For those of you who read my tweets @michaelcronogue – or rantings, depending on the prevailing circumstances – you will know that last Saturday Feb 12th, I travelled to Friends Meeting House in Central London to attend The People’s Covention to build resistance to cuts and austerity, to give its full title. A crowd of several hundred came to hear speakers including MP’s John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and Katy Clark, activists from the Right to Work Campaign, Disabled Rights Campaigners, Trade Unions and others opposed to the coalition’s plans for rapid and deep spending cuts, which will undoubtedly hurt the most vulnerable members of our society.
The opening plenary session was addressed by a student of Egyptian descent, who had spent some time in Cairo during the recent demonstrations. There was an undoubted air of celebration that Hosnei Mubarrak had finally been removed from power, but it was tempered with concern as to how the army will respond to being in charge, and the timescales needed for fresh elections and a return to civilian rule. But as an exercise in people power, often in the face of the most extreme provocation from the security forces, the lesson was certainly not lost on those of us listening in the main hall of Friends House.
An indicator of the depth of feeling and the difficulities faced by many local authorities, became apparent during the debate on resisting the cuts which involved four Labour councillors, each representing a different part of the country. While there was general agreement that councillors were being put into a unenviable position, there was also disagreement in how far they should co-operate. Former Coventry MP and now socialist party councillor, Dave Nellist, put forward a passionate argument that councillors should oppose any cuts to front line services and challenge the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, to take over the running of these services instead. Following the platform speakers, several other speakers from the floor were invited to come to the podium and make a contribution as to how cuts, both implemented and planned, will affect them and their communities. I was impressed with the contribution from Richard Rieser from World of Inclusion, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of disabled people to be recognised as equal within society, and be given the same equality of opportunity and access to education and other services. With Government plans to slash both the level and entitlement to benefits such as Disablility Living Allowance, (DLA), those modest amounts given to disabled people to allow them a measure of independent living and/or freedom to travel, have left many both fearful and frightened about what the future holds.
After lunch, I attended the workshop in the main hall which focused on disabled people at the forefront of resistance. As a volunteer for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, I was particularly interested in learning the experiences of others who find themselves on the receiving end of increasing intrusion by the DWP and its agents, to assess the extent of a persons disability and their fitness or not to be able to work. As some press reports have made clear, there are already examples of people being incorrectly assessed, including those with degenerative conditions like MND, resulting in cuts to benefit payments and the resulting length of time and stress involved in appealing and trying to get payments re-instated. From October next year, the mobility component of DLA will cease to be paid by the DWP on the grounds that this is often replicated by local authorities. Not only is this spurious to begin with, but the coalition’s announcement that they have allocated a further £1bn toward social care as part of the health service settlement, has not been ring-fenced, thereby allowing local authorities to spend it as they wish. One of the more outrageous things which came to light during this session, was learning that many elderly people who receive social care at home, are often put to bed in the early evening and are then left until the following morning when their carer returns to get them up, usually some 12-13 hours later. For some, if they are unable to use the toilet during the night, they are told they have to wear incontinence pads. What an indictment of Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, in 2011; that its elderly citizens, who have to rely on local authority care, are subjected this shameful and degrading treatment. And this to a generation, many of whom, helped to defend this country during it’s darkest hours in 1940.
Since becoming a volunteer for MND, I have had the humbling experience of seeing my eyes opened to the difficulities people with disabilities, both visible and invisible, have to endure as part of their daily lives. In the final plenary session, one of the speakers was someone who also took part in the workshop I attended on disabled people’s resistance to cuts. Liz Carr is a playwright and comedian, as well as a disabled rights campaigner. Her speech to the convention was for me, the highlight of the day. Rather than me trying to reprise her words, use the link below to go onto youtube, and hear for yourself the words of a lady who articulated far better than most of us ever could, the effect Mr Cameron’s cuts will have on the poor and the vulnerable.
Go on, I defy you not to be moved and inspired by what this incredible woman has to say!