Writer, journalist and activist Jack Monroe will stand in the next general election, saying she has “earned [her] political stripes” though life experience.
Mx Munroe has not named a party, but pledges she will “do the best for the most people”, with priorities including healthcare, services for people with disabilities, living standards, jobs and decent homes.
The reason that number is worth paying attention to is that if the 89 per cent are true to their word, and if they use their franchise to hold the Government to account for its brutal treatment of disabled people, it might just spell trouble for Theresa May’s dreams of a three-figure majority.
Now, let me make one thing clear at the outset. I’m not about to say who you should vote for. Journalists too often do that. I would simply invite you to consider the Government’s record when it comes to disability.
If I were to take on the role of prosecuting ministers over that, I would struggle to find somewhere to start. So long would be the charge sheet be that it would take a couple of days’ court time just to read it all out. As I’m writing a column, not a novel, I’ll simply draw your attention to just a few of the lowlights.
Take the Personal Independence Payment. The replacement for Disability Living Allowance was sold not as a means of imposing a cut, but as a way to get more money into the hands of the most disabled.
Then it turned out that those who have been left disabled through mental health conditions don’t count. After an appeals tribunal made some pointed comments about the way the rules had been written, they were changed to exclude them at a time when May was telling us how seriously she took the subject.
Talking of those tribunals, just last month I revealed that they are being swamped with more than 50,000 appeals logged against decisions made by the Department for Work and Pensions between October and December last year. Nearly two-thirds of them are being upheld.
Just last week the Press Association revealed that Capita and Atos, the profit-driven companies that carry out assessments used by the DWP to make its decisions, are set to be paid more than £700m for their five-year contracts against an original estimate of £512m. Talk about rewards for failure.
The process of applying is miserable, dehumanising and humiliating. Decisions are frequently perverse. A friend of mine with spina bifida was, for example, turned down. My friend can’t walk at all. The decision was overturned on appeal, but the fact that it even got that far tells you all you need to know about the process.
Then there is the Employment and Support Allowance, paid to people who have conditions that are sufficiently severe to impact their ability to work. The DWP’s plans to cut it as a means of “motivating” claimants to find work were savaged by the all party Work & Pensions Select Committee, which rightly pointed out that the cut was more likely to do the reverse by denying them the means to obtain equipment they might need to support themselves in employment.
The Government’s workplace assessments seem to produce stories of terminal cancer or heart patients told to get down to their Job Centre Plus every few months.
Want more? How about the Government’s promise to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. A manifesto commitment, it was quietly dropped when it had become very obvious that there was scant chance of it being achieved, not least because ministers didn’t much fancy the idea of, you know, actually doing something about it.
Ministers for disability come and go through a revolving door. While in post, they pretend they care about issues such as access, or getting disabled people into work. They put their names to statements claiming Britain is a world leader, even though no less than the United Nations has said it is anything but. Then it’s on to something else. Wait a minute, is that a photographer? Grab the guy in the wheelchair and let’s get a pic of me smiling with him on my way out!
Under this Government, disabled people are either paralympic saints, there to provide inspiration porn and yet more of those smiley photo ops, or they are burdens on the state who should just stay out of the way. Or they’re not really disabled at all.
May has a habit of claiming she speaks for the country. If she follows that practice, she will interpret a victory as a mandate to do what she pleases and the thugs her Government employs at the Department for Work and Pensions will follow her lead. There are no rational arguments in favour of the policy programme they have overseen, and it is regularly roundly criticised by just about anyone with a voice. But that won’t matter. It hasn’t up until now.
The 13 million have a chance to change that narrative, if they are willing to say that enough is enough.
All parties employ psephologists to tell them who does what during elections, and to help them to tailor their policies. If they latch on to the fact that disabled people are starting to use their votes to push back against the treatment they are receiving, and if it starts to have an impact on results, then politicians will start to wake up.
Ministers need to be taught that there is a price to be paid for the way they have behaved. A sufficiently high vote against the brutal treatment meted out to people with disabilities by the Government could at the very least deny Theresa May the landslide she is hoping for. It might even force her to open up her eyes.
Her Government, and the previous governments of which she was an important part, have done what they have done because they have been allowed to. People with disabilities, and their families, and their friends, now have the power to say that they will no longer accept such disgraceful treatment.
It will be years before this opportunity comes around again. Now is the time to seize on it.
More than 800 UK women are taking legal action against the NHS and the makers of vaginal mesh implants, the Victoria Derbyshire programme has learned.
The implants are used to treat pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence after childbirth, but some can cut into the vagina – causing severe discomfort.
Some women have been left in permanent pain, unable to walk, work or have sex. One called the implants “barbaric”.
The UK’s medicines regulator said it “sympathises” with the women affected.
Kate Langley had to give up her business as a childminder because the pain was so intense she could not look after the children.
The surgeon who first examined her, she explained, “could see the [mesh] tape had come through my vagina – protruding through.
“The mesh had cut its way through – like a cheese-wire.”
Other women, reporting similar symptoms, have said the perforation was so severe their partners had been injured by the mesh during sex.
Ms Langley, who described the meshes as “barbaric”, said she has had 53 hospital admissions to try to end the pain, but – like many women – the mesh was so near the nerve it could not be fully removed.
She has been left in permanent pain by the implants and has nerve damage.
The plastic meshes are made of polypropylene – the same material used to make certain drinks bottles – and manufactured by many different companies.
They are used to ease incontinence and to support organs such as the vagina, uterus, bowel, bladder or urethra which have prolapsed after childbirth.
Claire Cooper began to experience pain three years after her operation.
Doctors wrongly believed the source of discomfort was her womb, which she had had removed at the age of 39.
When the pain continued, she said a GP told her she was imagining it.
The news made her want to take her own life. She said she “mapped out” her suicide, but wanted to live on for her children.
She still lives in pain and said her husband has “turned into my carer”.
“We haven’t had sex for four-and-a-half years. This stuff breaks up marriages.
“I wouldn’t at all be surprised if there are mesh-injured women that have taken their own lives and didn’t know what the problem was,” she said.
Ms Cooper is one of a number of women calling for the NHS to stop fitting the implants.
“I want the procedure banned, I want the material banned,” she said.
Labour MP Owen Smith, who is planning to hold a Parliamentary debate on the issue, called for an investigation into the use of vaginal mesh.
He told the BBC: “I think there is a really good case for saying ‘suspend its usage’ until there is clarity about the scale of the problems we’re facing.”
Unaware of risks
Between April 2007 and March 2015, more than 92,000 women had vaginal mesh implants in England, according to NHS data from the Hospital Episodes Statistics, obtained by the Victoria Derbyshire programme.
About one in 11 women has experienced problems, the data suggests.
Now, more than 800 women in the UK are taking legal action against the NHS and manufacturers, including US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson – the biggest makers of mesh implants.
Its subsidiary, Ethicon, said it was “vigorously defending litigation”.
Many of the women the BBC met said they had never been told by their surgeons about the potential risks associated with the implants.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says for the majority of women, the use of vaginal mesh implants is safe and effective.
The meshes are still prescribed on the NHS across the UK, although a recent review in Scotland said they should not be routinely used for pelvic organ prolapse.
Experts believe if the women are successful in their legal case, the NHS payout for compensation could be tens of millions of pounds.
In the US, thousands of women have sued manufacturers, receiving payouts that total several billion dollars.
Consultant urogynaecologist Dr Sohier Elneil said she sees patients in the UK who have been left facing severe pain and unable to walk.
“The typical type of patient I see is a patient who is incapacitated by severe pain of a chronic nature. Often they are on high-dose medication, including opiates.
“They become so incapacitated that many of them are either walking by crutches or sitting in wheelchairs and perhaps more dramatically so, they become unable to look after their families.”
Currently in the UK, there are around 100 types of vaginal mesh implants.
So far, not one model has been recalled in the UK.
According to one expert, Prof Carl Heneghan, manufacturers have to provide little evidence before their product is clinically approved and made available on the NHS.
“The regulatory body… doesn’t even look at the device,” he said.
Prof Heneghan also said manufacturers just have to provide documents that show their vaginal mesh implant is similar to one already on the market and it is highly likely to be approved.
One leaked email from Johnson & Johnson suggested it had known problems existed with one of its products since 2004.
The email said the company needed to start a “major damage control offensive” because “the competition will have a field day”.
The manufacturers said highlighting this email in isolation was “extremely misleading”.
An MHRA spokesman said it was “committed to help address the serious concerns raised by some patients”.
It added: “The greater proportion of the clinical community and patients support the use of these devices in the UK.”
Ethicon said “these devices have helped millions of women”.
It said it had “acted appropriately and responsibly in the research, development and marketing of its pelvic mesh products”.
About 200,000 people face seeing their claims for a disability benefit to help with daily living and mobility refused this year, new figures obtained by Labour suggest.
Senior MPs have called on the government to explain an apparent spike in people being turned down for personal independence payment (PIP), which is a top-up benefit with two components related to the extra costs of daily living and limited mobility for disabled people.
Figures obtained by Angela Eagle, the former work and pensions minister, showed that 83,000 people assessed for their eligibility had been given zero scores for both components in the six months between April and October. That compares with 93,000 given a zero score for both components in the previous 12 months.
Overall, 134,000 people were awarded zero scores for one or both components in the six-month period to October, suggesting the total figure for 2016-17 will pass 200,000.
An analysis by Press Association suggested the rate of zero scores would increase to 14% this year from 13% last year and 8% the year before.
“It’s a trend we’ve noticed about people, from usually passing the PIP criteria or disability living allowance [DLA, its predecessor benefit] criteria to getting fewer points even though they’ve got chronic conditions that are worsening,” Eagle said.
“In the last few weeks, there’s definitely been a spike of people getting zero. The only way that this makes sense is if a whole load of people got DLA without deserving it, but that’s never been my experience of DLA.”
Debbie Abrahams, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “The increasing numbers of zero points assessments raise real concerns about the accuracy of the assessment process, as do the thousands upon thousands of wrong decisions that are overturned at mandatory reconsideration and in the courts.”
It comes at at time when ministers are under pressure over the number of PIP decisions that are overturned on appeal, with about 65% of rulings reversed at an independent tribunal.
This compares with 18% of those being overturned at mandatory reconsideration, a system run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that claimants must go through before appealing to a tribunal. More than 160,000 people initially denied PIP have had the decision overturned since the benefit launched in 2013, according to Department for Work and Pensions figures.
The DWP said it was “completely unfounded” to suggest there was any crackdown that was leading more people to be awarded zero scores at their assessments. It said there were more people being given higher awards of the PIP than under the old system.
“In fact, 27% of claimants are now receiving the highest rate of support under PIP, compared with just 15% under the outdated DLA,” a spokeswoman said.
“Assessments are carried out by qualified health professionals and decisions are made based on information provided by the claimant and their GP.”
The assessments for PIP are carried out by the private companies Capita and Atos.
A Capita spokeswoman said: “Our assessors are healthcare professionals and are equipped with the knowledge, skills and training to understand how both physical and mental health challenges impact a claimant’s daily function. All assessments are carried out in line with the latest DWP guidelines, and the decision to award a benefit is made by DWP.”
A spokesman for Atos said: “All decisions on awarding benefits are made by the DWP.”
The BBC’s main headline today is “Grammar Schools Must Serve Ordinary Families.” This is based on a speech by Education Secretary Justine Greening.
Let me put on record that I fully agree with her statement. However, I want to take it one step further. I believe that, in order to be fully inclusive, grammar schools must serve anyone who has the academic ability to attend them. This must include disabled children.
Disabled children like myself cannot be forgotten in the debate about whether to create more grammar schools. The article linked, which was written in December, states:
“Compared to the secondary school population as a whole, grammars contain 18 times fewer children with special educational needs or education health and care plans, and three times fewer disabled children without such documentation.”
One reason why grammar schools would be reluctant to accept pupils in wheelchairs, of course, would be that they may not be in accessible buildings. This, of course, applies to all mainstream schools. However today, all buildings must be wheelchair accessible by law. So lack of wheelchair access is no longer a legally acceptable reason for a school not to accept a disabled pupil.
Thankfully most state schools have been ready to make changes to their buildings to keep this law, since it came in. Before creating any more grammar schools, the government needs to ensure that they would be given fully accessible buildings, so that they would not be able to use this as a reason to reject disabled pupils who pass the entrance exam. Grammar schools which are already running and are not wheelchair accessible should also be made to update their buildings to keep the law.
Also, grammar schools should make every effort to make their entrance exams fully accessible. All the usual adjustments and allowances should be made for a disabled pupil who wants to take the entrance exam. Extra time, separate rooms, rest breaks, typing answers or dictating them to someone else to write, large print papers. The list may sound endless but it is necessary. And, once a disabled pupil has passed the entrance exam, the same adjustments should be made for them in lessons.
Disabled children are intelligent, too. I was once a disabled child with a high level of intelligence. I never applied to a grammar school but if I had tried, I could have got through the 11+ exam.
I have many very intelligent disabled friends. I know there are many disabled children out there with a lot to offer any mainstream school, grammar or not, particularly in traditional academic subjects.
All any disabled child needs in mainstream education, all we ever asked for, is a chance to try. As the government considers creating more grammar schools and opening them to children from ‘ordinary’ families, I ask them not to forget disabled children.
I ask the government to clarify, at the earliest opportunity, what provision they plan to make for academically able disabled children at any new grammar schools they may create. While they are at it, I ask them to open more of those grammar schools that already exist to us, too.