Bernadette Meaden: Why are disease-carrying badgers more supported than the dead and dying disabled.
Almost 300,000 people have signed a government e-petition against the badger cull, confirming the traditional image of the British as a nation of animal lovers, always happy to support the RSPCA or their local donkey sanctuary.
This is in stark contrast to the e-petition set up by sick and disabled people and carers, who are hardest hit by the government’s spending cuts and ‘welfare reform’. The petition www.wowpetition.com has so far only managed to collect 53,000 signatures in nine months. It’s been promoted on Twitter and Facebook by scores of people, many of whom are bedbound or housebound, but it hasn’t attracted the groundswell of public support the badgers have been given. Why is this?
One could say that the badger cull is literally a matter of life and death, so there is more urgency. Yet already, it has been reported that many disabled people have died as a result of government policy. These deaths, however, occur as individual cases and are scattered across the country. When a seriously ill person is left destitute and their condition becomes fatal due to increased stress and grinding poverty, they usually die slowly, miserably, and without publicity. They may not have been executed with a shotgun, like a badger, but they still died nonetheless.
Suicides attract more attention, but reports are confined to local newspapers, and they are seen as individual tragedies. The government does not collect the figures on these deaths, so we have no way of knowing for sure how many there have been, but just Google ‘disability benefits suicide’ and see what you come up with.
And yet, as Sharon Brennan argues here, it should not be a life and death debate. When did we become a country where people with already difficult lives had to be seen as suicidal before we felt compassion for them, or grudgingly accorded them the minimum support they need to live?
WOW petition activists who are able to get out and about have attended several public meetings over the last nine months, and when they are able to speak to people in person, tell their story and explain what is happening, they get signatures and support. But this is a difficult and expensive process, and the majority of sick or disabled people lack the two things essential for such campaigning: energy and financial resources.
When trying to promote the petition, and I know this from my own experience, a common reaction is for people to be reluctant to sign because although they ‘don’t mean genuine people like you’ they are convinced that there is an army of fake disabled people somewhere, milking the country dry. This is all down to the malign collaboration between government and media. Time after time untrue claims have been made by Ministers, and the media have enthusiastically and unquestioningly repeated them. There are numerous examples, but let’s look at perhaps the single most damaging one:
Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps said last April ‘Nearly a million people have come off incapacity benefit before going for the test. They’ve taken themselves off.’ This led to a flood of negative publicity about disabled people in papers like the Mail, Express and Telegraph.
Understandably, members of the public then assumed that a large percentage of people on such benefits were faking it, causing every sick or disabled person to be viewed with suspicion.
Now, given that around 2.5 million people are on disability benefits, for almost a million to have dropped their claims would have been extremely dramatic. But it simply wasn’t true. Disability/sickness benefits are, for many people, a temporary requirement. Every year people have accidents or become ill and can’t work, so they need to claim these benefits. Happily, many of them get better, go back to work, and stop claiming the benefit. This is expected, and known in the trade as the ‘churn rate’. What the government had done was go back four years, add up all the people who had dropped claims, which is around 250,000 per year, and add them up. It had taken the normal ‘churn rate’ and used it to imply a large proportion of people on such benefits were faking it. Disability hate crime rose accordingly, with people in wheelchairs being accosted as scroungers. It is difficult to imagine a more irresponsible and damaging smear by a government against some of its own most vulnerable citizens.
This false claim was of course disproved by the UK Statistics Authority and Grant Shapps was rebuked, but the damage had been done. Suspicion had been planted in the public’s mind, ensuring that disabled people would find it very difficult to gain sympathy or solidarity from a hard-pressed nation. As is the way with these things, the lie has persisted in the public debate. Quite recently Matthew Parris asserted on the BBC’s Daily Politics that ‘nearly a million people dropped their claims when the test became tougher’ with no correction or challenge from the presenter or fellow guests. It was accepted as fact. As Mark Twain said, ‘A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.’
This is just one example of the propaganda campaign that disabled people have had to tackle before they could get signatures for their petition. Badgers may have been blamed for Bovine TB, but not even Owen Patterson has suggested they do it deliberately to sabotage the dairy industry. The badgers have the advantage of innocence, whilst every sick or disabled person is a potential fraudster, who it would appear bears equal responsibility with the banks for wrecking our economy.
The truth is that despite 2,537,200 Atos assessments being carried out under the Coalition, at a cost of around £110million per year, not counting the cost of appeals, the number of people on sickness or disability benefits has hardly changed. In May 2010 it was 2,653,810. In February 2013 it was 2,509,600. And there will be many thousands of people who are in the appeal stage of this process.
People get sick, people become disabled: it’s a fact and at some stage the government needs to accept this and behave as a civilised country should, providing the necessary support. Meanwhile they are causing huge suffering at great expense. To understand the sheer wastefulness and irrationality of the system, see the work of Nick Dilworth, who has rigorously analysed DWP statistics.
Things are so bad that in April 2013 at its AGM, Amnesty International passed this resolution; ‘This AGM calls for urgent action to halt the abrogation of the human rights of sick and disabled people by the ruling Coalition government and its associated corporate contractors.’ This was not reported in the mainstream media.
So I would ask you to sign www.wowpetition.com and to ask your friends to sign. And if you know a person on sickness or disability benefits in your community who you think ‘doesn’t look that bad’ please remember that many conditions are invisible, and often, in the climate created by this government, that only makes them harder to deal with. Bear in mind that for every sick or disabled person you see out in the community, there are many others in hospital, residential care, or stuck in their own home. And please also remember that tomorrow, you or a loved one could have an accident, or get a shock diagnosis, which places you in need of the safety net currently being destroyed. Please sign, if only in your own interests.
*PS! Hey! Just to say that I oppose the cull and have signed the petition!
Follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden
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