Friday, 20 February 2015
The Ugly Side of the Jersey Conservative Party
This past week has been by far the most difficult I have faced since being elected as a States Member almost a year ago. Not because I have faced any particularly difficult circumstances personally, but because the sheer gall of the Jersey Tories has disgusted me more than it ever has.
If a government wants to screw up it's tax priorities, that is irritating and an injustice, but we'll find a way of dealing with it and keep up the fight.
If a government wants to mess up a development project, it'll be an eyesore for years to come, but at least no one will be hurt by it.
If a government wants to damage a relationship with an important partner, we can rebuild it over time.
But what I absolutely cannot stomach is a government which has no regard at all for the needs of vulnerable ill people and is quite happy to propose and consider measures which will directly cause them unbearable hardship.
What we have seen virtually non-stop from the government over the past few weeks has been an unapologetic attack at some of our Island's most vulnerable.
It started when our Social Security Minister made the news (11th February) claiming that there would be no money to fund any potential surge in GP visits, after another GP's surgery had announced it would allow free appointments for children.
This came after the Health Minister Senator Andrew Green had said that he wanted to see an increase in the subsidy to GPs so that they could lower their prices to the public to make it more affordable, but had backed down after discussing it with the Social Security Minister.
Reform Jersey's Deputy Geoff Southern had to publicly intervene to point out that actually the Health Insurance Fund has reserves of around £86m, and could easily fund any potential surge, and that the Minister's comments were scaremongering and irresponsible.
We had the front page headline on 17th telling us that Islanders may face extra charges for health care. Finally an admission from the Treasury that we are scheduled for a £50m budget deficit by 2019 if action isn't taken now, but instead of a progressive solution, the targets are the sick, who may have to face user-pays services. The Health Minister said that all options would be on the table, when any Health Minister worthy of the title should have the guts to say that no option which includes charging vulnerable people for services should be on the table.
Finally we had the news yesterday that, from Monday, the Social Security Minister has decided that more people on Long Term Incapacity Allowance will be required to look for work, or face their Income Support being cut, and on top of that, we might reintroduce prescription charges too!
This truly is the ugly side of the Jersey Conservative Party.
If you didn't believe it before, it is now surely undeniable that austerity has hit our shores.
When discussing the prospect of raising social security contributions to fund the projected benefits/ pension shortfall in the future, not a single word was said about targeting those rises on those who are most able to pay.
You know, in Jersey social security contributions are capped on incomes up to £150,000. That means somebody earning above that amount will personally be paying a lower rate of contributions than their cleaner will (as well as paying about half the amount of income tax they would be in the UK, but that's another matter).
Rather than indicate that the government will raise necessary funds by raising that cap, instead their first option is to target people with physical and mental illnesses.
When I received the email to inform me of this (which I received just two hours after the deadline for me to lodge a question in the States on it, obviously just a coincidence...) my stomach turned and I could not believe what I had read. I passed it to a colleague who exclaimed "oh my God" as she read it.
If the first port of call to make savings is for the social security department to target sick people, then there is no greater evidence of the moral repugnance of this government. I utterly condemn anyone who, when asked where they would make savings, their first answer is "let's cut benefits for sick people".
Whilst there are indeed many people who suffer from illnesses who could work, the arbitrary answer that has seen the minister randomly choose 350 people to be targeted, seems to me to be destined to cause trouble and hardship for people who don't deserve it.
The minister says this is about encouraging people into work. But it is actually about threatening people into work, at a time when there is no anti-discrimination law for disabled people, and when it is difficult enough for people to get into work even if they aren't sick.
Deputy Tadier makes this point well here -
There are many vulnerable and disabled people in the Island who are being let down.
Myself and my Reform Jersey colleagues regularly meet people who suffer from disabilities, cannot work and are not getting better, but because of the illogical tick-box nature of impairment assessments, they can lose their benefits and there is nothing they can do about it, except just descend into greater poverty.
I know of one woman who was downgraded every year running for several years, until the department realised they had got it wrong, just 5 days before she died of her illness, having spent the last years of her life going through unimaginable stress as a result.
I know of another person who has ended up in hospital as a result of the stress that she could not handle with her mental illness when the department told her she would lose her Income Support if she didn't start looking for work.
In the UK we have heard all sorts of horror stories of people who have been forced into work after medical reassessments were made by a private (profit-making) firm seeking to meet targets, who have died from their illnesses, or even committed suicide because of the stress.
This is not the road to follow.
I say to the government, have some compassion for goodness sake.
Illness affects everybody in different ways. There is no possible arbitrary form that can decide whether someone is fit for work or if they aren't. And if they are fit for work, how do you know that the stress of being forced to look for work and failing time after time because of the state of our economy isn't actually going to affect their mental health and make them worse?
By all means encourage people into work, but you have to create the jobs first, otherwise you're simply setting up vulnerable people to face failure after failure whilst the shadow of destitution and poverty looms over them.
This is not the moral way to act.
Jersey is in difficult financial times, and there must be a serious discussion about how we get out of the situation which has been caused by successive Jersey Tory Party governments. Those discussions have to include the option of raising taxes on those who are most able to pay, otherwise it is the poorest in our society who will be hit the hardest, like they always are.
Austerity causes misery for the most vulnerable in our society, and I and my party colleagues will fight to oppose it with every last breath we have.