Last Thursday Brighton Benefits Campaign held a public meeting at the Friends Meeting House in Brighton. More than fifty people gathered to hear speakers including Caroline Lucas MP, and also to tell their own stories and express their anger at what is being done to the welfare system.
Tony Greenstein chaired the meeting, opening with a short overview of the situation, before introducing the first speaker – Andy Richards, Chair of the Local Government Branch of UNISON.
Andy outlined the links between the assault on benefits and the public services, comparing the way in which both claimants and public sector workers are attacked in the press. He spoke of the wedge that is being driven between those in work and the unemployed, a false division because cutting benefits and forcing the unemployed into workfare schemes will drive down wages and conditions for everyone.
Detailing how cuts to housing benefit will make it harder for people to find affordable homes, Andy also drew attention to the ConDem plans to hike up the non-dependent deduction, which if they go ahead will result in huge cuts for those with adult children living at home, and referred to the Chartered Institute of Housing estimate that 750,000 households could lose their homes because of the cuts.
Finally, Andy urged us to demand benefits set at decent levels, an end to oppressive medical examinations, an end to anti-trades union management in the benefits services, and an end to welfare privatisation.
Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, spoke next, making it clear that the cuts are neither right nor necessary, in her own words they are ‘economically illiterate’. Instead of cuts which will cause unemployment and actually increase the problems of the economy, there should be investment in public services, to support the most vulnerable and get people into work, and a fairer tax system. Caroline also spoke of the attack on Housing Benefit which will hit Brighton particularly hard, and concluded with a call to unity and resistance.
The final speaker, Pip Tindall, explained how Brighton Benefits Campaign was launched in response to the assault on benefits represented by Labour’s efforts to force people off benefits and onto the job market. Having run through the worst abuses imposed on the sick and disabled, unemployed and single parents by the Welfare Reform Act, Pip told the meeting how Brighton Benefits Campaign took on the Flexible New Deal by picketing the private providers, and the way that this provides an opportunity to educate people about the link between benefits and wages, and to contradict the lies spread by the right-wing media.
Pip then spoke of the even more extreme cuts planned by the ConDem government and their ambitions to destroy welfare and public services, which are resulting in the creation of anti-cuts groups like Brighton Stop the Cuts Coalition. Pip concluded with a reminder that there is one real division in society, that between the rich and the rest of us, and that with solidarity between workers and unemployed, disabled and single parents, migrants and students we can show the rich that we’ve had enough of them using their position to change the rules in their own favour.
The meeting was then thrown open to the floor. It quickly became obvious that rather than being a meeting of activists, many of those who attended were living at the sharp end of benefit cuts. We heard stories of isolation and victimisation, particularly in regard to the invidious tests administered by Atos on those claiming ESA.
Alan Wheatley, Green Party spokesperson for disability and social care, made a plea for carers, and then shared his own story of bullying by Atos, having been recalled for testing only months after winning his appeal against them.
One person who was a trained chef told us how he had walked out in disgust at being given a work trial – intended for those with no experience in a trade – where his ‘job’ merely consisted of reheating meals. A woman who had suffered an extreme grief reaction told us how the reports of specialists on her condition were ignored by the Atos testers.
However the general mood of the meeting was not one of hopelessness, but of solidarity. Disability, unemployment and poverty cause isolation, but fighting and campaigning for each other turns us – as Alan said – from victims into survivors.