Winner of the Orwell Youth Prize 2016 – Years 12 and 13
Free speech is an important and valued right of our society, particularly when compared to other political cultures where this opportunity is not allowed or is curtailed in many ways. Countries such as China, North Korea and Russia do not enjoy this right as we do. I would say however that free speech only really means something if you have a platform with which to use it. Overwhelmingly, white, middle-class, Oxbridge educated politicians and ‘celebrities’ have such a platform to tell people what they do not wish to hear and promote their own views and prejudices. These are the people who are heard and drive the direction of our society. Those without a platform, the poor and vulnerable are effectively voiceless.
Disability benefits is an issue I feel strongly about as my aunt, who is 53 years old and claims disability benefits, has no voice that will be heard. She has diabetes, arthritis, mental health difficulties and a visual impairment, all of which have been made worse by a recent, serious illness, encephalitis. My aunt relies on benefits as she is now unable to work although she has done so in the past in various paid and voluntary positions. She doesn’t drink, smoke or drive and rarely goes out. She certainly doesn’t live in luxury and budgets very carefully to meet all her personal and health needs. She is not a “benefits scrounger” which is often the image portrayed by those with a platform to express their prejudices.
Over the past few years there have been a number of changes to her benefits which, to a point, she has quietly accepted. However, recently she has really started to vent her frustration, anger and fear about changes that have gone too far. For example, she lives in a small, rented two bedroomed terrace and has had her benefits cut under the governments “bedroom tax” even though the second bedroom is used for carers staying and for storing her equipment. She and many others, including a range of disability organisations campaigned about these changes affecting the most vulnerable in our society. The changes were implemented.
No one listened.
In the last budget George Osborne on his platform as Chancellor was able to express his voice about austerity and again the need to cut benefits. In my aunt’s case this meant a cut in her Personal Independence Payments which will fundamentally cost the state more as she is driven much closer to coming into care. My aunt, along with a coalition of twenty five disability charities 1, wrote to the government warning of the implications of the cuts.
No one listened.
Even those with a “bigger platform” on the opposition benches in parliament pointed out the inequality of a reported £55 a week benefit cut for disabled people 2. The shadow minister for disabled people, Debbie Abrahams, said, “Removing the support for people who need help to use the toilet or dress is an attack on dignity”3. At the same time the middle and upper classes were being offered a tax cut.
No one listened.
Change only occurred when the Minister for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith resigned over the issue. The government listened then because of the elevated platform on which Mr Duncan-Smith sat, not because of the voices of thousands of disabled people telling it what it didn’t want to hear.
The authority of the state can cover up, repress or not listen to citizens views if the state feels it may negatively affect its ability to govern. In this country individuals, communities and organisations can tell the government what it doesn’t want to hear traditionally through the written press and television but now with the added avenue of social media. In this respect it can therefore be argued that we all have a greater opportunity to have our voices heard; however in the case of my aunt and millions like her, their voice is not heard. With no meaningful voice, others with a platform for a voice are the ones with real liberty to influence their own and other people’s lives.
Free speech isn’t under attack, what should be under attack is platform privilege. George Osborne, Iain Duncan-Smith and a range of celebrities, such as Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley and Benedict Cumberbatch, enjoy regular and ready access to platforms that the rest of the population can never have. When such platform privilege is used to denigrate and disadvantage the vulnerable and disabled in our society, you’re not a champion of free speech you’re championing your selective right to be heard.
The most poignant thing that my aunt has said to me recently is “It’s not so much being poor that worries me, it’s the total insecurity that I feel constantly having to justify that I need my benefits. I’m made to feel that I am second best and a drain on society”. It is every individual’s right to feel safe and respected in this country and this includes the right to be heard; my question to the government is:
‘Are you really listening?’
In my view you are only listening when it is politically rather than morally convenient to do so.
1 Politics and Insight; Government plans further brutal cuts to Disability Support”; Kitty S Jones 13th March 2016
2 The Independent; George Osborne to use cut in disability benefits to “fund middle class tax giveaway”; Ashley Cowan 12th March 2016
3 www.debbieabrahams.org; Government plans 4.4bn cuts in support of disabled people; Debbie Abrahams 18th March 2016