Bedroom-tax protests: a patronising defence of the status quo

People used to go on marches to demand change in a very public show of strength. This weekend’s protests in Britain calling for the abolition of the bedroom tax turned the meaning of protest on its head.

A year on from the introduction of the bedroom tax – or the removal of the spare-room subsidy, as the government prefers to call it – the marchers in London, Leeds, Cardiff and elsewhere were not demanding radical change. Their cause was a conservative one. The demonstrators were against any kind of reform – on the bedroom tax as well as any other welfare reform – because of the impact it may have on ‘the vulnerable’. Of the estimated 660,000 households affected by the bedroom tax, it is estimated that 440,000 contain people with disabilities. Disability campaigners in particular have a deserved reputation for radical protests in the 1970s and 1980s, fighting for the freedom and equality of disabled people. It is ironic, therefore, that this weekend’s protesters found themselves in opposition to the bedroom tax, which, at least in part, is designed to give disabled people greater autonomy.

Yes, the bedroom tax is as awful as opponents say it is. Few can afford to lose the 14 per cent or 25 per cent of their housing benefit that a spare room or two will cost them; and many disabled people dispute the idea that the room containing equipment they rely on is ‘spare’. The mean-spiritedness of this ‘tax’ is clear, not to mention the incompetence of those responsible for it. Indeed, the bedroom tax has simply failed to do the two things it set out to achieve: free-up stock in the scandalously cramped social-housing sector and save public money. Those claimants who have been forced out of their homes have ended up in more expensive private-sector accommodation because of the shortage of social housing. Therefore, the bedroom tax has done nothing to lower the housing-benefit bill.

Still, accusing the government of cruelly punishing the poor and vulnerable is patronising. It diminishes the humanity of those on welfare and turns them into objects of pity. On the other hand, the government’s adoption of the radical notion that people with disabilities can be independent when given the right support, and that many of them are able to work and needn’t be claiming benefits, is worth supporting. The fact that this weekend’s protesters, those who have appointed themselves defenders of the disabled, are demanding a return to the state-dependent status quo suggests that people with disabilities are not so much disabled by society – as the old slogan went – as they are by those claiming to represent them.

First published in sp!ked

I don’t like the bedroom tax either, but …

There’s not much to like about the bedroom tax.

Ed Miliband, ever-desperate to engineer a connection with a bored and far-from-convinced electorate, will not only freeze energy prices but has promised that a future Labour government will abolish the hated bedroom tax too. It has already had a terrible impact on what welfare reform’s paternalist critics routinely describe as the ‘vulnerable’. The ‘under-occupancy penalty’ or ‘abolition of the spare room subsidy’ to housing benefit for those living in social housing – like the community charge before it the sort-of-official names for this non-tax never caught on – isn’t easy to defend, even for those of us with more than a little sympathy for the reforms.

Those deemed to have more than their allotted number of rooms will find their benefit cut by 14% for one ‘spare’ room; and by 25% if they have more than one spare room. Of the reported 660,000 households affected, 220,000 are families and 440,000 include people with disabilities. A group of charities have written to the prime minister expressing theiroutrage at his misleading statements to the effect that disabled people are exempt. For all but a few this is simply not the case. But this is less a case of Tory nastiness, as most of the critics seem to think, than it is to do with the incompetency of the reformers. Arguably the bedroom tax is not nearly discriminating enough. Expecting people like the sick brother of an MP to pay – a man whose kidney dialysis machine occupies a ‘spare’ room according to the witless officials responsible for administering his housing benefit – makes no sense.

So yes, the bedroom tax is mean-spirited. The children of benefit claimants are, under the new rules, forced to sleep in the same bedroom; and separated parents are expected to make do with a sofa for their visiting kids at weekends. But it is also mad even in its own terms. The ‘tax’ was imposed on the dubious grounds that an alleged one million spare bedrooms, when freed up, would magically become new homes for half of the two million or so people on the social housing waiting list. Instead a severe shortage of two-bedroom homes into which ‘under-occupiers’ might otherwise have moved has resulted in misery all around. Those that can move are forced into more expensive accommodation in the private sector, costing the taxpayer even more in housing benefit; and increasingly leaving those larger homes that nobody can afford standing empty and at risk of being demolished. Most will have to cough-up and put-up with an even more miserable existence than that they were enduring before the ‘tax’.

And yet … despite the understandable worry and anger of those affected and the over-emoting of their supposed sympathisers in the left-liberal commentariat, there is something amiss with the reaction of the latter to what is an indisputably awful policy. While they point to the lack of affordable housing as the real culprit they don’t call for the one thing that might solve the problem – a mass housebuidling programme. The sort of thing governments used to take on in the first half of the twentieth century. That there are ‘375,000 families living in cramped, overcrowded accommodation’, as employment minister Esther McVey announced recently, is the best argument in favour of pursuing such a policy. Instead it is used to justify forcing people to shuffle along to make room in the existing inadequate stock. This is despite the number of homes being built year-on-year being nowhere near enough to meet the demand of an increasing population. The housebuilding rate continues to fall from an already inadequate 21st Century peak of 223,530 in 2007/08 to a pitiful 124,720 in 2012/13. This represented a fall in the number of houses built of 8% on the previous year. But even more to the point, there is no criticism at all of the very welfare state that is both crippling the public finances and putting-up a large minority of the population in state-subsidised accommodation that they can’t afford themselves; or at least cannot scrape enough together for from their own meagre incomes.

This can’t go on. It is not enough to fret about the lack of ‘affordable’ housing or to call on the UN to protect the human rights of ‘the vulnerable’. There are three things that can be done to solve the problem and without resorting to the victim-politics to which the anti-cuts and anti-welfare reform lobby have become all too accustomed. There isn’t nearly enough housing being built of any kind whoever eventually moves in, or whatever their alleged capacity to cope with the semi-withdrawal of state support. Making housing affordable will best be achieved by building much more of it. Instead of devoting their energies to patronising the workless, they should be campaigning for the government to create the economic conditions – through, for instance, strategic investments in infrastructure including the housing stock – that will generate more and better paid jobs. And if they really care about the downtrodden, rather than continually shouting it down, they should be supporting – albeit critically especially when it comes to the likes of this ‘tax’ – the need for urgent and more far-reaching reform of the welfare state.

First published in Huffington Post

Disabled by campaigners, reabled by Paralympians?

I took part in a post-Paralympics Manchester Salon debate earlier this evening asking whether people with disabilities are Disabled by society, enabled by the legacy? This is what I had to say:

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, is associated with two notions of what the Olympics – and by extension the Paralympics – is all about. First, we have Citius, Altius, Fortius (or Swifter, Higher, Stronger) and then there is – and I paraphrase – well, they’re only games aren’t they? It’s the taking part, not the winning that really counts. These are on the face of it contradictory notions, but the metaphor of the level playing field – and the idea that in order to have a chance of winning you need the opportunity to take part – is perhaps a more appropriate one when it comes to the politics of disability. That used to be the objective of chaining your wheelchair to the railings – or so I thought.

Oscar Pistorius upset a few assumptions about level playing fields with his carbon fibre blades judged to be an advantage by critics at the Olympics. I was at the Paralympics to see a pissed-off Pistorius lose to the taller-bladed Alan Oliveira in the 200m final. While no longer invincible he had prompted many of us to conclude that the supposed heroism of Paralympians needn’t be of the patronising overcoming bad stuff that happened to them in the past variety. Beyond the back stories of personal adversity, prosthetic limbs weren’t what they used to be. And disability needn’t be as disabling as it once was. One might even have a competitive advantage as a consequence of a so-called disability and be enabled (with a little technological doping and a lot of training) to perform better than the so-called able-bodied. The President of the International Paralympic Committee asked that the word ‘disability’ not be used during coverage of the Games. ‘You know what the word ‘disabled’ means’ he said: ‘It means something doesn’t work, doesn’t function. How would you like to be called that?’ He was wrong to try to tell us what words we can use, but he was right to question what is meant by disability today.

While most of us were getting excited about the Games and selling out the 2.5 million available tickets – others were getting worked up into frenzy over sponsorship. For campaigners, Atos, contracted by DWP to carry out the hated work capability assessments, became the Paralympic equivalent of Olympic sponsors Coca Cola and Cadbury. Cameron doesn’t give ‘Atos’ about people with disabilities they quipped hysterically. They called for a boycott of the evil multinational that had recently pledged to invest $100m dollars in International Paralympic sport over the next 10 years. Disabled People Against the Cuts joined forces with UK Uncut and scuffled with police outside the DWP and Atos offices; and the team GB athletes allegedly hid their Atos emblazoned lanyards at the Opening Ceremony. Far from inspiring a generation one commentator objected that the ‘sermon in form-fitting Lycra’ was being ‘exploited to make disabled people feel inadequate and guiltily dependent on the hard-working taxpayer’.

According to Ade Adepitan, basketball medallist and co-presenter with Clare Balding of Channel 4 coverage of the Paralympics, ‘without DLA I would not have been able to do what I did or be a top athlete’. DLA is a non-means tested benefit used to pay for transport, equipment, care needs, etc and clearly relied on by large numbers of people. Former Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson explains that disabled people face typically ‘higher living costs as a result of their impairment’. Still 3.2 million people – that’s a lot of people, more than the record numbers attending the Games remember – are on DLA at a cost of £12.6 billion a year. The infamously tighter and apparently unfair new assessment criteria and testing regime are designed to get 500,000 people off DLA over the next four years as the benefit is phased out. I don’t doubt that there is more than a little substance to the ‘horror stories’ described by opponents of welfare reform. But the welfare system does need reforming, and more importantly our welfare culture needs challenging. It should support people with disabilities to lead active lives as far as is possible – the possible being something that needn’t stay the same as the Paralympians have amply demonstrated – rather than disabling them further as in my view it tends to do.

Instead what we have from the critics of welfare reform is a diminished and dependent view of what people with disabilities are capable of. ‘Celebrate the Paralympians’ said Polly Toynbee ‘but remember what they say they need from the state to get them there’, rather insultingly seeking to place the welfare state on the podium rather than the athletes themselves. Echoing Toynbee, a disability rights activist claims that ‘their astonishing achievements would not have been possible without a state striving for inclusion, integration and equality’. So not only is it reasonable to question why so many people are claiming this benefit and whether the money might be better spent on reducing their dependency on the state. But to do so is also to challenge the belittling and state-enamoured assumptions held by those who think they are speaking on behalf of people with disabilities.

This relentless portrayal of the disabled in the most unflattering of terms – as weak, vulnerable, state dependent creatures unable to do much at all – is hardly conducive to a struggle for something better. Never mind throw a javelin they can barely leave the house. They are the ‘hardest hit’ say campaigner’s intent on winning only in the sport of competitive victimhood. Which is all rather odd because the one thing that campaigners go on about endlessly is how badly disabled people are portrayed and how prejudiced the able-bodied are. The Games are an opportunity to educate the plebs into treating disabled people better we’re told. Indeed you’d be mistaken for thinking that that was the only reason for holding them. This is the Paralympic legacy. Bugger the sport we’ve got more important things to lecture you about seems to be the general line. That was the premise of much of the commentary both before and during the Games. While Jackie Ashley at The Guardian thought the Paralympics ‘may be morally more important than the Olympics’. Pistorius in a rather backhanded compliment declared the UK public ‘far more educated’ and therefore, presumably, well-suited to lecturing the rest of the world. The Games can ‘do quite a lot to change people’s perceptions’ he said.

Critics argue that the government, with its welfare reforms, are making things worse by portraying the disabled as scroungers. Not only that they claim that a duped and prejudiced public are going along with it. The not very funny ‘comedian’ Jeremy Hardy joined the anti-Atos protestors and had this to say: ‘it’s just so cynical, because that strategy is being targeted at people who don’t have much, trying to make them hate people who have less’. Which as an analysis is itself both patronising and cynical. Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and wife of transvestite artist Grayson Perry, claimed: ‘Disabled people experience hate, guilt, patronising attitudes, avoidance and persecution’. Last year it was Ricky Gervais using the word ‘Mong’ on Twitter; this year, predictably enough, it’s Frankie Boyle going out of his way to offend. Actually the latter wasn’t being particularly offensive this time around. ‘It’s got to be weird being a Paralympian under this government’, he said in one of his tweets, ‘knowing that a medal means you’ll lose your Disability Living Allowance’. Unless jokes about the benefits system aren’t allowed anymore. That’s infinitely funnier than anything I’ve heard Jeremy Hardy say.

Both Gervais and Boyle pricked the thin-skinned culture of offence-taking rather than feeding off any wider hatefulness toward people with disabilities. Mencap felt moved, nevertheless, to tell Channel 4 to ban Boyle from causing ‘profound offence to disabled people’. George Galloway – again on Twitter – caused offence by calling somebody a ‘windae-licker’, a derogatory term for people with disabilities. One, I confess, I hadn’t heard of until the comment was retweeted and no doubt offended all the more as a result. And once more prompting Mencap to feel outraged. They called the comments ‘deeply offensive’ declaring: ‘Hate crime and bullying are a daily reality for many disabled people and the use of language like this only furthers hostility and violence.’ But is this really the case? It’s repeated so often you’d think it was an incontestable fact. One recent Guardian headline screamed that disability hate crime is at its ‘highest level since records began’. Reportedly, there were 1,788 recorded incidents (though far fewer convictions) in England and Wales in 2011, representing an increase of 18% on the previous year. Which, incidentally, is when records began.

So who’s disabling who here? Maybe they have ulterior motives but it’s ironic that it’s the reforming political class not campaigners who seem to believe most in what people with disabilities are capable of. Far from defending the welfare status quo, those who really want to improve things should be asking some searching questions about it. Much as they are in regard to Remploy and the shockingly poor and sometimes abusive care standards in care homes for the learning disabled. The failure of compassion levelled at Atos and DWP may well spring from the same managerial culture that is so undermining standards of care. So I am not arguing that the state should no longer support people with disabilities. But it can do a much better job and campaigners should be standing up for disabled people’s independence not portraying them as helpless victims forever dependent on handouts. Still both are complicit in today’s culture of low expectations and an elitism of the non-sporting kind that disparages the attitudes that it presumes most people hold. This is doubly patronising, making victims out of the disabled and bigots out of the rest of us. If there is a Paralympic legacy it should be to challenge this culture and, like the Paralympians, not just take part, but aim to go Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

Disabling the care relationship?

A recent ruling has given encouragement to those demanding a better deal when it comes to social care for people with disabilities. According to The Guardian, from now on ‘councils must make it clearer to service users how a proposed care package would meet their eligible needs’. This is an important step, say campaigners, toward greater clarity about what care the disabled are entitled to; and a challenge to the operation of a much-maligned and clearly unfair ‘postcode lottery’. However, while this ruling is welcome, the care problem for people with disabilities runs so much deeper. The Winterbourne View scandal was one of the more disturbing examples of why concerns about cuts, funding formulas and assessments – while important – are not the most critical issues facing the care system today.

Notoriously ‘secretly filmed footage’ at a care home by BBC Panorama ‘appeared to show residents being pinned down, slapped, doused in water and taunted’. Rather understatedly one commentator argues that Winterbourne shows that we need ‘more dignified and suitable types of support’ for people with learning disabilities. Of course this is true. As it is for those working at the Remploy factories currently being closed down by the government.  According to lobbyists the problem is to do with the ‘large institutions’ charged with, and clearly failing to, provide care. The institutions that serve the learning disabled so badly need to be torn down. And yet scandals like Winterbourne suggest that something else very worrying is going on. The neglect and abuse of so-called ‘vulnerable’ people, in particular those with learning disabilities, is a problem associated with institutional care but it is not the institutions themselves that are to blame. While the problem of poor care standards has been recognised for some time in both the NHS and in the social care system; anxieties about abusive and neglectful care, mostly overblown, have tended to focus on informal and private arrangements in the community.

But more often than not it is formal, state-funded provision that is found wanting. Half of the health and social care settings visited by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors following Winterbourne were failing to meet minimum standards. But what does this mean? And what can a body like the CQC do about it? Impose more standards? It is the administering of care itself that is at the heart of the problem. As the chair of South Gloucestershire’s Safeguarding Adults Board put it, on publication of the serious case review, Winterbourne ‘should have been a safe place for them to be treated with care and compassion’. The particular institutional settings, no matter how old-fashioned or unpleasant, are secondary to the quality of the caring relationship. It is the institutional culture that matters most. Indeed, one might argue that the CQC is itself a part of the problem. Might it be that an overly-managerial and target-driven care system is just not conducive to the fostering of professionally compassionate relationships between carers and the cared for?

Work, welfare and the disabling state

Recent moves toward a more personalised and cost-effective way of supporting people with disabilities in the workplace are to be welcomed. However as with all ‘support’ provided by the state to its dependents it can disable as much as it claims to enable.

One employment scheme will cost £6.8m to subsidise employers at a rate of up to £2,275 per worker over 3 years ‘to support more than 1,000 young disabled people a year’ into work. In the case of Remploy, while half of the factories are due to close this year with the remainder awaiting their fate until next, the government has offered private bidders potentially wanting to take over the factories subsidies of over £6,000 per worker over the first 3 years of operation. So what constitutes reasonable support to get somebody with a disability into work, and what can only reinforce a disabling culture of state dependency? A dependency that is twofold. One that not only threatens continued dependency for the disabled but  subsidises private interests too. Those companies accepting state handouts would be otherwise unwilling to take on what are after all loss-making enterprises – in Remploy’s case at a rate of £68m a year.

As Randeep Ramesh explains, Remploy is not only on its way out because it is a bad model for getting people with disabilities into work. Its post-war era state-dependent factories are very uncompetitive. Operating in sectors ‘such as electronics, textiles and automotive’, says Ramesh, they are concentrated in a failing part of the UK economy i.e. the part that produces things. Of course, as interviews with Remploy workers conducted by The Guardian suggest, whatever the economic rationale the experience of work is in and of itself something that brings a degree of independence that somebody with a severe learning disability, for instance, might not otherwise get.

A segregated environment is also one that is deemed safe from abuse and discrimination, or a lack of understanding of the limits imposed on people by their disabilities. But this notion that the only alternative to segregated employment is a life on benefits should be challenged. As should the way in which the already existing challenges of economic failure, welfare cuts and lower rates of employment for the disabled; are being confused with a fear of discrimination that is driven more by a culture of pessimism in the disability rights movement than by what able-bodied people really think.