Podcast Episode: Public debate on welfare reform, Learning Disability Week 2013
Category: Welfare reform
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MD - Michelle Drumm
PS - Peter Scott
AJ - Alex Johnston
BS - Bill Scott
AM - Andrew McKie
MM - Michael McEwan
MD An Iriss public debate on the subject of welfare reform to mark Learning Disability Week 2013 was held on the 20th of August in Glasgow. Over 50 people attended on the day. The motion for the debate was: Welfare reform will mean that people with learning disabilities are pushed further into poverty. It involved a panel of 4 speakers, Peter Scott, CEO of Enable Scotland, Bill Scott, CEO from Inclusion Scotland, Alex Johnston, MSP and Andrew McKie, journalist. Michael McEwan from Able Radio captured the views and opinions of some of the audience members, these views follow the speaker contribution.
First up and arguing for the motion was Peter Scott. Peter began working with people who have learning disabilities when he moved to Glasgow from Belfast in 1993. His first role as a support worker was with Fair Deal, a local voluntary organisation in Castlemilk, which supports people who have learning disabilities to live independent lives in their own home. Peter then joined the role of National Institute of the Blind in 1995, where he enjoyed 10 years as part of the team. During this time he progressed from Support Worker to Service Manager, managing specialist services for people who have learning disabilities and complex needs, as well as additional and visual impairments. Peter moved to Enable Scotland and took on the role of Area Manager in 2005, his responsibilities included a range of services, including Support Employment and Services for Young People . In 209, Peter was appointed Executive Director with responsibility for operations and development, and in March 2010, he was appointed as the 6th CEO of Enable Scotland.
PS Good afternoon, everybody, it’s nice to see you all here and thanks very much to Iriss and Michelle for the invitation.
Welfare reform will mean that people who have learning disabilities are pushed further into poverty. First of all I want to make it clear that I am not speaking with any political agenda, I have no party political axe to grind whatsoever. That might be surprising in a debate about welfare reform, but I am here to represent Enable Scotland. Some of you will know that Enable Scotland is a national, voluntary organisation based solely in Scotland, it’s been in existence for 60 years and for those 60 years we have brought people together who have learning disabilities and their families, for mutual support and to create opportunities to give people a decent life. If anything, Enable Scotland has been described as a conservative organisation with a small c, it often gets labelled as that and it’s not been unknown for some of the things we do to be described as Conservative, with a capital C. So I am not approaching this debate, this discussion with any ideological opposition to the coalition government, but I am approaching it from the perspective of the members of Enable Scotland, the several thousand members of Enable Scotland, who are almost exclusively people who have learning disabilities and their family carers from across the country.
I want to introduce you to someone, we were asked not to use any PowerPoint or anything like that but we could use visual props, so I don’t know if everybody can see the photograph here, in fact if I hold it up, this is a photograph of Andrew Doyle, and Andrew Doyle is an Enable Scotland member and he has been for a very long time. Andrew has an MBE and he was awarded and MBE out of recognition for the contribution he has made to the Learning and Disability community in Scotland, he’s a very impressive individual indeed. Andrew, and our members generally understand from their own lived experiences, the reality of their life every day in 21st century Scotland what the implications of policy are for them. Andrew has a very clear message, I don’t know if you could read what was written on Andrew’s sign there, but it says ‘Do not attack people who are already poor’. Andrew is very anxious about the implications of welfare for him. Andrew already lives in relative poverty. Andrew knows, from his personal direct lived experience, that welfare reform will mean that he and other people who have learning disabilities like him, will be pushed further into poverty. Andrew feels very strongly indeed about this issue and I will try and explain why that is.
The overarching goal of welfare reform is to reduce welfare expenditure. People who have learning disabilities, like Andrew, are of course disabled, they face significant barriers to participating in society and this is very clearly illustrated by the very low percentage of people who have learning disabilities who are in employment, roughly 5% compared with over 70% of the general working age population. This in turn means that people who have a learning disability are disproportionately reliant on the social security system and therefore they will be disproportionately affected by the overall reduction in welfare spend. This is pretty apparent, even without looking into any of the details of individual benefit reforms. Obviously supporters of welfare reform will oppose this and dispute this and they will argue that welfare reform will allow those most in need to be targeted more effectively. This is not the case. Few examples:
1% benefits cap will mean a real terms income reduction for all people depended on benefits. The evidence about the quality of the assessment process is notorious for disability and sickness related benefits. How can we be confident that the reforms will lead to better targeted benefits that even the Government has no confidence in its own assessment process? In any reforms they take £1.6 billion out of the Scottish economy, that’s £480 per working age adult within Scotland will inevitably have an impact on those people who are disproportionately dependent on those benefits, and those figures are figures that came through the Scottish Governments Welfare Reform Committee.
Okay, a few specific examples of reforms to try and explain Andrew’s anxiety a bit further:
First of all, Universal Credit, the intention of Universal Credit is to simplify the system, to promote a work culture and to be more effective to allow people to move in and out of work throughout their lives. The reality, for people who have learning disabilities, this benefit will be significantly less accessible, it is digital, online by default, lots of people who have learning disabilities have difficulty accessing digital media. People who have a learning disability are, by definition, vulnerable. This reform will lead to increased vulnerability to financial abuse. People will also have additional difficulties with budgeting. One of the aims of this benefit reform is to enable people to learn how to budget like they would have to do in work, people with learning disabilities have, as a result of their learning disability, difficulties with budgeting and this will make it very hard for them. Secondly and very significantly, the move from Disability Living Allowance, personal independent payments. The intention here is to modernise the approach to disability welfare and to make more accurate decision making. The reality for people who have learning disabilities is poorer decision making, often those doing assessments do not understand the nature of learning disability. A loss of income, a significant proportion of people will lose out as a result of this change and there is a knock on impact on carers, the people who have a learning disability who have the potential to lose carers allowance, which is a lifeline for many.
It’s really very telling that the primary aim behind this particular reform is made very explicit by the Government, is to make a 20% saving in the Disability Living Allowance budget. If the intention was genuinely to target those most in need, why would you set a seemingly random financial target? I think this particular reform tells us a lot about the difference between the rhetoric of supporting the most vulnerable and the reality of financially driven reforms.
Finally I want to mention the Bedroom Tax. The intention, reduce expenditure in housing benefit, increase social housing availability and to create a fairer system. The reality for people who have a learning disability, housing stock is not available to meet the demand that this reform is creating, some people are being forced to move, even from specially adapted housing, and people are having their incomes cut.
It’s not been possible in the 10 minutes to do anything other than a quick overview of these main reforms but it should be clear that the fears and the anxieties that Andrew and our members have are real, they are based on the reality of their everyday life and they are not on the rhetoric of those promoting reform.
Andrew has already lost financially as a result of welfare reform and we are only at the beginning of the process. Andrew now has an additional £40 a month to find from his already very limited income to meet the bedroom tax. He has lived in his local authority house for 15 years, he’s happy there, he happens to have 2 bedrooms, the local authority don’t have any alternative single bedroom housing where he can go and there’s nothing he can do to prevent losing this £40. It’s a reality. Andrew is poorer now than he was last year. In addition, he has lost his bus pass and anybody who knows people who have a learning disability will understand how vitally important it is that people have their disabled persons bus pass to allow them to get about, keep in contact with friends, etc. Andrew has already lost his bus pass, which means he’s more isolated and his available budget is reduced because he is having to spend more of his budget on his transport. But you don’t have to take Andrew’s and my word for it, I am going to give you a few quotes from people who know a lot more about this than I do. I will start off with the Chief Exec of Citizens Advice Scotland, Margaret Lynch, who was talking about the cumulative effect of reforms on real people. “This quadruple whammy is making life a misery for sick and disabled people in our communities. The people who have suffered most from the welfare reforms are those who were already the most vulnerable. This includes sick and disabled Scots and their families who have borne the brunt of these changes and wave after wave of cuts.” I am running out of time so I will skip a few quotes, because believe me I could stand up here all day and give you quotes along these lines. The chief Exec of the Children’s Society, “This inquiry has lifted the lid on the stark reality that many disabled people will face when the new benefits system comes into force. It is shocking that so many disabled people, including children, will have to cut back on food, specialist equipment and in some cases, be forced to move out of their homes.” The Chief Exec of Citizens Advice UK, “Not only will these cuts plunge many of the least supported, most isolated and most severely disabled people deeper into poverty, debt and despair, they will not even help the Government achieve its main aims of creating a simpler benefit system that makes work pay”. Finally, one last quote, if I may … the Scottish Parliament Welfare Reform Committee commissioned its own independent report on the impact of welfare reform in Scotland and a quote from this … “Sickness and disability claimants can also expect to be hit hard. The individuals losing out as a result of the changeover from DLA to PIP will lose on average £3,000 each per year.”
MD Arguing against the motion was Alex Johnston, MSP, Alex Johnston was born in the North East town of Stonehaven, where he still lives with his wife, Linda, a former nurse. The couple have a grown up son and daughter who are both married with families of their own. Alex was a farmer prior to entering full time politics as a member of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, where he has served as Convenor of the Scottish Parliaments Rural Affairs Committee and as Conservative Business Manager, as well as Party Spokesman on Farming, Environment, Transport and Climate Change. He is currently Conservative Spokesman for Transport, Housing, Welfare Reform, Infrastructure and Capital Investment and he serves in the Scottish Parliaments Infrastructure and Capital Investment Welfare Reform and Equal Opportunities Committees. Alex is motivated by a strong desire to significantly reduce Scotland’s level of public sector dependency and protect our place within the United Kingdom.
AJ Thank you very much indeed. I am very grateful for the welcome I have received here today, however I am fully aware that I may not receive the same welcome at the end of the event, so I will look forward to finding out how I go down.
The whole issue of Welfare Reform is one that has been on the political agenda of all political parties for a very long time. In fact it’s fairly obvious to anybody who looks to the system we have in place that it was devised in the 1940’s and the 1950’s to achieve a specific objective in terms of supporting those who were less able to support themselves, providing unemployment benefit and of course providing pension support for those who had come to the end of their working lives. However the figures that were used to make the calculations in these early days are now long gone, past into history. The truth is that the cost of maintaining the welfare state is one which has reached such a level as it became the top of the political agenda for all political parties. In fact, the Welfare Reform Agenda is one that was actually begun by the Labour party in Government and many of the measures that we see in place now are simply the logical progression of moves that were taken or begun during the last 10 years. The irony of it is that when Frank Field, a Labour member of Parliament and a Labour Minister at the time, proposed these changes, he was of course beaten down, and the reason was that it was politically unappetising for the Labour party in government to tackle this. There takes us to the irony, that every Conservative Government that ever comes to power finds itself with something at the top of its agenda, something that’s likely to be unpopular, something that’s likely to bring it into conflict with many of those thinkers on the other side of the political fence who will have equally legitimate priorities, and yet who will disagree diametrically with the views expressed by the Government.
The Minister responsible for the changes is Iain Duncan Smith, and as an opposition spokesman back 10 years ago, he took the opportunity to try and educate himself to find out more about the issues of deprivation and dependency and how best they might be tackled if he ever became the Minister responsible for that action. Of course famously he was the Minister, or the Shadow Minister who underwent some form of conversion on the road to Easterhouse and he was the man who visited Easterhouse and formed some very strong opinions on what had to be done to change the welfare state in this country. And what Iain Duncan Smith discovered on his visit was something which was very subtly different from the perceived reality, and that was that we in this country, especially in some of our major cities, have become simply dependent. Now many Governments are responsible for that and the Conservatives in Government are no less responsible, but we made the mistake, Government after Government of putting people out of industries that had become outmoded and allowing them to classify themselves as unable to work. We allowed people to become dependent simply because it was easier to do that than it was to count them as unemployed. And it wasn’t only the Conservatives that did it, successive Governments have followed that same track. The irony is that we find ourselves now, not only with the original generation of dependents but also with the sons, the daughters, the grandsons and the granddaughters of that original generation, similarly condemned to dependency. It’s for that reason that the Welfare Reform Programme is fundamentally designed to get people back to work. We have a weakness in this country that we fail to recognise that job opportunities exist and we fail to take them up. Even here in Scotland we have a chronic problem of inability to persuade our workforce to become mobile. While we have some of the most buoyant job created sectors in the UK economy right here in Scotland, we also have some of the highest unemployment areas. And the inability to match one to another is one which any Government in Scotland should be addressing.
Now if we look at the objectives of the Welfare Reform Programme, they are of course to cut overall costs. Having started from a position where the system was economically unsustainable, then cost cutting in my view is a legitimate objective. But secondly it’s important that we realise that some need support greater than others and the targeting of support will be an intrinsic part of the process that we are now engaging in. It also should be designed to encourage people to want to work. Now this isn’t a sudden process, this is a process designed to be entered into gradually, with cooperation, with understanding and identifying those who have specific problems, so that specific solutions can be targeted to them. That’s why, when we started this process on the 1st of April this year, fairly recently, we started on a process which was designed to last right up to 2018, and the objective of that long timescale is to ensure that we do wherever possible, find out where the money needs to be targeted, which individuals will be disadvantaged and how we can best ensure that that disadvantage does not affect them in the long term.
What we are doing must be seen in the context of a greater economic truth. There’s been much said by the previous speaker about a report, which in fact was not commissioned by the Scottish Parliament Welfare Reform Committee, it’s actually commissioned by a University South of the Border. And what we did was, we asked them to pick out the main points from the report and to give us them in a summary form which was then published by the committee, it wasn’t actually the opinions of the committee, it was independent. And the figure that was picked out from that is the one that suggests that £1.6 billion will be taken out of the Scottish economy as a result of the changes in welfare payments. Of course that’s a simple arithmetical mistake, because while that may well be the reduction in payments that are coming into Scotland in form of welfare, it is at the same time the case that the level of basic rate income tax in Scotland is being cut at a rate faster than that £1.6 billion, so we are bringing money back into the Scottish economy at the same time as that welfare money is being taken out. And that’s what’s creating jobs, that’s what’s creating opportunities and that’s what’s giving us the opportunity to get more people into work. However we must concentrate, for the purposes of this debate, on the issue surrounding the motion that is before us, and that is that Welfare Reform will push people with learning difficulties further into poverty. Well, I am the first to admit that if not done properly, then there is a risk of that happening, there is a possibility that this could be done wrong, there is a possibility that individuals may suffer as a result, but the process I have pointed out to you is one of gradual change, one of cooperation and one of interaction, one which will allow us to target the needs of individuals with the resources available and avoid the difficulties associated with overall blanket cuts in support.
Now where are we in this difficult process? Well, there are those in Scotland today who believe that this process can be halted, who believe that this process can be brought to an end and somehow reversed. But none of these people, whether they be inside or outside Government are prepared to tell us where the money would come from. The fact is that this process will continue and it’s up to us all, every one of us in this room, to make sure it works effectively for the people who are most in need. That’s why I believe it’s the duty of every NGO, every Charity, every Housing Association in Scotland today, to engage with Government, both in Westminster and in Holyrood, to ensure that the resources that have been allocated for the purpose of supporting those less well off are properly allocated to the people who need them most, and at the same time, those who can take the opportunity to find work in what is now undeniably a growing economy, do so at the earliest possibly opportunity and become contributors to the system rather than dependent on it. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s why we need to address this positively, we need to make it work and it is in the interests of us all.
MD: In response and agreeing with the motion was Bill Scott. Bill is CEO from Inclusion Scotland, a national network of disabled people’s organisations, organisations controlled and run by disabled peoples themselves. He is a graduate of Stirling University and has worked mainly in the voluntary sector since 1989. Prior to working at Inclusion, Bill worked as a Senior Researcher in the Scottish Parliament, as Deputy Manager of Coach and Community Health Project, as Director of Lothian Anti Poverty Alliance, as a Racial Equality Officer at Lothian Research Ethics Committee, as a Specialist Employment Rights and as a Welfare Rights worker.
BS Good afternoon, and thanks very much for the invitation to speak to you today about welfare reform. I had to admit when I first saw the title and what we were proposing, I couldn’t really believe that anybody could argue against it because it would demand economic illiteracy to argue against the fact that you take £22 billion from the poorest people in society, those reliant on benefits and you don’t make them poorer, well I am sorry, it can’t happen, just as you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, you can’t take that amount of money away from people without making them poorer, and half, half of all the welfare cuts that are taking place are falling on disabled people and their families. That means over £11 billion being taken out of households, where that money doesn’t just go to compensate people for being workless or to help them because they are sick, but to actually aid them in independent living, because that’s what Disability Living Allowance is meant to do. And when you cut that, you not only restrict disabled people in terms of the poverty, income poverty, you make them poor in the sense that they have no connection with the rest of society, they become prisoners in their own homes because they cannot get out.
So how economically illiterate are the Government? Well their main adviser in Welfare Reform is an ex banker, Lord Freud, I need say no more really, having completely destroyed the financial system, now he’s been brought in to advise them on destroying the welfare system in this country. But are disabled people already living in poverty, no doubt whatsoever that they are. 1.5 million disabled people of working age live in poverty, that’s 30% of the working age disabled population in Britain and a large proportion of that are learning disabled people. As Peter said, only 1 in 15, 1 in 16, 1 in 20 learning disabled people are in work, so they are dependant, all the rest of them, 90 odd % of learning disabled people are reliant on benefits, so when you cut benefits you directly hit them in the pocket.
We are told that the Welfare bill is unaffordable and that we are all in this together, we have to all take out fair share of cuts and austerity measures. But the truth is, that the Welfare bill in 1992/ 93, was less in real terms than the Welfare bill in 2012/13 and that’s before most of the cuts have taken place. It was a full 1% of gross domestic product, that’s the national income, a full 1% less last year than it was back in 1992/93, so it’s not about affordability, we are spending less on it now than we were then, 20 years ago. It is about targeting those that are unable to fight back and unable to defend their own living standards. If the government genuinely wants to find £20 odd billion, I can tell you where to find it, Alex, dead easy, the English Local Government Association last week said that if the UK Government was just as efficient as they are in collecting taxes from people, they would be £20 billion a year better off. That’s where the money can come from, from all those that are evading and avoiding tax, that’s where the money should come from because they can afford to pay that money, whereas those that are being attacked at the moment cannot.
But are the cuts fair, are they evenly spread throughout society? Well no, the Centre for Welfare Reform has done some cumulative impact assessment of the cuts, people living in poverty, 1 in 5 of the population are going to bear 39% of the cuts, twice the burden that you could expect them to bear. Disabled people of working age, 8% of the population bear 29% of the cuts, that’s nearly 4 times as much as would be fair to impose on them. And the Campaign for the Fair Society have also estimated that in England, the combination to cuts to benefits and services, services that disabled people rely on to live their everyday lives, care services etc, from local authorities, I will illustrate this … the average household, like mine, on an average income, they will lose £400 a year because of the austerity cuts, between benefits and services. People living in poverty, I have to go into the pink £500 notes now, they will lose £2,200, that’s 5 times the burden of the average household. Disabled people, they will lose £4,400, are you beginning to get the picture in terms of fairness? But the most disabled people, those that are totally reliant on daily care, their average loss, and I am sorry I had to use all the rest of the notes in my monopoly set, their loss is £8,832 a year, 19 times what the average member of society is going to have to bear in austerity and benefit cuts. So it’s what I am saying is, the most vulnerable, the most dependent on social care, the most dependent on benefits are going to lose massively more than the average member of society.
So we are not in this together, it is not a fair distribution of cuts across society. One hundred thousand Scots who are on Employment Support Allowance are going to lose it because of changes to either the 12 month limit on the contribution based one or the Work Capability Assessment. They are going to lose £3,000 on average a year. Another ninety thousand Scots, disabled people, are going to lose Disability Living Allowance when PIP is fully introduced and they will lose £3,000 a year on average. Half of all ESA claimants also claim Disability Living Allowance, so there are twenty thousand of Scottish disabled people who will lose £6,000 a year or more, that’s a fact, and those people until now have been disabled people, they have been counted as disabled by the Government, they have been counted as disabled people in the services that you work for and I work for etc, but all of a sudden by the stroke of a pen, by an assessor, there will no longer be disabled people no longer entitled to any help. And what’s proposed to help them out of poverty? Work, the work programme is a complete failure in terms of people on Employment Support Allowance, 3 in 100 disabled people placed in the Work Related Activity Group have found sustainable work through it, 3 in 100. For that we spent billions of pounds, believe me disabled people can find work quicker themselves than the Work Programme is managing to find for them. And that is one of the key routes out of poverty, quite rightly, people say if people could get work, if disabled people could get work and learning disabled people want to work just as much as other disabled people, 2 out of 3 learning disabled people want to work, they want to go out and find a job. The other third by the way, many of them have got really, really serious level impairment, which is why they cannot work. But, what are we doing to get people into work? The Modern Apprenticeship Scheme run by Scottish Government offered 26,427 young people an apprenticeship in 201/12. Off those, 74, 74, 0.3% were people with either physical impairments or a learning disability. That is because our society discriminates against disabled people, that is what we have to tackle to lift disabled people out of poverty, we have to tackle the discrimination of employers, and that’s employers in the public sector, employers in the voluntary sector and employers in the private sector, we have to tackle all of their discrimination to help disabled people make that journey into work, that they want to make. But they want to make it with support, they don’t want to make it by having their benefits cut by £3,000 £6,000 £9,000 and £10,000 a year and that is what is happening and I think it’s a disgrace, because we are not only taking away learning disabled peoples benefits and services, we are taking away their jobs and homes through the Bedroom Tax etc, but we are taking away their hope, and that’s something that any Government should be ashamed of.
MD And finally, arguing against the motion was Andrew McKie. Andrew was born in 1969 and brought up in Glasgow. After graduating from Edinburgh University in Philosophy, he became an ESU scholar, touring US Universities and a journalist. He was Research Fellow at the Social Affairs and a Leader Writer for the Daily Telegraph and worked on the memoires of Edward Heath. He was subsequently Deputy, then Acting Comment Editor of the local Telegraph, before editing the papers obituary page for 10 years. Since 2010 he has written a weekly comment for the Herald and writes on Fine Art and Culture for the Wall Street Journal, as well as contributing to a wide range of newspapers, magazines and websites.
AM Thank you very much indeed for the invitation to come here. I think at the end of the debate to sum it up, I am in the position where I have to say that I feel we are not getting very far, let alone getting to what I think we’d all like, which is better outcomes for people with learning disabilities. Unless we actually examine what the motion says and the trouble is, that the points that have been made by the proposition tonight don’t always make sense. Bill said that you can’t take money away from people without making them poorer, well you can if you can get them into work, which is the object of the exercise, and one of the problems with Welfare Reform in this country, as Alex explained, is that there is a huge dependency trap and the problem is that any reform of welfare this motion seems to assume, is automatically a bad thing. But welfare doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it has to be balanced against all the other priorities of Government, and amongst other things that means that it needs to be affordable, proportionate and politically acceptable, which means you have to sell it to the voters. And although we all have a vested interest in particular causes, the reality of all local Government and Government spending is that it’s not a content between each special interest group and a Government with a bucket of money that it’s too mean to hand out, it’s all those groups competing against each other. I am afraid there are some very hard facts about welfare. The percentage of people who receive more from the State than they contribute was 43% in 2000, which is about the same figure that it was in 1979. Last year it was 52% and that was after a fall, the first fall in 5 years as it happens, and this is not the poorest people in society, this is people on average incomes. The average earner in the middle 5th of incomes used to pay £1000 more towards the state than he received, that same person last year received £5000 from the state and contributed nothing. Now this isn’t a question of morals or of politics, this is a question of arithmetic. Public expenditure is currently unaffordable, and Peter made the point straight away of saying that “the overarching goal of Welfare Reform was to reduce welfare expenditure”, well since I am not Alex and I don’t have a brief for the coalition Government, which I think is making a tremendous mess of all sorts of things, I am able to tell you that it is in fact their objective, they are not making very good job of it, because public spending is up, welfare spending is up. Now the Priority and Welfare Provision, it seems to me, because of this is to ensure that money goes to people that actually need it, and that can’t be the case when you have a situation, as we had under the government, where a household on an income of £60,000 can be in receipt of benefits, and the trouble is there is something profoundly wrong with a system that allows that to happen, and the building up of that system is exactly what makes it impossible, and I have every sympathy for people on benefits, because it seems to be a perfectly rational choice not to work if your housing benefit is paid for you and if you are trapped in that position by the structure of the system.
And that brings me to the second assumption about the motion, and that is the idea that people with learning disabilities are a homogeneous group, I mean Bill himself pointed out in his speech that 70% of disabled people don’t live in poverty, although he was pointing out that 30% do. Anybody who belongs to a particular group varies widely, and it seems to me that people with learning disabilities are no more a homogeneous group than for example, consumers, and it makes very little sense to talk as if they all have the same needs, the same priorities or the same level of income.
The third question in the motion is what constitutes poverty, and that is a more difficult issue because practically no one in Britain could be accused in the way of absolute poverty in the way that many people in the developing world are. But I have some sympathy with the view that in fact those that are pushed towards that are most likely to be those with learning difficulties, and I think that that is the thing which any system must be very carefully designed to address. But of course what most campaigners talk about when they mean poverty, is relative poverty, and the standard position which is taken by most campaigning groups on relative poverty is that you are living on poverty if you are on 60% of the average median household wage. Now, the point about an average or a median wage is that by definition, a huge number of people get much less than it and it seems to me that on a simple arithmetical basis, this is every bit as much nonsense as the habit of handing money to large numbers of people. The median household income in the UK by the way is £359 a week. So it’s considerably less than the proposed cap on benefits for a household which is £500. And remember, that a cap on benefits is at the moment being proposed to be a cap on the same level as average income before tax. Now that doesn’t strike me as a particularly vicious assault on the people who are in receipt of benefits. There are quite a lot of people, and I am amongst them, who are on quite a lot less than the average wage, but it’s not my job to defend the coalition Government particularly or the Holyrood Government, it’s only to point out that their presumption of this Welfare Reform seems to me to be reasonable. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, and this applies to those without disabilities as well as those who face particular challenges, is the notion that people who are capable of working should be encouraged to do so and should be helped to do so, and I am glad to hear Bill saying so.
The other assumption I think for any benefits system which is sensible should make, is that it should direct what money there is to those who are most in need of aid, and I think that the reforms of housing benefit and the introduction of Universal Credit, which by the way is supposed to guarantee that people won’t lose any money that they currently receive under the benefits they are designed to replace, are in fact intended to rectify the anomalies which make it possible for someone to receive more than the average household income in benefits. Now I grant you, there may well and there almost certainly are individual problems with the way these changes are being introduced and it’s very easy to point out cases of injustice and hard cases, but the majority of the electorate believes that the fundamental principle which lies behind it is fair and reasonable, and I’m afraid I don’t think you can have a productive discussion if you simply believe that there’s some kind of vendetta by the coalition government against the poorest of this country. Iain Duncan Smith you may well think is wrong, but he is not engaged in a process of vindictiveness to attack the poor for the sake of it, he’s attempting to offer the chance for people who could be perfectly capable of working and supporting themselves, the chance to move into that area. And I think the culprits in this are not in fact the sort of scroungers and immigrants that the Daily Mail is often so keen to pillory, but I think it’s people like relatively well off pensioners, and it strikes me that every pound that you spend on free bus passes, on welfare heating payments to people who live in Malaga, is a pound that you are not able to spend on people who I think really do deserve it. And similarly whatever problems there are with the implementation, and I think there are problems particularly with the ATOS Assessment Scheme, it doesn’t undermine the general principle that it’s reasonable to assess people on the basis of how much help you think they need, and the important point is not merely to remove help from those who ought to be capable of working for themselves and to encourage them into it, but it’s also that that process will help you identify those who really can’t and to enable you to direct your available resources more often to them.
Now it strikes me that that is a perfectly sensible ambition, even if the way that the ATOS assessments are being done is a rather ham fisted way of introducing it. The other reform that people were keen to mention on this side, is also I think, completely reasonable, which is that it is unfair that the taxpayer should be expected to subsidise larger accommodation for people in social housing than they need, and the reason I think that’s unfair is that there are a great many people on council house waiting lists, there are a great many people trapped in B&B’s, some of whom have disabilities, some of whom have other difficulties and they are being sold short. Now the reason I happen to think it’s not a particularly good policy is because, as you point out, the ready availability of social accommodation simply isn’t there to replace it, so I am not going to defend it on the basis that I think it’s working swimmingly, but I would defend it on the basis that I think it’s a perfectly plausible thing to attempt to do. So I am afraid that I have to look at this and say that the changes which have been proposed have to be seen, not only as an attack, but as an opportunity, and what follows from it is that it should free up resources which I hope will be directed at those who really need and deserve help. I don’t have to defend the coalition government, thank goodness, nor do I have to pretend that the implementation of these changes is perfect, but I do not think that it’s possible to argue that the motion, as it’s put before us, is axiomatically true, and for that reason I oppose it.
Michael McEwan spoke to audience members to get their views.
MM Hi, my name is Michael McEwan and you are listening to Iriss.fm. Today on Iriss.fm, we are going to look back at a debate that took place on the 20th of August at the Premier Inn in Glasgow. On this broadcast you are going to hear from some people that took part in the debate and people in the audience. So let’s now listen to some of the interviews, hopefully you enjoy the interviews, and thanks for listening to this Iriss.fm broadcast.
Q So, what do you think of the debate today?
A Oh, the debate today was very lively and very interesting, it was really interesting to hear the statistics and the opinions.
Q What do you think of Welfare Reform overall?
A Well I already wasn’t too keen on it and now, after the debate, I think I am less keen on it than ever. I think it’s clear that its main purpose is to save the Government money and it’s targeting the most vulnerable people, so I don’t think it’s very good at all.
Q So what do you think the way forward is now?
A Well I think they need to remove some of the most insidious aspects of the Welfare Reforms, the Universal Credit needs to be looked at again in terms of budgeting and I think Bedroom Tax as well, I think they need to do a full human rights impact assessment on the whole law.
Okay, thank you.
A I thought it was a very interesting debate, but I think the key issue is that Welfare Reform has very many significant implications for people with learning disabilities and we need to make sure that if we are taking money away from people with learning disabilities, that we are putting the adequate support in place to help them into employment or actually the support to go through that process that makes sure that they can achieve what they want from their own lives.
Q So what do you think of Welfare Reform altogether?
A I think, well it’s a very difficult question because Welfare Reform in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s the implications of this particular trend of welfare reform being brought forward by the coalition government, is a very significant change, we are talking about 20% of the finances that are spent on Personal Independent Payment, for example coming out of the budget, and I think that can have wide ranging and significant implications for people with learning disabilities that we need to counter in some way.
Q It was quite lively, the debate this afternoon, so what do you think about the debate that we have just had for the past hour?
A I thought it was a very good debate but I think there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered and I think this is a debate that is going to keep on raging on as these cuts come in over the next 3 of 4 years and people with learning disabilities affected by that all the way through. But we need to make sure that we are countering any cuts to the welfare system with appropriate support for people with learning disabilities as the time goes on.
Q So, what do you think of the Welfare Reform debate today?
A I am disappointed in it because I think it blames the victims, I think poor people are being blamed for the financial mess that the UK is in and it wasn’t poor people that created that problem. And in particular, I think the attack on disabled people is really despicable. Half of all the people affected by Welfare Reform are going to be disabled people and half of all the money that’s being taken away from people is going to come from disabled people and their families and I feel that the government have targeted disabled people because they can’t fight back, because they are isolated in their homes in many cases. And I know some of us are able to be on the street and that, but for many, many disabled people and their carers, that’s not possible. So you’ll contrast the governments treatment of disabled people with their treatment of people earning over £100,000 a year, they have just given those people earning over £100,000 a year an extra £5,000 a year and an income tax cut, and they are taking £3,000, on average, from every disabled person in Scotland. But of course because they are not taking it from every person, the actual amount that people are going to lose is going to be 5, 6, £7,000, who are the losers, and that’s just a disgrace.
Q So what do you think you would like to see happen now?
A Well I would like to see a completely different welfare system that actually supported people to have real involvement in their communities and family life and making something of themselves, not always in employment, sometimes as volunteers, sometimes just as community activists, or sometimes just to be able to visit their family and their friends and go out and do things that everybody else just accepts as normal, go to theatre, go to the pictures, go and see a concert or that … that’s what the welfare system should do, it should support everybody to have a meaningful life and it doesn’t do that at the moment.
I am John Walsh, I am from the Speaker Advocacy Project, and we provide advocacy for people, well adults with learning disabilities, and especially the couple that were talking about their son … full identification, we come up against it all the time. Same as you, taking people out the hospitals, decided they needed 2 bedrooms because they had a nightshift sleepover worker to be on call, quite rightly so, it wasn’t used for years, so the nightshift got taken away. Those people have built up local links, safety, community, community presence, in some cases low paid jobs, part time jobs, then they get the bedroom tax, they have got an extra bedroom that they never asked for, they never designed, nothing at all to do with them. Punished, the same as Andrew, Peter Scott was talking about Andrew Doyle, all of a sudden, punished, the safeguard that was put in to allow him to follow through with the policy, the same as you, it’s now coming back to hit people. And yes they could move, but with a learning disability, the years they have built up their lives with people, community presence that everybody talks about, social standing, they move away and they have got to start again, and you are talking about people who are coming out of hospital after 10, 15, sometimes 20 year. And nobody built that equation … years or support from organisations from local communities, from local churches … I am talking about people I know personally and they have got a good life and they are living in a good community where they are accepted, they are part of the community. But they are sitting there with extra bedrooms because somebody that one time down the process says, quite rightly, they don’t know how they are going to react at night time, put a worker in there, we are in the land of milk and honey and the money was flowing, put a sleepover in there, course you will, everybody gets a sleepover when they leave hospital … now they have no money, take the sleepover away, that’s fine and people manage, they have got assisted technology, pressure pads, alert buttons, that’s great … but then they punish them, because they have got an extra bedroom that is not to their choosing, and to move them away, vulnerable people into a strange area, maybe in a 1 bedroom high rise flat with maybe not the best of neighbours next door, after the planning that went into getting these people the places they have got, a lot of planning got put into it, areas, all districts, where are we going to go … and now to save money, and £40 as Peter said, £40 for somebody on benefits, it’s massive, actually massive. But thanks for talking, I thought it was really good.
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