The Longest Five Years of My Life

The general election’s just three days away and I can’t wait – I’ve never been so ready to vote. The last five years have felt like the longest years ever – they could’ve been five decades.

My life looks very different now from what it did half a decade ago. Back in May 2010 I could still walk, climb stairs and be on my own safely. Since then the intensification of my tics has meant I’ve had to move home, start using a wheelchair, and have constant 24-hour support. But it’s not these personal changes that have created a backdrop of intense sadness – it’s the losses that we’ve incurred as a nation.

The policies of the current Government have seen sweeping cuts, with dismantled support systems and hard-won equalities brushed aside. As a country we’ve lost a great deal. And because so much of this has taken place all at the same time it can be hard to keep track of what’s been lost. Here’s a long, heart-breaking list of what the last five years of the Conservative-led coalition have cost us all:

Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was the £30 a week allowance given to 16-18 year olds from the poorest households that enabled them to stay in full-time education rather than having to leave school and try to get a job. Without the EMA access to education is now much less equal.

The abolition of the Connexions Service has also negatively impacted on young people. There’s no longer a coherent national service offering information, advice and guidance for young people on education, housing, health, relationships, drugs, finance and careers.

The Independent Living Fund (ILF) was established in 1988 to enable severely disabled people to live more independently. Funding additional support-worker hours it allowed thousands of disabled people to live in their communities rather than in residential care. The ILF filled the gap between a person’s basic needs (the support that keeps them alive), and the support needed to live a full and productive life.

Social services have a responsibility to support basic needs, but life should be about more than just washing, eating and sleeping. There have been times in the last five years when I’ve been very keenly aware of this gap – when I’ve spent my weekends sitting alone on my bed for hours on end, stuck without the support even to go to the toilet safely, let alone leave the house. Although I wouldn’t have been eligible for support from the ILF in 2010 when it was closed to new applicants, I would’ve been when my needs intensified the following year.

The permanent closure of the ILF was announced in 2012, and with it goes hard-won equality and the independence of over 19,000 severely disabled people across the country.

Child Trust Funds were long-term savings or investment accounts for children. They were introduced to ensure that every child had some savings at the age of 18. The government made an opening contribution to every account and made further contributions for the poorest children. These were abolished in 2010.

The Health in Pregnancy Grant addressed the elevated risk of birth defects in babies born to mothers who were malnourished during pregnancy. This was abolished in 2011.

Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is the benefit paid to disabled people to help with the additional costs of living with a disability. The 2014 Scope report, ‘Priced Out’ found that disabled people spend an average of £550 a month on costs directly associated with their disability. I recently worked out that for me this is over £700 a month.

DLA means that disabled people have the resources to help meet these extra costs. This benefit is assessed according to level of need and is available to people in work or out of work. In 2013 DLA was scrapped and replaced with the Personal Independence Payment, the main purpose of which seems to have been to tighten eligibility criteria and remove the benefit from an estimated 500,000 disabled people. DLA is critical to me being able to keep safe, well and independent – without it my wellbeing and safety would be seriously compromised.

The safety net of the Welfare State has been ripped apart by the introduction of the Bedroom Tax and Universal Credit, and at the same time the much-criticised Work Capability Assessment, and the harsh use of benefit sanctions is impacting negatively on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our communities.

The widespread portrayal of benefit claimants as lazy scroungers is not borne out by the statistics. For example, 25% of people receiving housing benefit are in work. The idea that worklessness is a lifestyle choice, embedded in families and communities, is a myth – The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that less than 1% of households had two generations of people who had never worked, and they were unable to find a single household that had three generations who had never worked. Benefits are there to help people when they most need help – hardship can affect anyone at any time.

Effective social care is key to ensuring that the most vulnerable people are taken care of. Social care includes child protection services, support for disabled people and older people. Support from social services keeps me safe, working, and living in my own home.

Social services have been seriously undermined by the savage cuts to local authority budgets. This leaves vulnerable people at serious risk – in 2013-14 the number of serious case reviews (which take place when a child dies or is seriously harmed) rose by 54%. Failures in social care have a knock-on impact on other services – for example this winter 281,982 patients had delayed discharges from hospital because of a lack of social care provision for them at home. This is up a staggering 30% on the previous year. Commonly referred to as ‘bed blocking’ this is having a huge impact on our Health Service, which is already under heavy pressure from budget cuts ‘structural reform’.

Our publicly owned National Health Service is being privatised by stealth. Last year Tory Health Minister Jane Ellison admitted this in a meeting where she said: “I don’t know how much any of you realise that with the Lansley Act we pretty much gave away control of the NHS.”

The profitable elements of the service are being handed to private companies whose motivation will always be to make money rather than look after the nation’s health. I’m usually cautious when it comes to outpourings of national pride, but I’m very proud to live in a country where our amazing NHS gives everyone equal access to free, high quality health care whenever they need it. This is incredibly valuable and we must protect it, invest in it, and keep it public. In the last five years we’ve lost, among other things, NHS Direct, 66 maternity and A&E units, and we no longer have an effective mental health service.

Legal Aid was set up to enable people who couldn’t otherwise afford legal representation to have access to the court system. It was fundamental to justice and equality, and to ensuring that people were able to challenge decisions and allegations. This Government has overseen massive cuts to Legal Aid that mean you can no longer get support in cases relating to divorce, child contact, welfare benefits, employment, clinical negligence, and housing law. This effectively means the Government has free rein to make changes that affect vulnerable people, and those on low or moderate incomes, with no real risk of legal challenge.

Just four days ago over 100 judges, peers and lawyers working in the civil and criminal justice system wrote an open letter calling for the restoration of Legal Aid to prevent ‘widespread miscarriages of justice.’ They also said, ‘Without access to justice for all, inequalities take on a more dangerous edge which threatens the legitimacy of not just the justice system but our democracy’.

Additionally, funding for Employment Tribunals has also been abolished so workers who want to lodge claims against their employer now face costs of up to £1,200. Over 400 barristers described this as a ‘barrier to justice’ and figures show it has led to a 70% reduction in tribunal cases.

Equal access to higher education has also been forfeited through the increases in tuition fees and on-going changes to Disabled Students Allowance. This embeds inequality within our university education even further.

The responsiveness of Access To Work, as I’ve described in a number of recent blog posts, has also been severely compromised. Access to Work meets the additional support, equipment or travel costs of working disabled people. It generates £1.48 for every £1 spent and annually costs about the same amount as MPs’ expenses, has been secretively restructured, cut and undermined leaving many working disabled people without the support they need to do their jobs.

What do almost all of these cuts, closures and re-structures have in common? Almost all of them affect the support provided for people at critical points in their life, those who are vulnerable or who are facing big challenges.

And my list is just the tip of the iceberg.

We’ve also lost, 612 Sure Start Centres, 337 Libraries, 39 fire stations – and The Royal Mail, which was sold off to a handful of private investors in 2013 for about a third of its real value. As a country this is estimated to have cost us £180 million.

The mantra that’s been boomed out by the media, echoed through Council chambers, and relentlessly repeated by Conservative politicians is that the cuts were all necessary because of overspending by the previous administration. In reality the economic crisis faced by the UK was part of a global crisis, triggered by bankers’ greed – definitely not the fault of young, old, sick, disabled, unemployed or poor people of this country. But these groups are being hardest hit by nasty austerity policies.

Who’s not being affected? Certainly not the 236,000 top-rate taxpayers who earn over £150,000 a year and who were given a 5% tax cut in 2012, nor those who’ve become billionaires, the number of whom has doubled in the last five years while the number of Britons living in poverty has increased to an estimated 14 million (conveniently the official statistics on poverty in the UK, covering the period when the majority of the cuts have come into force, won’t be released until June!). And not the bankers, whose unregulated practices are widely credited for causing the financial crisis. They’ve seen their pay rise a hundred times higher than that of public sector staff.

So despite what we’re told, we’re not ‘all in this together’.

When I head out to vote on Thursday, at the forefront of my mind will be the sort of society I want to be part of. I don’t want the country I live in to be one where over a million people a year are in need of emergency food aid, or where people die because of benefit sanctions, or where teachers have to provide coats for cold children, or where disabled people face residential care instead of independent life.

The last five years have been long and tough for many of us, but by no means for everyone. I understand the country’s faced tough times, but I don’t believe for a second that persecuting those who have least is how we create a better future for us all.

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