By Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh for National Scot Newspaper 1st March 2017
Sometimes it’s more than helpful for each of us, and especially those of us in public life, to detach ourselves from our personal perspectives to consider how others view the world around us. As Burns wrote: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion”.
Our politics shouldn’t operate within an isolated echo chamber. We need be aware of what alternatives exist as to how our community and society is working so that we can challenge the status quo and, in doing so, get the best possible deal for those we represent.
But sometimes hearing the true views of others is as frightening as it is enlightening.
When the mask slips, as it did at the weekend for George Freeman, the Tory MP and head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, it can be a window on the true nature of our opponents. Freeman said in an interview that proposed changes to benefits for people with a disability would ensure that vital social security payments went to people who were “really disabled” rather than those who merely “suffer from anxiety”.
If implemented, the changes he’s talking about would deprive 150,000 disabled people additional payments under the Personal Independence Payments (PIP) scheme, following a court ruling that the Whitehall Department of Work and Pensions should expand the reach of these vital payments to those with mental health issues. Rather than accepting the decision of two separate tribunals, Tory ministers have now rushed to publish emergency legislation to prevent those who are entitled for these payments under the current law claiming the support to which they are entitled.
What a mindset this is, that when faced with an impartial legal opinion that the law isn’t being properly implemented, the Tories would rather change the rules than admit their mistakes and pay disabled people what they owe. Rather than issuing an apology, and seeking redress for those who need our support and compassion, this senior Tory chose to belittle the suffering of others and then move the goalposts.
This is how they see people with disabilities. Not as human beings who deserve our care, but a legal challenge to be overcome.
I’ve been contacted by a number of my constituents in recent months who find it difficult to leave their homes because they suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, or other mental health problems. These people often find it just as hard to get around as people with physical mobility problems, and they face just as many higher costs in their daily lives as other disabled people do. They should be entitled to the same support.
But to Freeman, those suffering from often debilitating mental health issues aren’t really ill, they’re just another bunch of freeloaders sponging from the state.
What an absolute disgrace.
My constituency mailbox is increasingly full of first-hand accounts of how the new PIP system is failing those it was meant to protect.
I’ve seen cases where decades of specialist medical opinion has been overturned in the space of a 30-minute interview by the decision of a single medical professional. I’ve listened to a recording of an assessment interview so biased against the interviewee that it would make your hair curl, where the interviewer was more interested in getting though their list of leading questions rather than getting to the nub of the mobility challenges that my constituent faced. I’ve talked to men and women in total distress at the injustice they’ve faced and the devastating impact of their assessment on their day-to-day lives that the withdrawal of these benefits will have.
This is a system developed and implemented by a Tory government, based on how they see the world around them.
Now, freed from the social safety net provided by our membership of the EU, they are able to begin to fulfil their frightening vision of our society, where it’s dog eats dog and a radical enterprise economy replaces the social contract that delivered our welfare state.
It would be a foolish notion indeed if any of us really thought that Brexit would be good for our NHS, our education system or for the safety net of social security. Now without the constraints of an effective official opposition at Westminster or the protections of EU law, we’re beginning to understand the true intentions of this right-wing Westminster government.
Now is the time to take stock of our options, before we’re led down a dark road from which there is no return.