My report from the Invisible Invincible protest is now on The Pod Delusion podcast. Unfortunately it had to be cut by quite a lot to fit the available space, but you can read my original text below. It is largely based on a previous blog post with some added explanation.
My report starts at 15:17 in to the podcast. An MP3 file is available for download via The Pod Delusion website.
Did you hear about a group of disabled people who chained themselves together in Oxford Circus last weekend to protest against the Welfare Reform Bill? There is actually a chance that you might have done, because unlike a lot of previous protests, this one got some media attention.
I was one of the people involved. I’m going to tell you about my day at that protest but before that I want to quickly run through some of the problems with the Welfare Reform Bill so that you know why I was protesting. It isn’t so much that disabled people are going to get less money as that vast numbers of people will suddenly get nothing at all.
The twenty six thousand a year benefit cap that has been in the news is the least of the problems as far as I am concerned. They can have that one. I’m more worried about the disabled children that will no longer be treated as having national insurance contributions and so won’t get ESA when they are older, and I am worried about the reduced disabled children’s tax credits, and the charging parents to access the child support agency if they break up, which means that children will not get support or parents will stay in abusive relationships because they can’t afford to leave. I’m worried about the people who will find their ESA time limited to one year not in spite of, but because they have worked and paid national insurance contributions, and after that year will be completely dependent on their partner if they earn more than seven and a half thousand a year. I’m worried about the fact that people receiving Personal Independence Payments, or PIP, which will replace DLA, will be tested frequently even if they have a progressive degenerative disease that will never get better, or even if they are missing limbs or permanently blind. PIP assessments will cost a fortune, are largely pointless for these people, and speaking from experience, assessments for ESA and DLA have a serious impact on health in themselves. I’m worried about the fact that DLA has a 0.5, yes, ZERO point five percent fraud rate, more is lost in error by the state, but that PIP will cut 20% off the budget. A budget that pays for all sorts of things including wheelchairs and care and special food and walking sticks. When people are left without PIP, and they will be, that’s the point of the government reforms, they will be stranded at home, dependent on friends and volunteers for help. I could go on but that will do for now.
So on to my day of protest.
My alarm went off at 6:30am. Being a chronic insomniac, it was pure luck that I had actually got to sleep by about 2am and so had had some sleep before hand. Strangely I found it easier to function after four hours sleep than after seven, if not for very long, and so I forced down a double dose of painkillers and coffee and managed to get washed and dressed – no small feat for me at any time of day. Then I bundled myself into my powerchair and we were off.
First stop was a bus into Evesham. Karen and I walked and rolled to the bus stop and waited in the cold. Eventually the bus arrived and we travelled twenty minutes or so into town. Then we had to go on half a mile from the bus station to the train station. I had pre-booked assistance to board the train but hadn’t booked tickets, so we went via the ticket office to get some. £74 worth of tickets, which went on credit. Protest is costly and in more ways than one. Trains to London actually depart from the other side of the station and my chair wasn’t going to go over the footbridge and so we left the ticket office and went around to the other side via the main road, which took a few minutes. After some time in the very cold waiting room, since people in wheelchairs are told to arrive half an hour before the train is due, as well as to book 24 hours in advance, the train arrived. Unfortunately when I found the space which I had been booked into, it turned out to be beyond the end of platform. The train manager took us all the way to the other end of the train so that he could put us in first class where there was another wheelchair space. The next hurdle was that there was hardly any room to manoeuvre on the way in to the train and my chair got stuck trying to get past the luggage space. I had to get out of the chair and the train manager actually lifted it clear of the obstruction, all 90KG of it. Once we were underway I settled down with a coffee and tried to eat the bacon roll which we had brought with us, and I wrote a blog post to explain why I was protesting.
In London I got off the train after a brief delay while the ramp was taken to the wrong end of the train, and we made our way out to catch a bus to our meetup location. I must say that I am very impressed with the wheelchair ramps on London buses. There is a button next to the middle door to alert the driver of a wheelchair, and then after passengers have disembarked the doors close again while the motorised ramp is lowered. Then the doors open and allow the wheelchair to board, with plenty of space to get to the designated wheelchair spot. I wish these buses were everywhere.
Anyway, we got to the branch of McDonalds where we were meeting far earlier than we needed to but we started to bump into other people arriving for the protest anyway. I was pleased to recognise someone that I had seen at a march in Birmingham the previous June, and even more pleased when I realised that it was in fact someone who I knew from Twitter. It turns out that we had met, and had been talking to each other online but not realised who we were! We were approached by a video journalist from The Guardian who interviewed us both about our reasons for protesting – the first of many interviews I would do that day. After a few minutes I met and talked to one of the organisers of our protest about our plan. The number of wheelchairs and other disabled people hanging around outside was making us a bit conspicuous so he suggested we go to meet up with another group a short distance up the road. I was really please to find people from UK Uncut waiting there to assist us, including some people that I had been talking to over the internet for more than a year but had never met.
Just before twelve we all moved off along Regent Street towards Oxford Circus. Volunteers from UK Uncut waited for the lights to go red and then ran across the crossing with a chain and locked it at both ends. A line of people disabled people followed quickly and took up their places along the chain. I was near the end of the line as I was waiting for Karen to return with food for me (I’m diabetic and had realised that I would miss lunch) so I rolled into place right at the end of the line across Regent Street, actually still on the pavement. We all locked on to the chain with D-locks and cheered. We had done it!
I was quite impressed with the police, the Met were calm and pleasant and smiling, which was unexpected. They did pull up with sirens blaring, but then who doesn’t like a good excuse for blues and twos? Two police vans stopped in front of the line and blocked us from the rest of the junction and a row of police lined up in front of the vans facing us. Some of them did try to take down a banner that was being held across the Tube entrance, and there was a Met cameraman carefully videoing us all, no doubt for the database of protesters that they say they haven’t got. After about an hour the police made an announcement. I haven’t got a clue what they said, because it was completely incomprehensible, even without the sign-language interpreter that one of the other protesters asked for!
As we neared half past one it seems that the police were getting a little impatient. They informed some of our group that they would tolerate us if we moved aside to only block one side of the road, otherwise they would “take appropriate action.” I almost wish I could have seen what that appropriate action was, because I don’t think the police had any idea. No doubt they had disturbing visions of what the many journalists there would say about police dragging away people in wheelchairs, blind people, people on crutches. And it’s not as though their vans had wheelchair lifts or spaces.
By the time the police had made their feelings on this matter known many of us were quite cold and uncomfortable. This protest was extremely draining for most of the people involved. Although many of us wanted to stay until forced to move, the fact is that most of us could not, and so we all agreed that we would leave at 2pm. In the end it was really chaotic. We all unlocked from the chain and a speech was made, but then no one quite knew which way we were going. Some people had mentioned adjourning to a pub to get warmth and food but as no one knew which one that didn’t happen quickly. We actually ended up milling around in the road and chatting until the police started to look quite stern at about quarter past two.
On the way to the pub there wasn’t room on the pavement for all the wheelchairs, so they ended up in the road. We were walking and rolling slowly down the road along Oxford Street. After a while some police vans came speeding down the wrong side of the road and then crept along next to the crowd. Eventually everyone reached a pub and tried to cram inside, although it wasn’t possible for everyone in wheelchairs to get in. Several other people and I ended up in a pub next door for an hour or so before moving across to the first pub were we were finally able to get some food and seats.
We had a lovely time in the pub and I met yet more people who I previously knew only through Twitter. I stayed far too long for my own health but I had already condemned myself to days in bed in pain and not moving and this was a very rare opportunity to meet people and so I pushed through with help from copious painkillers.
Eventually Karen and I left the pub and returned to Paddington station. The train back to Evesham is only every two hours and we had more than an hour and a half to wait. When we went to find our pre-booked assistance for boarding half an hour before the train was due to leave the manager told us that Evesham station was unmanned after lunchtime, which we already knew, but he also didn’t think there would be any staff on the train who could place the wheelchair ramp for me instead of station staff. This caused me to panic a bit but the station manager called another manager who called the train driver who thought there might be staff on board after all. I went to board the train, which is where we discovered that the train did not have a wheelchair space at all. I eventually ended up blocking the door area with my wheelchair for the whole journey. I am quite surprised that the assistance booking line were not aware of the situation with the station staff, the train staff or the type of train. I was really uncomfortable so I moved to a seat next to Karen, and after Oxford I moved to an empty double seat where I tried to stretch out to relieve some of the pain. I crashed completely at that point with horrific burning and aching pain in spite of my double dose of painkillers. I was in so much pain that I was crying, and trying to hide it from the other passengers.
When our train arrived at Evesham sometime around midnight I had passed out from pain and exhaustion. Karen tried to get me to move back to my powerchair but was unable to wake me up. My memory of this is hazy but I know that I did stir a little and try to stand but could not, and I ended up on the floor of the train and then slumped across the arm of my wheelchair. I understand that a stranger on the train helped Karen to lift and drag me into my chair. Unfortunately when we arrived the ticket inspector could not unlock the ramp at the station. She had been given the code for the lock but it did not work. My family had come to meet me at the station to drive us home and so I was carried off the train into a manual wheelchair by my brother, mother and wife, apparently dropped near the edge of the platform on the way. They also carried my extremely heavy powerchair off the train. Between them my brother and my wife got me into the car and then from the car to my bed, although I was almost completely unable to move.
And here we are. I couldn’t get out of bed for the first 48 hours. Since then I have managed to visit the toilet a couple of times, and I eventually managed to change my clothes after a couple of days, but I’m exhausted and in a lot of pain and I can’t really do much. This is all completely in line with what I expected and I am doubtful if I will be spending any time out of bed before next weekend. This is what the protest cost me, what I knew it would cost me.
I put myself through this and pushed myself to the limit at risk of serious damage to my health and possible relapse because opposing the Welfare Reform Bill means that much to me. What I know is that this bill is really badly thought out and will destroy lives. It seems to be a vehicle for ideological cuts that in the end will cost more to clean up than is saved by cutting in the first place. We know and can prove that the government has lied over and over again about the impact of this bill and about who will support it. They have subverted the parliamentary process to force the bill through, and this week they have made the most audacious move yet. They have declared the welfare reform bill to be a money bill, invoking financial privilege to force the bill past the Lords without amendment. It is dubious enough whether the bill is a money bill or not, since it contains a lot of policy rather than a budget, but they have declared it to be a money bill after it has already been debated by the house of Lords and the Lords have already strongly disagreed with them. Had they actually thought that this was a money bill then the rules dictate that they should have declared it as such before it entered the legislative process.
At this point it looks doubtful whether campaigners can prevent this bill from becoming law but we will keep fighting. We will make a fuss whenever this causes suffering or death. We will not let the government get away with this.
This is Steven Sumpter, reporting for the Pod Delusion.