I only regret that getting to see my constituency MP, Richard Bacon has been so fraught with difficulty and barriers. In the language of tax matters I'm not sure if it was by means of 'avoidance' or 'evasion' that, at the end of May, he failed to agree to meet me at Methodist Central Hall like others' MPs did - as part of the Hardest Hit March. One of the barriers too has been the telephone attitude of his secretary/receptionist (see the RADAR posting 30/05/11 and That Damned Elusive Mpernel on 08/06/11). The other social barriers are having to travel the round 60 miles to see him in my own car, with the concomitant fuel cost - and the lack of disability access to his 'office,' the Diss Conservative Club.
All that is regrettable too, because after a twenty minute wait (I was on time) in the hallway of the Conservative Club and after a secretary had, wordlessly, and accompanied by another woman (for protection?) had come down the stairs, unlocked a large room opposite the front door and curtly asked me to go in there. I was shepherded to one of the small tables that furnished the room (in a 'cafe' formation) and I parked my scooter there. I was told afterwards when pointing out the poor disability access, that this was the contingency for disabled people.
Almost immediately Richard Bacon appeared stage right and with a quiet, affable manner shook hands. I asked him if he had any objection to my recording the interview and after a brief hesitation he said he hadn't. Without ceremony then, we went straight into a balanced discussion initiated by my question “Are you familiar with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.” From some slight awkwardness I guessed he wasn't but after a debate, including Mr Bacon suggesting the Convention must have no force in English courts (I told him the government is a signatory to it and even though it might not have statutory authority any breach of it would certainly influence court proceedings), I was happy that his consciousness had been raised.
I moved on by offering him a copy of my 'Eligibility Criteria Discriminatory?' blog of 11th January this year. I also saw he had a file with copies of material from PPlog telling me he has done some preparation – good: for again that at least raises some awareness of the issues. I suggested that the central document relating to eligibility criteria, 'Fair Access to Services' should now be reviewed as this is the main vehicle which allows local authorities to severely ration their services – services which should really be tagged 'essential' for disabled people. I also pointed out that is in line with recommendations by the NHS Future Forum. Mr Bacon said he would give it his attention.
We moved on and I gave Mr Bacon a copy of the report commissioned by NCODP from Chris Edwards, Consultant and Senior Fellow of the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia (available at: http://tinyurl.com/3wdh6l5). He had not seen the report before nor was he aware of the context – a rather sad commentary on a Norfolk MP. I explained that Maria Miller had been reported as saying there are inaccuracies in the report but didn't specify what these are. I asked Mr Bacon if he would examine the report, detail any inaccuracies he finds and consider the hardships his constituents would undergo as a result of the cuts. He commented, using the Tory party mantra about the country having been left in dire straights financially and had to make drastic adjustments to the UK finances in order to address the balance of payments deficit. I pointed out that the coalition leadership had promised at the outset that front line services would be protected, that vulnerable, disabled people and those on the poverty line were not responsible for the deficits but were being made to bear the brunt of the cuts and there are alternatives to the actions the coalition is taking. I referred him to the alternatives set out in the latter part of Chris Edwards' report. He agreed to look at it.
Chris Edwards shifted us over sideways to discuss the Welfare Reform Bill. Mr Bacon said he has discussed this fully with his friend Ian Duncan Smith and is in full agreement with the need for reform of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Incapacity Benefit, including the need to assess people's for work. That it is not right to assume disabled people are unable to work and that there are responsibilities local authorities are not following up with commissioned organisations (referring to the DLA mobility component in residential care).
I agreed DLA is in need of reform but firmly pointed out that the course and methods chosen by the coalition are wrong, inhumane and probably in breach of the UN convention. I emphasised that:
- just the receipt of the appointment letter is frightening to people and gave examples from my own past professional experience;
- that the contracted organisation ATOS appears from service user reports to be incompetent and damaging (Mr Bacon said he had come across the organisation in the Public Accounts Committee and “was not impressed”);
- that the whole assessment disregarded reports from professionals working with the service users such as doctors, nurses and social workers;
- and, as the new benefits appear to be less in value than DLA, they are putting vulnerable service users through hell by cutting their income for independent living.
We finished via a discussion about the inequalities around people in his constituency having access to him. He agreed to look at this too.
Meeting Mr Bacon and the work around the event brings about a reciprocal raising of awareness. He is a member of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee and his mindset is mainly orientated to matters revolving around that. But, our exchange (hopefully) will raise his awareness, even if just an inch, of disability issues in Norfolk. Reciprocally, I have begun to see an atypical Tory MP: one who had the courage to independently vote against the Iraq war and one who is making a mark campaigning against waste in Whitehall and the NHS IT project. And I'm certainly in full agreement with him when he says: “...the skill most valued in Whitehall is the ability to explain why something that looks like a disaster is in fact a triumph or, at least, more than one had any right to expect in the circumstances.” (Mr Bacon's website at http://tinyurl.com/5ttwjfw).
So when, on 30th May I wrote: “my MP (Richard Bacon South Norfolk) is useless as far as disability is concerned.” maybe I was being too harsh. At this meeting he has certainly listened and debated the issues with fully engaged interest and balance and without superciliousness. Disability is not his field but he appears willing, once over the barriers, to engage with those whose expertise it is. I wonder is there anything to take to the Public Accounts Committee here?
(N.B. Oh flagellation flagellation! When I got home I tied myself to the mast and gave myself ninety lashes for I found I hadn't switched the recorder on properly.)
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