I would have blogged more about this but I only have my phone for internet access and I pretty much destroyed the data allowance by streaming half an hour’s iPlayer.
On Thursday I went to Rethink (I love Rethink!) to blog about the webchat with Chris Grayling MP. It was a fairly surreal experience. We were sitting in relative silence, save for the times we interjected his typing to press him to answer something. He was rather polite, though sometimes flustered, which was understandable as occasionally our (and my) tone turned a bit demanding and he was trying to concentrate. I’m glad he agreed to it- someone should be visibly accountable for these actions, though I understand why a lot of people over on the forum aren’t happy with his answers.
I blogged my thoughts over at the Rethink website, so you can trot over there to read them. Here’s an excerpt:
Chris Grayling, imposingly tall and bedecked in the customary party blue tie, arrived fresh from the underground to answer questions from members of the RethinkTalk community. As the Minister for Employment (and how do you address an MP? “Yes, minister?”), he is best placed to respond to the myriad concerns that we have about the changes to the benefit system.
The main questions were: Why is contributory ESA time-limited, which implies that people will spontaneously recover from their mental health problems in an allocated time frame? If they don’t, they are penalised by being shuffled onto jobseeker’s allowance, in which the “support” element of that benefit is completely withdrawn. And what about the lack of provisions in the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for fluctuating conditions such as mental illness? What about real support to help people get back to work? And did the Minister recognise the very real risks that the stress of going through the system only to reassessed or refused can bring?
The atmosphere in the room was one of studious concentration. I had expected for him to verbalise his answers and then for them to be typed, but he was straight in, with his head down, responding to the questions himself. Occasionally, he was prompted by Rethink’s Lily Carter to respond to specific questions, the ones that had been posed time and time again. Rethink staff, to my relief, did not give him an easy time. He remained polite and direct when we challenged him on a few points, and didn’t shrug off our questions. But there are no easy answers. It can’t be avoided that there are people out there who will be suicidal because of these changes. As an activist, a blogger and someone with a mental illness, it is hard to feel equable towards welfare reform when I have seen first hand the effect it is having. Government ministers do not see this, and while I do not envy Mr Grayling’s position, I am grateful that he took the time to speak to us.
People are afraid. Fear, coupled with indignation, is the thread that ran through the web-chat. I don’t know if Mr Grayling understands the true depth of that fear. He is aware people are suffering due to the whole process, and the fact that it is difficult to identify who they are and thus support them seems to exasperate him. For those fearing the thud of the ATOS envelope on the door mat, he has reassured them that they will be telephoned and kept up to date with what is happening, rather than shocked out of the blue. He agreed that the system was flawed. In his answers, he frequently referenced the Harrington Report (http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/wca-review-2010.pdf), an independent review of the WCA that described the assessment as “impersonal, mechanistic and lacking in empathy”. This may be, in part, why such a high number of assessment decisions which find someone capable of work are subsequently overturned on appeal. Other questions focused on the fact that those who carry out the assessments are neither mental health professionals, nor do they have much knowledge of mental illness. Indeed, many of the decisions are made without – or by ignoring – the supporting evidence of psychiatrists, social workers and other professionals. He wrote that his government will be following up the recommendations of that report, using, “mental health champions” such as charities and mental health professionals to reexamine the way people with mental illness are assessed. But is this enough?
The webchat is, obviously, over now, but if you want to send him questions, then you can. Details are:
Hi – we will collate and forward questions sent to email@example.com and publish any reply sent to us by the Minister, so everyone can see the responses – however if you want an individual contact and reply, please firstname.lastname@example.org – I suggest marking your email ‘For Chris Grayling MP re. Rethink live webchat’.
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