of painkillers to get there for 10am, and spending two hours in a chair in an office at the job centre was extremely difficult. At one point I couldn’t answer her questions any more and I was encouraged to take a rest – I ended up lying on the floor! I stayed there while part of the form was filled in but eventually had to get up which was even harder work and very painful. By the end of the interview I could hardly speak and barely stand but I was helped to stagger back to the waiting car and she even carried my bag.

So after all of that, I have a form filled in with far better answers than I could give, and probably the most accurate portrayal of my illness that has been written so far. (I did actually show her my blog post, A morning with ME, and was told that I should print it out and include it with my forms.) It is a great weight off my mind, or at least it will be shortly when I photocopy the form and finally post it. I will definitely ask DIAL for help with any future applications, assuming they survive government budget cuts.

My next step is to try not to worry too much about my impending Work Capability Assesment.

 

To each according to his needs

Last night I watched a TV programme that made me very sad. In the end I turned it off for the sake of my mental health. That programme is “The street that cut everything” and it is an experiment where council services are removed from a whole street, and shows the results of the resident’s efforts to find replacements for those services. Although the programme is quite contrived and has been criticised by many as not an accurate representation of what will happen, it does reveal quite a lot about people’s attitude towards services and sharing of resources.

One case in particular stood out to me. A single mother called Tracie was particularly affected by the removal of council services. She lost housing benefit, her younger daughter lost free school meals and after school clubs and her older daughter lost her university fees. While the residents of the street did eventually agree to pay for these costs out of the common purse, some of the views expressed in the lead up to that decision were unpleasant.

“Free school lunches, what’s wrong with taking a sandwich?”

“If there’s any kind of monetary thing to be had, they’re there, they’re like vultures, claim claim claim claim”

“I had a daughter who worked all her life on her own, never, never didn’t do her job, never claimed a benefit at all, she got there – with a little help from us. I know if you get off your bottoms, there is something out there.”

“Are we allowed to evict her ourselves?”

These comments are those of privileged people that have never dealt with hardship. Free school meals may be the only hot meal that children from poorer families will get in a day. That may be because of poor parenting, but is more likely to be because of a lack of of money to pay for decent meals. Providing a hot meal at lunchtime ensures proper nutrition for children and may prevent health problems later. The comment about vultures and claiming benefits is absurd: of course people will claim benefits to which they are entitled. If they qualify for means tested benefits then they need those benefits to live. Actually, many benefits remain unclaimed and that is a big problem that causes hardship for many.

The comment about the daughter that worked, was never sick and never claimed benefits is also a bizarre one. Even though she worked, she still had to get help from her parents. If she had actually been unable to find a job or unable to work through illness or accident, she would have had to either rely on a lot more help from her parents or claim benefits. Many people are not in a position to receive help from their parents. Saying that there is work out there for those that try just shows complete ignorance of our current situation where two and a half million people are unemployed but only half a million jobs are available and many of them are only part time, and cannot provide enough to live on.

The comment about evicting the benefit claimant is just sickening. How far is it from turfing out the “burdens” on society to the gas chambers of nazi Germany?

Still, there was a nicer comment from one person that showed some understanding:

“That’s why you pay in. There’s points in your life when you’re getting very good value for money, and there’s points in your life where you probably don’t. That’s the way it is.”

This leads me on to my main point.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

I haven’t read Marx, but I have heard this phrase many times. I believe that it should be the cornerstone of our welfare state. It is a principle that should ensure support for the unemployed, the sick, the disabled and those in situations where they are unable to support themselves.

In the Victorian era, the poor had to rely on the charity and generosity of the rich for medical care. Some areas had charitable hospitals and some did not. Some people were able to find a doctor that would not charge the poor, and some were not. If there weren’t any philanthropists to help, then no help was given. Reliance on philanthropy and charity ensured that many people lived short, squalid lives, and died horrible preventable deaths.

Even a hundred years ago and further back there were health care insurances and mutuals and friendly societies that would provide healthcare and support to people that had paid in to these schemes. Most rich people seem to accept insurance policies as fair as long as everyone pays the same into the scheme, even though the amount paid out to each person varies according to need. In fact the amount paid out must vary, as if everyone needed the most expensive surgery or the most expensive cancer drugs the premiums necessary to fund the scheme would be huge. Although payment out is unequal, it is dependant on payment in, and excludes pre-existing problems. With the welfare state payment out is according to need and generally unconditional. Actually, many of our benefits come in contribution-based and income-based variants, but if there are no contributions some form of benefit and all forms of health care will still be given. The difference is that contribution based benefits are not generally means tested. I am not sure if people have a problem with benefits being paid to those who may not have paid in, or if their problem is that they think everyone that claims a benefit is a cheat or somehow unworthy, or both. Certainly the view being pushed by the government and by the tabloids is the latter.

Recently there has been an increase in verbal and physical assaults against people on benefits. I think this is in no small part due to the fact that government ministers and many newspapers have been directing anger over the deficit cuts at the poor, the sick and the disabled. Fault also lies with the public for going along with that view. The views of those people taking part in the programme mentioned above would seem to be more prevalent among our population than I had thought. That gives me pause to wonder if actually, a welfare state is right and is what the majority want. Of course many people that have sufficient funds to live a comfortable life may argue that those that haven’t will always vote for a welfare state.

I know that I do not want to live in a society where it is acceptable to leave the sick to die from diseases that could be prevented, or to bankrupt people to pay for medical treatment, or to throw people out on to the streets if they cannot earn sufficient to pay for rent and food, or to prevent children from accessing education because their parents are not rich enough. These things are painful for me to see, and on those few occasions when both my wife and I have been working and earning enough to live on, I have not hesitated to help out my friends when they have asked. I have received more help from friends and family than I can recall. To put it bluntly, I cannot imagine the mindset of someone that would think that not helping people is acceptable. And yet people that think just that clearly exist, and may even be a majority. I imagine that some of them, like in The street that cut everything, would eventually grudgingly accept that they should help those less fortunate than them, but if not put in to an emotional situation or confronted with the harsh realities of the situation they may never even consider it.

And so I have to end with questions. Does a majority in this country even want a welfare state, or would they prefer the issues that I outlined in the last paragraph? Will a welfare state only exist if forcefully pushed through by charismatic government ministers? Is this a situation where the people don’t know what’s good for them? Or should we abandon the idea as undemocratic? I know what I would prefer.

Free to disagree: we need public opinion on our side

What is the objective of protest? What is the point of going out, holding placards and banners, marching through the streets and shouting outside parliament? Generally people march because they are unhappy about something and they want it changed. Changing policy means either changing the minds of the politicians and officials that are enacting that policy, or replacing those MPs and officials.

Changing someone’s mind can work in two ways that I can think of. The first way is to debate with them, to present arguments and facts, and hope that they will be convinced. The second way is to get enough other people to apply pressure and force them into changing their mind out of embarrassment. The second method requires convincing people that you are right so that they apply the pressure, so we come back to having to debate and persuade. Removing someone from office basically comes back to the same thing too.

So from the point of view of an anti-cuts campaigner, the problem that we face is in convincing other people that there actually is a problem at all, and persuading them that they should care enough to do something about it. Protesting and marching does raise awareness of the issues, and disruptive protest can cause embarrassment to politicians and draw even more attention, but it often doesn’t inform people of the full extent of the problems or the reasons why they should give their support.

Part of the problem with persuading people is that they simply don’t believe what they are told. We say benefits are being cut, they say don’t be silly, of course the government will look after the disabled and that it can’t be as bad as that. We say that services are being sold off, they say that this won’t be a problem and private enterprise can’t be as bad for services as we tell them. We say that the police are over-reacting to protest and are causing violence, they say that the police would never use too much force and there must be something we’re not telling them which justifies their actions. This blog post shows a typical response to many of our arguments.

Even when presented with unedited video footage showing statements or actions that prove a case, people apply their own filters to the information and refute the claims. When David Cameron repeated the line from the police that a police officer was pulled off his horse and beaten, I posted a video on YouTube that showed the only horse-riding police officer injured that day being thrown from his own horse and then kicked by it before being dragged away quite violently by his colleagues. No protester involvement. Yet people still won’t admit that the police and the prime minister lied about it. When I posted several videos showing the arrests of protesters and activists ahead of the royal wedding without cause or charge, someone commented that “Someone videoing a particular incident at a protest has been/is being influenced by all sorts of factors and is therefore not videoing something else which might tell a different story” with the implication that because other situations that maybe show protesters in a bad light had been missed, these videos have diminished relevance in the debate about policing. When someone posted a video in which Nick Griffin showed us his real views on race, the response from one BNP supporter was “iwas Totally under whelmed by the video. Was it filmed by kargaroo court productions? I could post hundreds of damming Islamic videos here.”

So there is a real chasm between the thinking of protesters and of other people. Many people are oblivious to the changes, more think that the cuts can’t be as bad as we are saying because the government wouldn’t do that, and even more think that it won’t affect them and is therefore somebody else’s problem. Most people are convinced of the idea that Labour left our economy in a mess, even though there was a worldwide recession caused by worldwide greed for money. Most people believe the lie that our national debt and the deficit in repayments is a bigger problem now that it has been when in fact the opposite is true. (The welfare state, NHS, pensions and more were built when our economy was in a terrible state.)

Public opinion seems to be turning against the sick and disabled which is all to the good of a Tory government, as it means they can use the opportunity to sweep away benefits, remove income, and take us all the way back to the Victorian age. The tabloid newspapers and in fact many broadsheets too have been instrumental in helping the government make scapegoats out of public services, benefit claimants and disabled and sick people. This just shows how important public relations and management of the media and of public perception are.

Our battle is to convince people that things ARE that bad, and that cuts will affect them. We have to convince enough people to put pressure on the government so that politicians become embarrassed enough to step down or change their policies.  A comment left on this blog recently makes this point for me.

“Conclusion: it’s not just about getting your message across. It’s about portraying your position in a way that appeals to those who don’t already naturally agree with you. Talking about it in a way that _you_ think would convince any reasonable person is absolute the wrong thing to do. You need to get into the heads of those who remain unconvinced.

I can’t quite get my head around how you would do this, but then, it’s not my job. However, if that article is correct (it discusses it WRT the AV referendum, but I think the argument is even more relevant and important in the current context) then the absolute best thing that disability campaigners could do would be to hire someone who gets this, and to get them talking to the press.”

I dislike spin doctors and publicists, but he’s got a very good point.