More Bills

Bollocks. I’m just going to write what I feel and deal with the fallout later.

In 1992, I went to see the Gloria theatre company’s marvellous musical adaptation of the Ruth Rendell book, “A Judgement In Stone.” Sheila Hancock won several awards for her lead role as the housekeeper, Eunice. As I had to wait for my wife to finish her business in the Ladies, I missed the opening three minutes of the play. What I didn’t realise until many months later is that the production had used the conceit, rather like Blood Brothers, and given the ending away in the first scene. So, ignorant of this, I watched on in horror as the nice, benevolent Ms Hancock was revealed to be a mass killer in a terrifying denouement.

Why do I keep thinking of this play whenever I read anything about the much publicized Downs Syndrome Bill?

I’ve been trying to write this blog for the past few days, but keep deleting big chunks of it. Through fear. The fear of saying something that will be seen as heinous.

I think the people with DS who have appeared in all the publicity are being used.

There, I’ve said it. What an awful, bloody patronizing and condescending thought. Block me. Unfollow me.

A few years back I spoke at the Learning Disability Annual Conference. There were several stalls in the main foyer of the venue. One was run by Mencap and there were about four people with downs syndrome handing out leaflets, all wearing T shirts with the words, “We Are Here” emblazoned on them. The Mencap people who didn’t have a learning disability weren’t wearing the T Shirts. I was so unsettled by this, I gave up on the conference and retired to the bar for the rest of the day.

Between 1998 and 2013, I worked for a counselling agency that hired rooms in a church in Uxbridge. Every Monday and Friday, the main vestibule was handed over to a local disability group for their cafe. On a typical day, there would be five people running the cafe: three people with learning disabilities, a young lad with cerebal palsy and an elderly, matriarchal figure, peculiarly reminiscent of Sheila Hancock before she went on her killing spree. Nobody wore T Shirts with trite messages on. If your cheese toastie arrived undercooked or burnt, you could complain to any of the five staff on duty. It was chaotic, but it didn’t just feel inclusive; it was inclusive.

So why do I keep getting a sinister edge to the DS Bill. At face value, it reads (and I’ve read it several times) as a particularly wooly piece of writing. It doesn’t even feel like a piece of legislation at all. I can’t imagine, if the bill is passed, it ever being used in a Court to hold an official body to account. It’s all about encouraging authorities to do the right thing, rather than compelling them. And let’s face it, if the authorities are still willfully ignoring or abusing the Mental Capacity Act 16 years after it became law, what chance does a Bill that only nudges people to act lawfully have? We’ve already got tons of laws anyway. I’ve used the MCA in the above sentence as an example, but I could quite easily have used the Care Act, the Equalities Act, the Autism Act and several others.

Lots of commentators have cited the fact that the Bill only focuses on one group of disabled people as problematic. I must admit, I’m not too fussed by that. Look at the mess the LGBT+ community are in for trying to satisfy the needs of very diverse groups of people. If the people behind the DS Bill can come up with a compelling case as to why this group needs its own legislation, then good on them, is how I feel. Up until now, I haven’t read anything that makes the case that there is good reason why this Bill only applies to one group. I’ve seen several people behind the Bill, rather benevolently assure doubters that other groups will benefit in the slipstream of the Bill. That may be true, but it doesn’t stand as a reason for the Bill’s narrow remit.

Some of the criticism I’ve read, although well meaning, tries to drill down in to a Bill that is utterly vacuous. It’s like taking a Black & Decker to fresh air. Two of the usual complaints have reared their head. Why is it being driven by families and allies and not learning disabled people? I guess it’s a fair point, but it’s a distraction. Another distraction is the predictable debate about Easy Read versions of the Bill. To me, that’s another red herring. Steven, like many of his peers, can neither read nor write, so an Easy Read version would be as useless as the full version. It’s a discussion for another day, but I’d like to see verbal and visual presentations of the Bill rather than clip art easy read versions. That might bring a few more people into the loop.

Some of the groups who have been plugging the Bill to death are just plain bizarre. Or perhaps to avoid libel, I should say that their involvement is bizarre, not the groups themselves. Christian Conservatives? Traditional Catholic Femininity? When did their charabanc of support suddenly arrive on the scene? And as ungracious as it may sound, when you see Jacob Rees Mogg taking part in a photoshoot with some cuddly youngsters with DS, one can’t help but bring to mind Robert Helpman as the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I’m going to end in what the Bill’s backers would probably describe as entering into paranoid territory. If the intent behind something isn’t clear, then one starts to assume there may be a hidden agenda. This Bill seems to have come out of nowhere. It raises far more questions than it answers. It hasn’t got any welly to it. It hasn’t even brought on board all the people it claims to represent. It has used people for its own ends.

What the bloody hell is the point of it?

4 thoughts on “More Bills”

  1. I suspect that the reason why the ghastly Jacob Rees Mogg, the worst advertisement for Catholicism one can imagine, is upfront is because of the recent publicity about Downs Syndrome and abortion being allowed beyond the cut off point of 24 weeks. And if it’s being sponsored by the equally ghastly Liam Fox I can’t see it getting very far.

  2. I’ll have a go at explaining what I think is going on.

    The Bill is just part of a slick and professional campaign to recast Down’s, not as a disability but as a lifestyle choice. Choosing the American version of the name is all part of the ‘rebranding’, to use the marketing term. It has been brought about by a remarkable synergy between pro-life activists and with those parents, especially newer parents and pro-life parents, who are determinedly optimistic about their kids (and quite rightly so; all children need the total support of their parents).

    As with any decent campaign, it has its Celebrity Endorsements (Sally Phillips, Dominic Lawson), opinion articles in the papers (‘Could this be the last generation of Down’s syndrome children’, Daily Telegraph, 1st October is a recent example) and even its own BBC documentary (Sally Phillips, again). The Bill itself can’t do much of substance that isn’t covered by existing legislation (that’s the Government’s original view, not mine), but it’s a grand opportunity to get Down’s (sorry, Down) into the limelight.

    But this publicity comes at a terrible cost.

    The campaign found Dr Liam Fox to sponsor the Bill, apparently unfazed by his previous record on disability. He has been in the Cabinet for four of the past eleven years of Tory Austerity and a close friend and colleague of David Cameron. When Cameron was seeking election back in 2010, it was very encouraging that a politician who had had a disabled child was about to become PM. Surely there would be a degree of empathy with other parents of disabled kids? Emphatically not so, once elected. His ‘caring parent’ phase was now over and replaced by crude politics. Cameron was now only interested in demonstrating his party’s ‘fiscal responsibility’ to voters and looked round for soft targets.

    The result has been an eleven year program of taking money and resources from the disabled, which continues to this day and beyond. Worse still, he backed this up by repeated use of the poisonous phrase ‘hard-working’ – an invitation to the electorate to resent having any of their taxes go towards supporting those who aren’t, apparently, ‘hard-working’. This ‘demonisation of the disabled’ has been a remarkably successful political strategy. Sally Phillips had noticed by 2016 that ‘There is already a new kind of pernicious discrimination towards disabled people, the idea that they are scroungers’. Full marks then, not just to Cameron but to all Tory MPs, including Fox. Job done!

    You might well imagine that, given this background, any self-respecting disability campaign would be taking the opportunity of Parliamentary time to rub the Government’s nose in the misery and suffering caused by eleven years of persecution. Not so here. Fox and the Government (which he’d really like to rejoin) can’t believe their luck in coming across a campaign so desperate for publicity that they are prepared to throw themselves (and the rest of us) under the wheels of the Tory Austerity juggernaut. A campaign so besotted with their Bill that they are oblivious to the wasteland of cuts all around them. A campaign seemingly unaware that legislation without the funds to back it up is worse than pointless – it looks good to the outside observer who can then, in all innocence, walk away from the problem which now appears to be solved. The Government, less innocently, welcomes a disability campaign that is galloping towards them, proferring Cakeism on a Plate. No mention, let alone criticism, of past and continuing austerity but the glorious opportunity for the Government to parade their caring credentials by the unusual step of supporting this Private Members Bill.

    It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The Bill will consist of requirements that the Government can dump on local authorities and then blame them for ‘inefficiencies’ when nothing much happens (because there is no money). Central Government despises Local Government, so it’s nice to have another stick to beat the country bumpkins with. Tory councillors are the ‘useful idiots’ of the Party; they can be relied on to do the dirty work of austerity by carrying out the necessary cuts to Childrens Services and Adult Social Care. They then appear on the local news programmes, wringing their hands, looking anguished and claiming that they had taken ‘a very difficult decision’. Opposition councillors are to be kept even more firmly in their place. The spectre of ‘Red Ken’ still haunts the Party.

    The gift keeps giving even more for Fox himself. Bringing home this PR triumph in defiance of all that is just and rational surely guarantees him another Ministerial role. Even better, he is eagerly anticipating bringing in ‘world-leading’ legislation and basking in the adulation. It’s just such a shame that the rest of the world is unlikely to be at all impressed. The UN’s view in 2018: ‘The active, deliberate and persistent maltreatment of Britain’s disabled people has gone beyond critical levels’.

    I could go on (and on), but that’s probably enough for now.

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