I was at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton this week.
A lot going on both inside and outside the Hall, not least that as the Party’s spokesman on all matters related to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), I spoke at a number of Fringe events and had meetings with various leading organisations over concerns they had with the government’s performance at the DWP. One of which was the upcoming national rollout of Universal Credit (UC). This is something you’ve probably read and heard about in the media but unless some drastic changes are made soon, you will read a lot more about next year and not for the right reasons. From June 2019 the DWP will begin “managed migration” of up to three million benefit claimants onto UC, a system which in my and others opinion (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) still retains too many flaws. According to their own figures, a third of these are identified as being either disabled or having long-term medical conditions, as all have been through the Work Capability Assessment. This “managed migration” process will see individuals start receiving letters next year telling them that they must register online. The beginning of a convoluted process which claimants have only one month to complete. On receipt of the letter they are asked to go into the local Job Centre to prove their identity. Having done this they must go online to register, and once completed then required to pay a second visit to the Job Centre to validate registration. Following this, it is expected that there will be one further visit to the Job Centre within the month to clear up any outstanding problems.
To you or I, this may not sound too arduous but imagine if you have learning disabilities or mental health issues, or you may have mobility problems affecting your ability to actually get to a Job Centre three times within the month?
And here’s the rub - if someone doesn’t manage to complete the process within the 30 days or makes a mistake in their application, they will be automatically ejected from the system, and will have to begin their claim from scratch. And lose their benefit in the meantime!
This is both profoundly worrying and unfair. These are hundreds of thousands of people who’ve recently had their disability assessed and acknowledged by the DWP, yet they’ll have just one month to complete a relatively complicated transfer application to Universal Credit or else.
Regulations for the process are to be presented to Parliament at the end of next month, so I will be pressing Secretary of State Esther McVey to listen to representations from disability charities. They’re genuinely alarmed a potential human disaster is in the making.
The media also got terribly exercised at conference over my promise, during the referendum, to accept the result. As you know although I have always been clear I personally believe the UK would be better off remaining in the EU, I’d equally made it clear during the referendum that I gave my word I would accept whatever the final result was. Facing a barrage of press interviews during conference some of the journalists appeared to be getting more and more furious that I wasn’t moving from my promise. It was an interesting exercise in observing the TV media’s desire for what’s known as a ‘gotcha’ moment. Their purpose being less to shed light on an issue but more to catch the interviewee out. I kept my calm and repeated my position. Some reporters find it extraordinary that I really do mean it when I say that if I give my word to Eastbourne, I keep it.
In the news this week is a report over the utterly shambolic rail timetable changes we had to put up with. Amongst a number of damning conclusions, it said that “nobody took charge” and the train operators “did not properly warn passengers”. One of the biggest conundrums in Westminster, it’s almost a running joke amongst MPs, is why does the Prime Minister keep the transport minister, Chris Grayling, in post? He’s a sort of indestructible, speak your weight minister who fouls up every department he’s ever been in but continues surviving another day. Perhaps this report, which specifically criticises him for signing off on a key change to services that was a principal factor behind the ultimate failure of the new timetable rollout, will be the end of him? I doubt it. I’m beginning to believe he’ll still be in government in 100 years’ time, trailing disaster in his wake.
On a more positive note: two great events coming up this and next weekend locally. On Saturday and Sunday we have Wyntercon in Princes Park. I’m opening it on the Saturday before my surgery. It’s always enormous fun so if you want to see and experience sci fi, cosplay and fantasy at its best, do check it out. You can’t miss it - it’s being held in a giant (and I mean giant) tent in Princes Park. www.wyntercon.org/
And the other event which is on the following weekend, is the Eastbourne’s Jazz Festival. It’s a new event which I’m really hopeful will become an annual staple. I have the privilege of being its patron and as with Wyntercon know the organisers well. They’re local, top of their game and each are keen to really help put Eastbourne on the map in both genres. You can buy tickets online here: www.splashpointjazz.club and at the Tourist Information Centre. I’m disappointed that I’ll be missing it - Cherine and I are off on hols next week - but if that’s your thing, or Wyntercon or both, please drop by. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.
That’s it folks. I’m away for 10 days from next week, so my column will return Friday October 12.