Thursday 16 February 2012

Spartacus: The Responsible Reform Report

It is now a couple of months since I co-authored what became known as the Spartacus Report as the main author Dr S.J.Campbell. The results were beyond our wildest hopes. The Responsible Reform report is thought to have played a part in the government defeats in the House of Lords votes as well as in obtaining the concessions in parts of the Welfare Reform Bill. But perhaps most importantly, hundreds if not thousands of disabled people came together in a way we had not foreseen. Many feel less alone and still more are now taking a far more active part in fighting these reforms. I see disabled people all over the net proudly announcing that they are "Spartacus".

This makes it all worthwhile. It is well known that many of the Spartacus report creators are very ill as a result of all the campaigning, the most famous of whom are naturally Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin who have been tirelessly active for the past 18 months.

What is less well known is how the Responsible Reform came about and how close Spartacus came to never happening at all.

I would first of all like to thank the group of people who placed the FOI (Freedom of Information) requests which enabled us to get hold of the 500 odd group responses to the DLA consultation. Without this forward thinking step nothing would ever have happened.

This data was then passed on to Sue Marsh who started to look through it and recruited a few volunteers to assist. I became one of these quite by accident having offered to help after she mentioned she was doing a "research project" in one of her blog posts.
Over the next few months people simply read the data and tried to sort through it in an ordered way. However most of the volunteers fell by the wayside.

On December 06th all hell broke loose. I received a panicky email from Sue saying we still had half the data to go through but only a week and no volunteers left.
This was "crunch time". I doubted Sue could manage on her own. On the other hand if I offered to help I knew it would be a mammoth task and my health would suffer hugely. I spent 3 hours wrestling with myself before winning through and saying I would do it. It was a very close call. The Spartacus Report probably nearly ended there and then.

As it turned out we still had a month left. I went through all the remaining data as fast as I could and summarised it. A delighted Sue pointed me towards the Government's response to the consultation and asked if I could have a "quick look" and note down any discrepancies.

After a moment of pure disbelief reading the government's report I set to work. By this time I was extremely ill and could only work 15 minutes per hour. I was pushing myself to the limits to get it done knowing that if I didn't no one else would and it would all be in vain. I sent the result to Sue whose response was "crikey it is a bloody thesis!". This now forms the backbone of the Spartacus report: the section dismantling argument by argument the government's response to the DLA/PIP consultation. Sue was so excited by it she decided to pull out all the stops, deciding that we finally had something that could upset the government.

My job now thank goodness was ended for the time being and I retired to bed for a full 5 days.

Over the Christmas period Sue now recruited and coordinated other people to add to the report and turn it into the finished product, notably Declan Gaffney who wrote the statistics section. Sue herself wrote the executive summary and the press release. Kaliya was brought in to write a conclusion and others came in to help with editing, formatting and the important job of checking details, finding quotes and regulations. These include Mason Dixon, Leigh James, Sam Barnett-Cormack , Rhydian Fon-James, Dawn Willis and a few others. It is a sad indication of the times that these last wish to stay anonymous for fear of repercussions from the DWP or others.

Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin then used their extensive media contacts they had painstakingly build up over the past 18 months to prepare for the release of the report. With the help of the other Responsible Reform contributors they planned their attack.

At this stage the wider disability community finally got involved although secrecy was still kept. Funds were needed for the printing and distributing of the report to all the MPs and peers ahead of the voting. It is a measure of the trust people have in Sue Marsh that the £2000 required was raised within 24 hours of an appeal being launched on her blog despite the full details of its purpose being kept secret.

Other people also got involved in a more practical way, volunteering to print, post and help in any way they could. Others volunteered to be constituency reps and contact their MPs on the day of release.

Finally the Responsible Reform Report was launched on Monday January 09th and soon became dubbed the Spartacus Report. I opened my own twitter account as Spoonydoc and joined the other authors and helpers in making as much noise as we could. It worked! #spartacusreport trended all day on twitter and received support from celebrities such as  Stephen FryJohn PrescottAlastair CampbellBilly BraggVal McDermidKate LongJulie HesmondhalghSue Perkins and Tim Minchin. It is now said to be the most successful social media activism ever.

Disabled people everywhere appeared to finally find their voice. The Lords found themselves deluged by emails pleading to fight the Welfare Reform Bill. This added to the work already done by other disability groups such as DPAC, black triangle, and various charities started to count.

The government was defeated by no less than 7 amendments in the House of Lords and concessions were made on other issues including the roll out of PIP.

As for the Spartacus Report, initially ignored by the mainstream media, that all changed.  Sue Marsh appeared on Newsnight, and others including Kaliya Franklin appeared on numerous radio shows. Perhaps most importantly disability was finally shown in a positive light with supportive articles from newspapers traditionally full of "scrounger" rhetoric such as the Daily Mail. I would like to thank Sonya Poulton for her efforts in this. However the effort of all this had by now as we know taken its toll on the likes of Sue and Kaliya.  I myself am still recovering from writing the report itself two months on. Seriously ill, I have been unable to resume any disability campaigning at all and am finding it frustrating watching others work themselves to the ground without being able to help them.

Disappointingly the government resorted to "financial privilege" to overturn these defeats and push ahead with its bill. Now back in the Lords, further amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill have been won and more concessions awarded, but the future still looks bleak for many. However we must remember that it is better than it could have been.

The fight though must continue. And it seems that many disabled people want "Spartacus" to be a part of this.

Astonishingly what started as a report into a fudged government consultation has now become a loose informal disability movement.

My hope is that "Spartacus" will help by giving every disabled person assistance, ideas and opportunities to do their bit however small. Because that is the only way we can hope to win this.

If you think it is impossible for you to help, a simple example is signing Pat's petition and asking people you know to do so too.

Some wonderful people have come forward to help "Spartacus". They have written a simplified version of the new draft PIP criteria for instance. They were also involved in helping Sue write the briefing for the Lords ahead of the voting on Tuesday February 14th.

There is a Facebook page for people who want to be involved as well as a website hub for information and ideas so that everyone can do something.

Have a look. And become "Spartacus".