Government plans to force mental health service-users into work and cut their disability benefits are like “throwing a hand grenade into people’s lives”, according to activists who staged a protest in London this week.
More than 80 activists took part in the demonstration at Speaker’s Corner – in which they burned a two-faced effigy of David Cameron and George Osborne to demonstrate their anger at the cuts – despite cold, wet weather.
A string of service-users made speeches expressing their anger at the coalition government’s cuts and their fear at the impact they would have on people with mental health conditions.
At the end of the protest – organised by the group Mad Pride – the effigy of Cameron and Osborne, which had been hanging from a tree, was lowered to the ground, disembowelled and set on fire.
This was followed by a two-minute “scream” in memory of those who have committed suicide and others who may do so because of the cuts in benefits.
Denise McKenna, who has been involved in the survivor movement for 18 years, said people were “distraught” at the proposed cuts.
She said: “People are seriously unwell and yet they are worried about their benefits – it’s appalling.
“People are worried that they are going to be forced to work when they can barely string a sentence together.”
Even if their claim for the new employment and support allowance (ESA) is successful, she said, they fear that they will be “hounded constantly to get to work”.
She said the anger and fear was even greater than over the introduction of community treatment orders (CTOs) in 2008.
She said: “People were upset about CTOs, but this is bigger. This is throwing a hand grenade into people’s lives.”
Helen, another protester, who has paranoid schizophrenia, said she had tried working but it made her too ill. Although she claims ESA – the replacement for incapacity benefit – she suspects the government will try to force her back to work.
And because she is 30 years old, she now fears losing her flat, because new age limits announced by Osborne in the spending review mean housing benefit claimants under 35 – instead of 25 – will have to share flats or houses instead of being able to rent their own flat.
She said: “How can I live in a shared house? I am absolutely terrified.”
Debbie McNamara, a founder member of Mad Pride, told the protest: “People think that we are sitting at home malingering…they should see the effort that goes into getting a night’s sleep so you can function the next day. Preserve our dignity and stop trying to destabilise and marginalise people.”
Jenny Simpson, another activist who attended the protest, said: “There is anger and there is terror.”
She said a lot of people were scared that they would have to leave their homes because of cuts to housing benefit. She pointed to the London borough of Hackney, which has one of the highest numbers of people with mental health conditions in the country, but also has high rents because of “gentrification”.
Campaigners distributed copies of a new pack aimed at supporting people who have been claiming long-term incapacity benefit, and will be reassessed through the controversial work capability assessment over the next three-and-a-half years.
The pack criticises the test as “nonsensical” and says it is “designed to ensure that as many of us as possible fail the test even though they know that [we]may never get a job due to stigma, no jobs around or just not being well enough to work”.
Mark Roberts, another founder member of Mad Pride, called for campaigners to link up with other groups campaigning against the cuts, including people with learning difficulties and other impairments, and the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network.
26 October 2010