This week, The Responsible Reform Report was released, condemning both the content and the process of the UK Governments controversial Welfare Reform Bill. Dubbed the Spartacus Report, it concludes that the government broke its own rules of consultation, misrepresented the views of respondents, and used flawed figures in its business case. This report was not produced by a Judge, following a year-long multi billion pound public inquiry, but through open source contributions made by disabled people across the country, utilising social media - and made available for free to the world over the internet. Overnight, the #spartacusreport become a top trend on twitter, the report was downloaded millions of times all over the world, and is twibbons stating ‘I Support Spartacus’ are all over Facebook and twitter…whilst the mainstream media is almost silent on it.
This article explores the findings of the Spartacus Report and the media ignorance maintained around it.
What is the Welfare Reform Bill?
The Welfare Reform Bill is the pet project of UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan-Smith (IDS). It is a spider web of legislation spreading across the entire social security system of the country. It is 180 pages of legalese, which most people would be daunted by taking on.
This Bill aims to replace the wide ranging means tested welfare payments and tax credits available to people of age 18 and retirement available today with the so-called a single Universal Credit, to replace the Disability Living Allowance with the Personal Independence Payment (how very Orwellian), restrict Housing Benefit payments to disabled people living in social housing deemed ‘too large’ for their needs, attach local Housing Allowance to the Consumer Price Index, restrict the Employment and Support Allowance to 12 months, and put a cap on benefits.
Two key areas which have caused most outrage are changes to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the Disability Living Allowance (DLA). Both are designed not only to be paid to support those who cannot work due to sickness or disability, but to support those who can work on a full time, part time or voluntary basis. For example, in order for someone to work, they might need to washed, dressed and fed in the morning as they are unable to do this for themselves. Plans are for these payments to be cut and time-boxed.
Few would argue that the current system isn’t overly complex. Simplification is not in and of itself, objectionable. However, IDS has never been one to waste an opportunity to realise his political dreams - and so this bill goes much further than that.
This bill is about reducing payments, changing eligibility criteria thereby putting people’s safety net at risk, and extending the waiting periods before benefits kick in – leaving families, the disabled and the vulnerable unprotected for longer. In short, it is about making the vulnerable less secure, for the sake of austerity.
The mainstream media and Westminster have been pretty much silent and unpertrubed through the course of the Bill.
Meanwhile, in the real world, there has been a widespread and vigorously negative response to the reform plans since the get-go amongst disability campaign groups, the blogosphere and of course, amongst the sick and disabled people claiming the benefits today.
The UK government launched an expensive public consultation exercise on replacing the DLA with PIP last year to gather feedback and proposed amendments and additions. On receiving an almost 100% negative feedback, the government proceeded to produce a report for the House of Commons which they stated proved that disabled people were broadly in support of the changes.
As the Bill proceeded from House of Commons to House of Lords, the consultation feedback was not included.
What is the Spartacus Report?
In response to the heinous proposals themselves, the lack of interest from MPs in defending the interests of their sick and disabled constituents, and the misrepresentation of their public consultation feedback – the disabled community lost patience with the process and took matters into their own hands.
The Spartacus Report was put together exclusively by sick and disabled people and their Carers. They used the Freedom of Information act to request the original responses to the Consultation exercise, to present the findings accurately.
The press release for the report, issued via the Diary of a Benefit Scrounger blog, states:
“We did everything possible to engage with politicians, lobbying MPs and Peers, writing articles, attending conferences, but at every turn we were brushed aside.
Despite serious concerns from campaigners, charities and disabled people themselves, the Government's recent Impact Assessment (October 2011) into the proposed reform of Disability Living Allowance is almost identical to the original. Nothing has changed, almost none of our concerns have been addressed and as the House of Lords return to vote on the final stages of the welfare reform bill, we felt that it was vital we presented our own evidence.
This is the Spartacus Report. We all own it, we all created it. It is yours; use it in any way you wish”.
What Were the Key Finding of the Spartacus Report?
The Spartacus Report states its finding as follows:
"Our report shows that :
-The Government broke its own code of consultation over the DLA reform
-The Government has entirely misrepresented the views submitted as part of the consultation, giving a partial and biased view.
-The Government claim that DLA must be reformed as claims has risen 30% in 8 years - we find that these statistics are entirely misleading and give a "distorted view"
-There is overwhelming opposition to the new benefit, Personal Independence Payments
-Some elements of PIP appear to already be going ahead, despite a rejection of the plans and before legislation has passed.
-The Government are repeatedly warned that proposals for PIP may break International and UK equality and Human Rights legislation
In summary, the findings were catastrophic.
What Has Been the Impact of Spartacus?
According to the mainstream media – absolutely nothing. The true impact of the Spartacus Report however, has been gargantuan. There has been widespread and vocal support across the political spectrum, including Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson, former Blair aide Alastair Campbell, former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, numerous Liberal Democrats, Peers from all parties, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas and Tory doyenne Christine Hamilton have expressed their opposition to the DLA reforms and and/or support for the 'Spartacus Report', as it has become known.
There has been support from the world of celebrity and public figures including Stephen Fry (whose initial linking tweet crashed at least one website associated with the publication of the report), singer Billy Bragg, comedian and activist Mark Thomas, TV personality Sue Perkins, writers Val McDermid and Kate Long, Coronation Street actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, satirist Tim Minchin and many others.
The report is backed by Disability Alliance, representing over 380 charities. Scope, Mind, RNIB, Sense, the National Autistic Society, ME Action and the Papworth Trust are among those who have specifically promoted it, alongside community groups and the beliefs and values think-tank Ekklesia.
Yesterday, the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly against the sections of the Bill which the Spartacus Report was intended to prevent. Members of the House of Lords voted to protect cancer patients and disabled people from restrictions on employment and support allowance (ESA).
The Lords voted 260 to 216 to protect disabled people from cuts to employment support allowance (ESA).
They voted 234 to 186 for a minimum two-year limit rather than the Government proposed one-year for people to claim ESA.
The Lords voted 222 to 166 to exempt people receiving cancer treatment from a time limit on receiving ESA.
The Spartacus Report has succeeded in sidestepping the mainstream routes for making political impact. The politicians didn’t listen, the select committees didn’t listen, and the media didn’t listen. So, the sick and disabled, their carers and their organisations represented themselves and put forward their own case. This meant that those of us, who otherwise would not have heard their story, did. The result? A tidal wave of support for their case, and unignorable opposition to this defunct Bill. They are one step closer to protecting the Broken of Britain, from becoming ever more the Broke of Britain.
The Bill will return to the House of Commons and it is unlikely that the Coalition will let it drop, so the battle continues.
The whole saga is representative of the entire issue with our institutions today. The government is only interested in serving its wealthiest constituents, and share of wallet equals share of voice using conventional methods.
However, as the Occupy Movement and UK Uncut have learnt in recent months, it is possible to step outside the conventional routes to have your voice heard. In fact, not only is it possible, but it is essential.
This group of brave individuals spent precious time and energy, some ending up in hospital as they pushed themselves to the brink of their capabilities, to make a stand not only for themselves, but their community. While the government ignored them, they had the self esteem, the patience and the commitment to pursue their right to a voice. When no one would speak for them, they spoke for themselves. In fact, they shouted from the roof tops.
The rest of the 99% can learn a great deal from the Spartacus Report. It is possible to make a difference, no matter how David and Goliath the task appears. Six months ago, six days ago, the Welfare Reform Bill was crowed out by the mainstream media as a foregone conclusion. Now it is vulnerable. Soon it might be stopped altogether if we push hard enough.
They highlighted the use of social media as an alternative means of spreading information. The mainstream media is being impacted around the edges by social media. We can support good journalists who want to cover the real stories, by shouting so loudly on social media that they can countenance the story to their editors. Failing that, we can simply make the mainstream media irrelevant. More and more in recent months, social media has been the breaking news function for a globalised civil society.
Yes, this means that there will still be a vast swathe of society that thinks that Occupy is over, or the Welfare Reform Bill is a done deal, or that the war in Iraq is over…because that’s what it says on the news. But evermore expansion of social media is making this pool of people smaller.
Finally, the creators of the Spartacus Report showed us what courage looks like. They showed that whatever your circumstances, you can be responsible for having your voice heard. They chose to make a stand, rather than a complaint. We can all learn from that.
It is time to stop tolerating the situation. It is time to make a stand. Support the Spartacus Report. Support the Occupy Movement. Support yourselves and each other to build a world where support and co operation are the bedrock.