Thursday, 19 June 2014

Britain Can Do Better

Dear Ed

Here's a real life scenario for you.

Meg is 16, and in her last few weeks at a specialist school for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, having recently obtained AQA accreditations in English and Maths. In September, she will be embarking on a 3 year Life Skills course at a local (mainstream) 6th form college, during which time she should pick up English and Maths GCSE and hopefully a BTEC qualification which will give her the skills she needs to find employment (although with over 70% of adults with autism claiming out of work benefits, that's not looking promising). We're not sure yet whether this will be a L2 or L3 qualification - it depends how she progresses.

That, of course, is Plan A.

Plan A when she was 11 was that mainstream high school was absolutely the right place for her, and the expectation was that she would manage a clutch of GCSE passes. The last five years, though, have been fraught with difficulty. Adolescence for any teenager is difficult, and for an autistic teenager the travails of high school can be even worse. Suffice to say she couldn't cope and crashed out of school, fairly spectacularly, in Y9. Six months at home with me waiting for the right school place to become available did nothing for her attainment or her self esteem, and we have spent the last two years building that back up with the help of the brilliant staff at her current school. She now sees herself as a learner again, and has started to have confidence in her abilities.

College, of course, is a whole new experience, and if there's one thing guaranteed to spook her it's new experiences! What if she doesn't cope? What if funding cuts mean her course is altered or cut? What - and this is the crux of the matter - if she doesn't achieve the Level 3 standard which is your benchmark for denying JSA to young people?

There are thousands of young people with learning difficulties for whom L3 qualifications and training simply aren't attainable, and I see nothing in these proposals that acknowledges this. What is the plan for these young adults? 

Your whole policy on this seems to be predicated on the assumption that young people are inherently lazy and would rather sign on for JSA than continue learning/training. If that's the case, then why did tens of thousands of young people claim EMA and ALG (at a maximum of £30 a week) instead of simply claiming JSA? Doesn't that suggest that young people do value their education and improving their skills? Why not restore these grants, widen the types of learning that qualifies for assistance, and - crucially- have it administered through local authorities rather than paying tens of millions to the likes of Capita (which is what allowed the coalition to deem it 'unaffordable'). What a positive message to send out - "we will support you", rather than "we will penalise you."

I do have a vested interest here, quite apart from our family's personal circumstances. As a Labour activist, I will be spending large amounts of my free time trying to get a Labour government elected in 11 months' time. I'm just wondering how I'm going to sell this policy on the doorstep? I've been saying we need to target the youth vote in 2015, but why on earth should they vote for us on the basis of policies like this? Many of the people in our constituency know all about the social security system (probably more than some of the PLP!), and aren't fooled by the 'getting tough on welfare' rhetoric that might play well with the Daily Mail. "Getting tough" (or, more accurately, "grinding people down even more") doesn't engender the sense of hope which ordinary people really need after 5 years of the coalition's onslaught on them. 

I've tried to look beyond the headlines and the spin from the mainstream press, but I still get the sense that, at its heart, this policy is still based on the view that "everyone can achieve if only they try hard enough." They can't. For some, Level 3 simply isn't attainable, no matter how hard they try. And I see nothing that addresses this. 

A few weeks ago, I was invited to answer a Labour Party survey, in which I stated that I wanted the party to be "Compassionate". 

I also noted at the time that rights for disabled people didn't figure in your list of things Labour should be addressing in the future. 

I'm beginning to see why.

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