“Just after 1970, when I was first elected, I remember speaking in a debate about social security with Sir Keith Joseph, the arch-right winger of the Heath days. We all believed at the time that he was going to hit the poor, and of course—in a marginal way, compared with today—he did. However, remarkably, in the Macmillan era and even the in Heath-Keith Joseph era, the welfare state was by and large a status quo. I have to say—I will probably never say it again—that even in the Thatcher years this chaos did not happen. She did a lot of things—she privatised all the public utilities, smashed the pits and all the rest of it—but, by and large, we never had capability assessments or a march by 3,000 blind and disabled people, which was what heralded the beginning of this coalition.
I had never seen such a march. I was on crutches at the time, having had a hip replacement, so I thought that as I qualified for the march, I had better get on it. Blind people were telling me then about what was likely to happen. I hardly believed them, but we now know the truth about the mess that has been created for the people I met at the Atos headquarters last Wednesday. It was not a trade union gathering; it was a different gathering altogether. There were more wheelchairs than there were police. Fancy speaking to a crowd of 70 to 100 people surrounded by wheelchairs. Those people had been crippled for years. Like my constituent, David Cowpe, many of them had been turned down after their work capability assessment, although they were too disabled even to get out of their wheelchair without help.
That crowd I was speaking to was totally different from those at the meetings I took part in at Tower Hill, Pentonville jail and wherever. These were disabled people who wanted someone to speak up for them. There are many of them in the House of Commons today. We met some this morning and there are loads of them—I am told I am not supposed to refer to them—in the Public Gallery, and they are different. This country is made of money, so we are told. The Prime Minister tells us that money is no object—that was what he said—and that was what I told those people last Wednesday. I said, “You know, I wish he’d say money was no object for disabled people.”
It really is a scandal. When I used to do the tribunals for the National Union of Mineworkers, I would represent five people and there would be probably only nine in total at a meeting in Nottingham, but we regarded that as a busy day. Now, with this business of Atos, that lousy, rotten firm that is in charge—for a while anyway, so I am told, before it moves on to other pastures—literally hundreds of thousands of people are being turned down. When I represented people at tribunals, it used to be that we would have an appeal in four weeks and I would be off to Nottingham with those miners, but David Cowpe had cancer and waited 10 months for an appeal, and he died before he had a chance. It is high time that people understood that that is the chaos we are living in today and got rid of this mess.
We need to realise that this is a country with enough money to give those on millionaires’ row a tax cut of more than £150,000 a year. There is enough money for Trident and all kinds of things that Governments love to do, but here we are with an ageing society and a lot more disabled people—what is wrong with that; we should be providing for them—and the reason they are on demonstrations like they never were before is that they are desperate, desperate people who want us to do something to help them. That is what this debate is really about. It is about that Atos demonstration last week when people were saying—not cheering me on, but asking me—“Dennis, do something about it,” and that is what we should be doing today.”
Today’s Tory, dripping with sarcasm, following Dennis Skinner:
Dame Angela Watkinson (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con): “Follow that, as they say. I promise not to play to the Gallery, but it may disappoint the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) to know that I share his poor, working-class credentials.”