On Monday, Sue Marsh from the RNIB, who is also a disability campaigner and author of the Diary of a Benefit Scrounger blog, took her chances and barged on stage to make her speech at the Labour Party Conference, and we are so glad she did. Here is what she said:
“Friends, I’m Sue Marsh. I’m a disability campaigner and a Labour member. Those two things have not always sat easily together. For years now, charities and campaigners alike have argued in stronger and stronger terms that we as a country are getting it wrong on sickness and disability . Too many sanctioned, a tick box computer system of assessments that sees millions fall through the cracks. Work support that failed to support people into work but paid huge corporations thousands to fail. A total lack of understanding to know what it’s really like to live in pain, or to be exhausted all the time. What it’s like to deal with chemotherapy or a terminal diagnosis. How hard it can be to just get through the day and stay cheerful, let alone hold down a full time job.
“We made too many assumptions and presented too little evidence. We allowed the media to fall into lazy stereotypes of ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’. We designed policy in a bubble, far, far away from the lives of those who would ultimately be affected. No one was more critical than I was. Few fought harder to try to change things. I didn’t hold back. I spread my criticisms evenly between Conservative or Labour politicians. Failure is failure and we should never be afraid to say so.
“For a long time it made no difference, the consensus was just too strong, the assumptions just too widespread, but recently there has been a change. Don’t get me wrong, not from this coalition of privilege. They’ve compromised on nothing and listened to no one. But slowly and surely, Labour have started to listen. Not to Rupert Murdoch, not to the Daily Mail but to sick and disabled people up and down the country. First a tentative speech or two, then replacing the word welfare with social security. Language does matter. And today, the result of a listening exercise up and down the country, hearing the painful, shameful stories I hear every day, we pleaded with politicians to make assessments simpler, to cut down on paperwork, and endlessly repeating the same information to different departments.
“We asked why on earth huge corporations were paid thousands to fail us when we could use that money for re-training or further education or rehab, that would really help us to find work. We explained how work may never be self—supporting but that every hour worked was valuable. Every carer hour saved the economy billions. Every voluntary contribution kept society safe and united. We told of the unnecessary suffering caused by ignorance and misunderstanding. We explained how very much we wanted to work but how that work needed to be flexible and tailored.
“Today the Labour Party, my Labour Party, release their ‘Making Rights a Reality’ document. It outlines every failure, describes every fear. Nothing is left out. And the solutions it offers are the solutions we called for. Many will be cynical and we have a very long way to go to translate noble aims into real workable policies. But I believe we should never judge people on where they started, but on how far they have travelled. Liam Byrne, Anne McGuire and all those involved have truly listened, not afraid to admit they were wrong. How very rare that is in politics. With continuity and mutual respect, I begin to believe that we can move forward and hopefully leave these dark, dark days behind us.”