This is an open letter to Royston Smith, my MP for Southampton Itchen (though not by my vote).
Dear Mr Smith,
I noticed that after I posted on your Facebook page questioning your vote to cut ESA and PI payments, and enquiring about the potential victims of this heinous bill, you banned me from further comments. Maybe I worded things poorly due to my outrage and personal connection to the issue and that is why you decided not to engage with me. However, it seems like a fairly unreasonable response to a question from a constituent that becomes all the more valid day by day. Time is not on your side Royston, nor is it on my disabled brethren who you and your party have deemed expendable by your actions.
The Tory cuts affecting the most vulnerable disabled are staggering by all accounts. Pre election there were assurances that your party could be trusted. That the rich would pay their fair share and that the sick and poor would have their best interests protected. A fantastic bait and switch as your party further proved yesterday with the budget announcements. Tax cuts for those earning over £43,000 and a £3000 penalty for those who live hand to mouth on a pittance.
This is an assault on the marginalised. Maybe your party wants to let us all starve or freeze to death? Or maybe you want us to die of medical complications related to our poverty like diabetic soldier David Clapson. His story has haunted me since I first read it in 2014. His benefits were sanctioned because he was deemed to not take his job search seriously. He died with an empty stomach next to a pile of CVs thanks to your party’s policy. A tragedy that could have been avoided if your party had a shred of compassion towards those in need.
Mr Clapson’s story haunts me not just because he didn’t deserve to die that way, and not because his death has yet to receive a proper inquest, but because there are so many people out there who are teetering on the edge of a great precipice like he was. They are people with no families to fall back on, people who have worked their whole lives, people who have paid taxes and yet your party are about to shove them over that edge into an abject, unforgiving, and deadly poverty.
Let me share my personal experience and maybe you will understand why I am so passionate about these budget reforms. I suffer from a near untreatable form of bowel disease. I do not respond to drug therapies and I am not a good candidate for surgery. I worked full time from the day I left college until I was compassionately let go from my job at British Gas because I was spending approximately half my day in the toilet trying not to pass out.
When I lost my job Labour had just left power and by some miracle I managed to get onto ESA payments without too much hassle. My condition deteriorated to the point I was completely housebound and needed assistance for just about everything because I was in so much pain. It was a living hell (and still can be), but the ESA made it easier.
It wasn’t enough to pay my rent at my flat so I had to move home. Being under 35 I didn’t qualify for any decent amount of housing support and the wait list for a council place was five years. Thankfully I had a supportive mother who could let me stay with her. Everything seemed to be ticking along as I tried to rebuild my health, then came my reassessment…
I was so sick that I could not make it to the ATOS medical centre. They had to send someone to see me because I was housebound. I was skin and bones in a bed, unable to function and your terminally ineffective buddies at ATOS decided I was fit for work and stopped my benefits. I was crushed. We had to wait six months for an appeal because they kept losing paperwork. So for six months I had no money. Literally zero. Without my family to support me how did you expect me to live?
I worried daily about money, which is not a good way to improve ones health let me tell you. But what choice did I have when my only source of income was stopped? I was consumed with finding a way that could I earn money from home, but there was nothing I could do with my illness hindering me that wasn’t pornography or a pyramid scheme.
Thanks to the Conservatives I was desperate, disabled and destitute, which was just your way of motivating me into work right? At that time it felt as though there was literally nothing else I could do. But I mean, I was just being work shy laying in bed recovering from my horrendous autoimmune disease, or sitting on my porcelain throne like the welfare queen that I am. I was truly sick and deserved those payments. I should not have had to research a career in home made pornography while struggling to even walk most days. Without my family supporting me during that particular moment in time I’m not sure I would have felt I could go on.
There have been suicides linked to benefits sanctions and the bedroom tax. Mentally ill people are part of the disabled population and it can be very hard to advocate for yourself when these sanctions and cuts hit. It feels hopeless, like there is no way out. And who do we go to for help? You? The man who agreed this should happen to us? No we get to go through a convoluted bureaucratic appeals process that can take six months and offers no interim support! So fingers crossed we survive the wait and get that back payment!
Have you ever tried to live on nothing for six months? I wouldn’t recommend it for most people, but I would definitely advocate every Tory MP who voted for the cuts live on it so they know exactly what they are inflicting on those who already have the least. Honestly, Mr Smith, try to live on exactly £0 for 6 months and you will know the position I was in.
But I am not the yard stick to measure most by in this sort of situation. The disabled are not a monolith, nor are we neat little check boxes on a form. I survived because of the kindness of family and existence of a good personal support network. But there are people like me with no family or friends in a position to help or even in their lives at all through no fault of their own. What happens to them? Are they left to die like Mr Clapson, or are they forced to do whatever it takes as I contemplated myself?
You know your party must be in the wrong on this when lifelong, loyal, disabled members publicly resign, Tory MP’s are being dropped as patrons by disability charities, and even the Tory owned media are forced to side with Jeremy Corbyn. Yet you continue to ignore the IFS warnings and YOU increase the margin between the haves and have nots. And I emphasise you, Mr Smith, because you personally have not yet rebelled in a party vote. So this is on you as much as anyone. You signed your name to this. Not that you’ve done much else being the least active new Member of Parliment. And don’t give me that schtick about a hierarchy or Southampton Itchen being a tough constituency. That hasn’t stopped other new MPs from getting stuck in.
Anyway, returning to my personal experience with the benefits system. When my appeal was finally dealt with and the decision made to reinstate my benefits, I was still placed in the work related activity group. The group you just cut by £30 a week. That placement meant that even though I was housebound and under care at the hospital your party’s policy deemed me fit to return to work at my earliest convenience. I was told I had to appear at a job centre on a fortnightly basis, attend work preparation courses and eventually go on job interviews.
How do you think I managed to go to those bi monthly job centre interviews, Royston? Do you think that after not being able to get to medical centre I just picked myself up, skipped out of bed and danced my way into the advisors office? Of course not. I had to have yet another convoluted series of conversations and arguments with over zealous job centre agents who did not give a crap about my situation because it wasn’t in a check box. They just told me if I didn’t come in my appointment would be marked as missed and my benefits would be stopped.
Eventually after many sleepless nights, tears, and anxiety medications I got through to an agent with a heart. She agreed to let me conduct my interviews by email and telephone and apologised for the stupid decision they made to put me in the work related activity group. Unfortunately they don’t have the power to overturn such decisions so I was forced to participate in all the mandatory check list activities like writing a CV (which I already had), and planning my return to work (which was not feasible). I appreciate these things might help people who are very close to returning to work and need a bit of help but in my case they were farcical at best and cruel and tiring at worst.
My job advisors changed as months went on (it seems you have a high staff turnover) and some were less empathetic than others. Each time I had to give them all the gory details of my medical history and personal issues because apparently nobody keeps records at the job centre. In the end I had to register as a sole trader to get them off my back because they wanted me to participate in permitted earnings or they were going to sanction me. I had no other way of participating except setting up an imaginary business. So I now had to fill in a tax return and waste time to let the HMRC know I was earning nothing except my ESA benefits.
It’s great isn’t it? The system was really working that day. I was being bullied into imaginary work. Eventually I did begin to earn a little money because I started developing games and writing. Not enough to be taxed or come off ESA, but enough that I was able to occasionally buy myself a treat instead of living like a monk who has renounced all worldly possessions.
I bet that secretly irritates you. Deep down a part of you probably thinks I could have been writing all along and I was just being lazy. Unfortunately the brain fog, anxiety, and depression that are a side effect of being chronically ill do have an impact on my written work. My accomplishments are mine though and your party’s deeply flawed system can take no credit for the obstacles I overcame. I’m a success story in spite of the invasive and dehumanising treatment I received, not because of it. It has taken a long time to learn to work around my pain and related issues, and even now there are times it is an extreme struggle. Not today though. Today I am fuelled by a righteous anger that gives me a focussed clarity that I am rarely blessed to experience.
Your party leader and your chancellor are condemning 640,000 to be £3000 a year worse off when they were already struggling to survive. And that’s just people on PIP, not those on ESA. The ESA claimants who you have deemed to be living a life of luxury on £412 a month, will now be living on £292 a month! How can anyone survive on so little?!
Have you perhaps mistaken disabled people for the plant Disanthus Cercidifolius? I know you Tories have a lot of the big words flying about beginning with dis. Disenfranchised, disappointing, dishonest… Maybe you have a hard time differentiating between them all? Even so, while I’ll concur that £292 is adequate for a plant to live on, disabled people have not yet achieved nourishment by photosynthesis and we still require a roof over our heads.
You must have trouble with words though, because I think only the cruel or stupid would see a bill to push the disabled into poverty and vote yes. I think we all know on which side of the fence Chancellor Osbourne falls, but I can’t tell where you land. Which would you prefer to be remembered as in the annals of history? You are writing your own legacy as an MP, Mr Smith, and so far it makes for pretty poor reading.
I’m incredibly lucky to have the people I have in my life, and to have the ability to do what I do. I have a roof over my head and I’m scraping by, just about. But I live in fear it could all go away again. My disease is lifelong and can come and go with no warning. You and your party have proven that you think that I and the 9.4 million disabled citizens of this country are worthless. We cannot rely on you to fight for us.
That is why I call on you to resign your position as MP for Southampton Itchen. Your disabled constituents cannot trust you to have our best interests at heart as you have proven with your vote against our well being. We deserve better. Your insincere platitudes and apologies will not make up for what your actions have shown you to be.
So enjoy your bloated pay check and expenses paid for by those cancer patients you chose to turn your back on while you still can. I pray you will have the sense to resign your post, or that in 2020 you will be ousted and someone who cares about the vulnerable will take your place. I have my fingers crossed that a political revolution in this country will take place before then. Remember that the poor will not remain hopeless and downtrodden forever Mr Smith. History has taught us that lesson time and time again.