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A Large Dollop of Fudge (A Letter from the DWP)

  • Published: 2014-10-13 (Revised/Updated 2016-06-11) : Author: Paul Dodenhoff : Contact: p.dodenhoff@lancaster.ac.uk
  • Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff responds to Mark Harper MP, U.K. Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Quote: "In recent times I have seen the British electorate pretty much manipulated or frightened into supporting social, economic and foreign policy that is actually detrimental to their own existence."

Main Document

I've never met Mark Harper MP, Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, but I'm quickly getting the impression that he's the sort of 'career politician' who would quite happily argue that planet Earth is in fact square, or that the moon is made of cream cheese, if it suited his political agenda. Mr Harper and his ilk operate in an alternative universe, one where 'politics' is played out like a game of human chess - manipulating and ultimately controlling the masses in order to promote the self-interest of a few influential supporters, by whatever means possible.

In a recent interview with the Disability News Service (3rd October 2014), Mr Harper was in politically argumentative mode, widely dismissive of suggestions that Government welfare change and the withdrawal of benefits to disabled people had led to high levels of suicides amongst the disabled. According to Mr Harper:

"Of the cases I have seen since I have been the minister where there have been allegations, when you look at the detail they are not as simple and straightforward as people are alleging."

"If somebody in those sort of cases, if someone has [a] mental health [condition] and then something happens, trying to disaggregate what was the cause I don't think is as simple as you are trying to suggest."

So, it's good to know that Mr Harper is not only Minister of State for the DWP but also expert in the field of mental health. A comment that I feel is entirely fair, particularly when we consider that those making 'allegations' of a link between suicide and welfare change are not disability organizations such as the DNS, but the official Coroner investigating each and every suicide.

I've also had dealings with Mr Harper recently, having received a letter via my local (Conservative) MP in response to a number of concerns I had raised some weeks ago. These concerns touched on three main areas concerning disability, and although I appreciate the reply from Mr Harper, my concerns were largely dismissed in a similar manner to those above.

Firstly, in light of a UN investigation into British violations of the human rights of persons with disabilities, I feel that Government should either officially confirm or deny this news. My view is we the British public have a right to know exactly our leaders are up to in our name, particularly as Government are supposed to represent and serve all its citizens, not just its rich and wealthy. And definitely not to put a significant number of its most vulnerable citizens at increased risk of abject poverty, abuse and violence, through Government action or inaction.

It's not as if the UNCRPD treaty was something that actually sneaked up unexpectedly and unannounced upon Government, as it was already in place when the current Government came into power in 2010. Therefore, there is no excuse for any violation of any aspect of the treaty, particularly as many organizations (including the UN) have consistently raised concerns about possible violations of the human rights of British citizens. Concerns that have largely been ignored or criticized by the 'loony' right wing of British politics for being the 'underhand' work of the 'loony' left wing. It is therefore quite clear to me, that any violation of the UN treaty is deliberate and not accidental. Something, Government should be ashamed of and working to put it right, not trying to cover up.

So, what does Mr Harper think? Below are extracts from the letter I received via my MP, dated 24th September 2014: 'Any United Nations inquiry would be confidential which needs to be respected. The British Government has a long standing commitment to supporting human rights, and we play a lead role internationally, including at the United Nations. The UK cooperates fully with the United Nations and supports its treaty monitoring mechanisms.'

Indeed, the UN monitoring procedures and process are confidential until completed. However, we already hold reliable information that the British Government is indeed under investigation, and the simple news that Britain is the first country in the world to be under investigation for violation of the human rights of its disabled, need not be confidential - not unless Government and its media associates decide they want it to be.

Therefore, a straightforward yes or no would have sufficed, but Mr Harper's response does actually answer the question in a roundabout sort way. If you are unable to give a simple 'no' to a perfectly simple 'yes' or 'no' question, then the only other possible responses are either 'yes' or 'don't know'. Considering that UN procedures dictate that Government will now be officially aware of any investigation into British human rights abuses, a 'don't know' is actually a highly unlikely situation.

Certainly, we should be pleased that Mr Harper states that Government are committed to supporting human rights, but can we really trust them to do so? Below is an extract from the BBC dated 3rd October 2014 'The Conservatives have described their plans to stop British laws being overruled by human rights judgments from Strasbourg as "viable and legal". Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said if the Tories won the 2015 election, a new Bill of Rights would give UK courts and Parliament the "final say". There should be no "legal blank check to take human rights into areas where they have never applied", he added'.

What this means is that a re-elected Conservative Government will actually attempt to backtrack on the human rights of its own citizens, within the European Community itself. This is the beginning of a two tiered European Community, were the human rights of British citizens are put at risk by any British Government when it suits, while the rest of Europe is protected from potentially damaging and extremist Governmental action.

In fact, it can be argued that this process already began in 2010, with the election of a British Government that has been seen to have ridden roughshod over the human rights not only of its disabled, but also its poor and its unemployed. I am not a lawyer, but I have read the UNCRPD treaty myself, and it is quite clear even to me that the British Government is in direct violation of certain aspects of the treaty. So, Mr Harper's words about Government commitment to human rights ring rather hollow.

What we need to bear in mind is that the Conservative Party within the UK has traditionally promoted a highly simplistic notion of human rights, particularly concerning the concept of 'equality'. Ideologically, 'equality' for the Conservatives primarily focus on everybody paying exactly the same taxes and at the same rates, regardless of income and personal circumstances. For the Conservatives, the greater your income, the harder you have worked for it compared to others. Many low paid British workers may however take issue with that version of 'equality', and also with the Conservative party's definition of 'hard work'. Certainly, I would consider 'equality' to embrace more than simply tax contribution, but then I just might be weird that way.

However, we should also be careful not to assume that human rights or equality issues would be any better protected under a future Labor Government, as under the last Labor Government, the UK suffered a visible and measurable erosion in both civil liberties and equality. Therefore, whether a new Conservative or Labor administration is brought into power next year, the future for the UK looks rather bleak and Orwellian - becoming an increasingly Big Brother Society, and one where everybody is 'equal', but some are more 'equal' than others.

The second issue I raised with the DWP, was that many disabled people feel that they have been scapegoated by both politicians and the media for the global financial crisis of 2008, facing daily accusations by the general public of being layabouts and benefit frauds. Accusations that have led to many reported incidents of abuse and violence. Over to you Mr Harper: "We have not seen convincing evidence that welfare reform, or media portrayal of disabled people has increased the incidence of disabled people has increased the incidence of disability hate crime. We know that reporting of disability hate crime has increased year on year but this does not mean hate crime has increased. The Equality and Human Rights Commissions Report 90 compared disability related harassment from 2008/9 - 2010/11 with 2009/10 - 2011/12 and found no significant increases in the number of disability hate crimes". The media portrayal of disabled people is not a new issue. Some disabled people have been telling us for some years that media reports tend to highlight negative issues and these types of stories are used to affirm some peoples prejudice about disabled people. We are committed to challenging these negative images and perceptions whenever we can".

I've spoken to many physically disabled people in recent times, and there is enough anecdotal evidence now to suggest that the language of abuse has indeed changed - from offensive language such as 'spaz', 'spastic', 'mong' and 'cripple', to words such 'fake', 'layabout', 'sponger' and 'skiver' being used. Additionally, in 2011 the Glasgow Media Trust issued a report that the general public believed that between 50 and 70 per cent of those on disability benefits were indeed frauds, and linked this to a huge increase in the use of words such as 'scrounger', 'cheat' and 'skiver' in tabloid papers stories about disability.

However, Mr Harper is correct, we don't have much hard, statistical evidence to back up the assumption that negative political or media rhetoric has driven up 'hate crime'. The main reason for this is that very little research has been undertaken on the matter, and this is something that we may never be able to know for sure now.

Certainly, the only report on the link between negative media reporting and hate crime, The Equality and Human Rights Commissions Report , indeed came to the conclusion that there had been no significant increase in disability hate crime between 2008 and 2012. However, Mr Harper failed to mention that the report also came to the conclusion that 72,000 hate crimes against disability had taken place every year since 2008/9, compared to the less than 2,000 crimes that are officially recorded by the police every year. This figure is also 10,000 higher than the estimated figure of disability hate crime that the DWP use on their own website concerning estimates of disability hate crime. Additionally, the EHRC report based its study on the annual UK Crime Survey, a survey that is not sensitive enough to pick up on the 'motivation' behind hate crime against the disabled, or in fact, hate crime against anybody.

Mr Harper is correct that negative imagery surrounding disability has been around for a very long time, and a long time before both Government and the media started banging on about benefit fraud. However, as the Glasgow report indicated, many of the British public believe that people on disability benefit or incapacity benefit are 'fakes' - and the source of this notion is absolutely undeniable, and something that Government has failed to stop or resolve.

My last concern put to Mr Harper was over the DWP's misleading report released in July 2014, reporting that 'attitudes' to disability are improving. This report is called "Paralympic data from the ONS opinions and lifestyle survey " , and a DWP press release introduced this report with the words below: Nearly 70% of the British public feel attitudes towards disabled people have improved since the London Paralympic Games in 2012, statistics published by the government reveal." And that: "The findings from the DWP survey are from one of the most detailed surveys of its kind and marks the second anniversary of the Paralympic Games in London"

A BBC report (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28175349) duly ran with this Government report, and built it up even more so, claiming that 10,000 people had actually taken part in this survey (and therefore an inaccurate claim) so that the 70.7% result was truly good news, and reflective of society.

My main beef with the report falls into two areas. Firstly, the report is rather anorexic in content, containing two old questions put forward to the general public in 2013 (and placed into the report for no apparent reason) and one new question put forward in 2014. The response to the new question was less than 2,000 people, not the 10,000 as quoted by the BBC, so arguably the study cannot be called detailed in any shape or form. Secondly, by comparing one of the questions from 2013 with the new one, it appeared that positive attitudes towards the disabled had actually declined by nearly 8% within 12 months.

However, a note was attached to the 2014 question that we should not (and conveniently for the DWP) compare the results of this new question to the question put forward 12 months earlier, as they are not comparable. My argument is the opposite, that the two questions are indeed highly comparable because they are measuring exactly the same thing - attitudes towards the disabled after the 2012 London Paralympic games. So am I right or wrong, Mr Harper "The question in the survey to which Mr Dodenhoff refers was not meant to be detailed"

That's fine by me, but why did the DWP's own PR department call the report 'detailed' in its press release in July 2014. You can't have it all your own way, Mr Harper. Or can you "Comparison between the 2013 and 2014 data cannot and should not be made. The question in 2013 asks individuals about whether the Paralympic Games caused their own attitudes to differ while the 2014 question asks whether in the time since the Paralympic Games, individual attitudes have altered. One question looked at the effects of the games themselves, while the other looked at their legacy."

Oh, so that's it, silly old me.

Look, don't worry if you didn't really understand that last paragraph, neither did I, but I gained the impression that Mr Harper was starting to quickly disappear up his own exhaust pipe at this point. So, let's have a closer look at the pesky questions concerned. But please remember that we should not compare these questions (otherwise we may upset the DWP). 2013 Question Would you say that the 2012 Paralympic Games have caused you to have a more positive view of disabled people, a more negative view of disabled people, or have your views remained the same 2014 Question since the Paralympic games in 2012, do you have a more positive view of disabled people

I'll leave you to decide whether these questions are pretty much one and the same, and are asking the same thing? In my opinion they are, because they are both asking about attitudes towards the disabled (post 2012 Paralympic games) and are therefore asking about positive attitude change as a legacy of the London 2012 games.

This is important when we come to look at the results of the survey. In 2013, 48.5% of non-disabled people thought their personal attitudes were positive, and by 2014 this figure had dropped to 40.6%. And no amount of political tomfoolery by Mr Harper will alter that cold, hard fact.

The fact of worsening attitudes towards the disabled are also backed up by a recent survey by Scope, suggesting that in London alone, 1 in 4 disabled people had suffered hostile, threatening behavior or violence since the 2012 London Paralympics. An event that the UK Government often argue to be one that has changed negative attitudes towards disability within the UK for ever.

Some change, especially considering that 1 million disabled people live in London alone, and 1 in 4 translates into 250,000 people potentially exposed to abuse, violence and harassment, simply because they are seen to have a disability. If these figures are translated to the wider disabled community of 10 million citizens, then we are looking at not only a crisis caused by brutal and drastic welfare reform, but abuse and violence committed towards disability by the general public on a massive scale.

If anybody wants to actually publicly record their experiences of abuse, harassment and violence, then they can do so on the Facebook page entitled, Disability Hate Crime Research. Please do so, but only if you have the confidence and support to do so.

Finally, while I have been critical of the Conservative Party and of its current term of office, I truly appreciate the help of my local Conservative MP in posing my concerns to the DWP, and of the time taken by Mark Harper in responding to those concerns. While I personally disagree with his response, all I ask of the reader of this article, is to think for themselves.

However, I will leave you with one last thought. In recent times I have seen the British electorate pretty much manipulated or frightened into supporting social, economic and foreign policy that is actually detrimental to their own existence. This is done by the dissemination of 'information' that sets social groups against each other, and country against country. Much of this information has turned out to be based on half-truths and falsehoods.

Many people within the UK confuse 'democracy' and 'freedom' with the 'right to vote'. However, many countries have the right to vote, including North Korea, Iran and Syria, yet we do not consider these countries to either be free nor democratic. In my opinion, the British electorate are slowly sleeping walking into a UK where civil liberties and human rights are being quickly curtailed. If this continues, articles like mine will become non-existent in the future.

Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.

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