What`s the word?

Nora Connolly

Image © Chatham House

What language was he speaking? [Answer] All languages. And none…Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose

It seems to me, that politicians would get more respect, if their oratory was a little more sincere, especially when spouting egregious policy at conference. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, this week made a crass speech in Manchester. Words used devoid of genuine meaning; `Help`, `Abandon`, `Work`, `Benefits`, `Job`, `Hired`, `Great`, `Future`, `Faith`, `Optimism`, `Nerve`, `Cuts`, `Sacrifice`, `Yes`, `Decline’, ‘Business`, `Country`, `Sound`, `Economic`, `Fair` `Prosperous`, and `Standards`. One could cite the entire speech but these words stand out, the meaning lost in a sea of thinly disguised spite. The audience listening including several Ministers, who like the Chancellor, require no mandate even though this government is implementing profound change and massively altering the social fabric of this country. At least in the 1980s when the Conservatives hammered the poor, they had the good grace to administer it with a Parliamentary majority. And believe it or not, there were elements in the Conservative Party in the 1980s that had some hold on reality; although they spawned this mob and mob is the correct word to use in this context.

As anyone knows who has the misfortune to sign on for the dole, such an experience is not an edifying one. The Benefits Agency, thanks to the previous Labour Government, is a hostile place and it`s not surprising that unemployment rates are going down (despite a vicious recession), while zero hour contracts are going up. The Help to Work Scheme, as outlined in this speech will mean daily contact with social security hostility, a war of attrition which has only one purpose in mind. George Osborne announced with sincere joy but for insincere reasons, that he will help the unemployed by allowing them to pick up litter from the streets, to qualify for the dole. Not that there is anything wrong with such a job – more noble than that of politician or Cabinet Minister, but if one is to be employed rather than punished to litter-pick, then an appropriate wage should be provided.

George Osborne spoke about optimism and it was during this part of the speech that he appeared to speak from the heart but why is he so cheerful? Clearly, the right to buy scam is one reason for his happy disposition – the decision to bring this mad policy forward tells us much. However, there is logic behind the madness, inflated house prices and the illusion of wealth may be the issue allowing this mob back to power. But, surely, at some point the optimism of the Tory Party will be confronted by the pessimism at the heart of the British nation? Although those listening to Osborne this week in Scotland are likely to vote for Independence next year, Osborne is the recruiting Sergeant for Scottish Independence.

Those reading this of a certain vintage may remember when Matthew Parris then a Tory MP participated in a World In Action programme documenting his attempt to live on the dole. He quickly found that life on the brew was no laughing party. At least he had the courage to have a go and I applaud him for that, whilst suggesting a similar type of experiment should be undertaken today. Surely a Tory or Orange Book Liberal millionaire, some zealot of rugged individualism, would find life on the dole manageable, a breeze.

Some people are of course standing up for their rights as the Welfare State is systematically ripped apart. One such individual is Surinder Lall, a qualified Barrister who also happens to be visually impaired. Peter White informs us that last March, Westminster Council contacted Mr Lall notifying him that his housing benefit was to be reduced, authorised by government regulations (The Spare Room Subsidy which has another name the Bedroom Tax). But Surinder Lall`s spare room was not a bedroom but a room used to store vital disability equipment. Mr Lall wrote to the council pointing this out but they disregarded his comments quoting the national regulations. Mr Lall went to law and good sense prevailed because he won. This is apparently the first successful challenge against this measure. The tribunal allowed Mr Lall to focus on key words such as `bedroom`, `storage` and `under occupancy`. As Surinder Lall points out it was absurd to apply the word `bedroom` because a room only crystallises into something when one does something to it.

The implications of this decision discussed with Peter White and another Barrister specialising in Human Rights legislation. She pointed out that that if there is no definition in the regulation and if the room is not used as a bedroom then it`s understandable why the Judge came to this decision – in Mr Lall`s case. The HR specialist then examined the broader implications of the decision pointing out that the regulations referred to in this case are not primary legislation but a form of delegated or secondary legislation. Unfortunately, this means they can be altered easily without requiring the passage of an Act of Parliament. So a common sense victory at a local level could have a short shelf life, if the government decide to alter it in Parliament. Thus far they have not done this, nor yet have they decided to appeal against the decision.

The HR specialist told Peter White that earlier this year an unsuccessful legal challenge against this measure took place supported by various Disability organisations. The argument put forward was that these measures are having an adverse impact on disabled people. We were told that this issue is now going to the Court of Appeal and we must await the decision. It was explained, the UK government must be mindful of the fact that if a disabled person is adversely affected by any cuts, then the government is obligated under the Equality Act to consider this and mitigate this adverse impact where it can. The government also has obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People to consider those adverse impacts and that the UN Committee will consider the UK government’s compliance with this Convention next year.

It seems to me that people had better start exercising their rights under the Equality Act 2010 because it may be the last hope we have of hanging on to what`s left of the Welfare State. After all we cannot all relocate to an Independent Scotland


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