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RIP Karen Sherlock, Another Victim of the Tories’ Brutal, Heartless Disability Reforms

Andy Worthington

June 14, 2012

Since coming to power in May 2010, through a Frankenstein’s Monster coalition with the Lib Dems, the Tories have embarked on the most sustained and unprecedented assault on the British state in history, and seem determined to turn back the clock to a time before notions of universal suffrage, of education and healthcare for all, and a welfare state that would look after the most vulnerable and unfortunate members of society took effect.

In this savage world, in which, for ideological reasons — and using the global economic crash of 2008 as an excuse for punishing those who had nothing to do with it, and allowing the rich crooks to escape scot-free — the Tories and their Lib Dem stooges have been pushing a criminally deceptive message: that everything that has not yet been privatised must be privatised, and that the state provision of services is unaffordable, and must must be brought to an end.

Amazingly, the government has largely been getting away with its lies, shielding irresponsible and almost unthinkably greedy bankers and corporate tax avoiders from scrutiny, and these 21st century neo-liberal butchers, whose policy decisions are all filtered through an un-Christian, cruel, myopic and destructive worldview, have even succeeded in making people believe that, although we, the taxpayers, pay over £500 billion to the government in tax and national insurance every year, we no longer have any right to demand that any of that money — any of it — is used for the state provision of services like health, education, or welfare.

In the field of healthcare, the government has succeeded in passing legislation aimed at introducing such relentless competition into the NHS that it will gradually cease to be a universal provider of healthcare for everyone, and when it comes to education, Michael Gove has been busy privatising state schools through the academies programme, and was recently crowing about how taxpayer-funded state schools will be able to become profit-making businesses in a second Tory term in office — one which, hopefully, exists only in his dreams.

The government has already done away with the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which helped poorer children stay in education for their A levels, and at university level the transformation has been even more savage. In the fields of the arts, humanities and social sciences, the government has completely transferred the financial burden of university education onto the individual, removing direct state support, and, instead, tripling tuition fees and loaning students the money to pay for their courses.

This is ferociously expensive, and no one in government has a clue how much will actually be repaid, as ministers cannot possibly know how many students will earn the £21,000 minimum that triggers repayments. In the meantime, however, ministers are happy to gamble with the future of Britain’s universities, as potential students wonder if, for example, Germany’s universities, which are largely free, might be a better bet than paying £50,000 in the UK, and to destroy the last vestiges of social mobility that were so prevalent when they were young, but that are now being exterminated.

Most damaging of all, however, are the effects of the Tories’ callous cuts to welfare provisions for the most vulnerable members of society, and their drive towards forced, unpaid labour. I will never forgive the Tories for deciding, as soon as they took power, to punish the unemployed for having no work, and for selling the idea that they were all feckless scroungers, when there was only one job for every five jobseekers, as I regard that kind of lying and punishment as despicable.

Nevertheless, through various workfare programmes, unemployed people are being made to perform unpaid work for well-known corporations and companies that could easily afford to pay them, on the basis that they will otherwise lose their benefits and be hurled into absolute poverty.

In other cruel measures, the government has capped overall welfare payments at £500 a week, which sounds like a lot, but almost all of that is paid to landlords, who are evading any kind of scrutiny about how much they are exploiting their tenants, in a rental market that is out of control, and in which tenants have no rights at all, and landlords have no rules set about how they must behave. In the renting world, it seems, greed is unfettered.

This is bad enough, but the real evil — and I use the word evil advisedly — is to be found in the government’s treatment of the long-term disabled, which particular came to the fore earlier this year with the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill, with its planned axing of £18 billion in benefits. Like the unemployed in general, severely disabled people — the most vulnerable members of society — have also been cynically portrayed as scroungers, and the government has been subjecting them to tests designed to establish that almost everyone who is severely mentally and/or physically disabled is, in fact, fit for work.

The tests are cynically administered by Atos Healthcare, a division of the giant French IT firm, which, even more cynically, is sponsoring the Paralympic Games, and the misery that is being inflicted on the disabled is deeply shocking, as people who cannot work are being declared fit for work, and are then losing the state benefit of £96 a week (in other words, slightly less than £5,000 a year) that, to date, have enabled them to live with some measure of dignity. As I noted in an article six weeks ago, entitled Today the Tories Took £100 A Week from Some of the UK’s Most Disabled People: How Can This Be Right?, the government has decided to cut the £96 a week paid to disabled people in Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) after a year, which is a savage and unjustifiable policy, and I was also appalled to discover that, if a disabled person has a partner earning just £7,500 a year — yes, you read that right — they will now receive no benefits whatsoever.

Last year, I wrote an article entitled, Brutal Benefit Cuts for the Disabled Are Leading to Suicides in the UK, describing how some disabled people simply cannot cope with the effects of the government’s savage cuts. And while these stories are at the sharpest end of the impact of the cuts, people should be aware that, across the country, disabled people are now living in poverty, largely hidden and largely housebound, although it also remains true that some disabled people are still dying as a direct effect of the cuts.

One of these people, I learned this week, was a brave campaigner against the cuts, a severely disabled woman named Karen Sherlock, who died of a heart attack on June 8, most probably because of the stress of the constant struggle against the government’s malevolent policies.

Below I’m cross-posting her friend Sue Marsh’s article for the New Statesman and for her own blog, Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, as well as an article that Karen herself wrote in April. I never met her, but I understood her struggle, and that of all the other disabled people who are being ignored by society as a whole — or, even worse, being reviled as scroungers — and I hope that, if this scandal is news to you, you will become engaged to bring this disgrace to an end. For more information, check out The Spartacus Report, and please, if you’re in the UK, sign the e-petition entitled, "Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families."

How many more disabled people will die frightened that their benefits will be taken away?
By Sue Marsh, New Statesman, June 11, 2012

Karen Sherlock faced endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms — all as she battled to survive

I’m a disability campaigner. I’m not sure I ever set out to be — indeed that anyone does — but that is what I became.

You may have read some of the reasons here. Perhaps you’ve skimmed a few articles on ESA — the Employment & Support Allowance — tutted a shocked tut at cancer patients on chemotherapy sent to the job centre to find work. Perhaps you’ve sat open mouthed at the idea of one of the richest nations on earth arguing over just how terminally ill you need to be to get the gracious sum of £96 per week to survive with at least some dignity.

Maybe you heard that this government believes that for almost all conditions, one year is now considered enough to find work. You may have heard Chris Grayling, the Work and Pensions minister, tell you that it doesn’t matter whether people are better, or if they have found work, we simply can’t afford them any more. Their benefits will be stopped if they have a partner who earns just £7,500 a year or more.

You may have heard of this blind, deaf, tube-fed, non verbal, disabled man deemed fit for work by the DWP, or Jan Morgan, unable to look after herself after a severe stroke yet also told she must seek work. You may have heard of very many others. You may even have found these stories hard to believe. I’m not sure that I would blame you. For if we believe these stories, where do they leave us? Where do they leave claims that we are "protecting the most vulnerable"?

But today, I want to tell you about Karen Sherlock, because she was my friend.

Karen was extremely unwell. Here, in Karen’s own words are her medical conditions:


I urge you all to read this post, written by Karen just two months ago. It details a process many of us who are sick or disabled know all too well. Apply for ESA, get "assessed" by Atos, the private company charged with making these life or death decisions, get turned down for ESA, found "fit for work" or put in the wrong group, appeal decision, win tribunal, get a new letter demanding you attend another assessment, repeat the entire process until you despair, ground down by the misery.

My ESA is being stopped……………

Now, I have turned over in my mind how they can do this to me.

Where it is going to leave us money-wise and what we can do about it? The answer is;  I don’t know.

I am not entitled to a penny more due to having a husband that works too many hours and brings in too much money. I am worried and frightened, I do not see how they can just snatch this away from me. I am chronically ill and I am never going to get better, not even with the transplant will I feel better, all my conditions cannot be magically cured.

Karen faced all of this as she battled just to survive. Endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms. She was one of those whose ESA was time-limited — and what’s more, it was limited retrospectively, leaving her with just a few months to appeal for long term support.

What I want to tell you today is that she was frightened. Terrified in fact. She was terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.

She was scared for her future, scared for her family. She had no idea how they would survive when she lost the little support they relied on. Her husband works, cares for a sick wife and they had "done the right thing". Do you hear me Iain Duncan Smith? David Cameron? Nick Clegg? Ed Miliband? Her family had done the "right thing", at least in your narrow world of workers and shirkers.

Despite her own terror, she tried to tell her country, her peers, her friends — even journalists — what was happening to her and thousands like her, but shocked tuts didn’t save her. Open mouths and disgust didn’t save Karen; they didn’t save my friend. Perhaps no one could have, but those who hold and abuse power could have eased her fear or reassured her that they would act.

Karen died on June 8 from a suspected heart attack. I’ll leave you with her own words, from the end of her final post on April 29:

We need to be passionate about standing up for our rights, and if we can make enough noise, and get enough people to listen then we can overturn the inhumane changes this parasitic government have made.  If nothing else, we do still have hope and our rights on our side.

Will we listen? Will Karen’s story be the one to convince us that enough is enough? Or will we turn a blind eye, continue to look away?

I hope not. There are dangerous historical precedents.

When winning isn’t enough
By Sue Marsh, Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, June 12, 2012

As many of you know, I spent yesterday making sure that as many people as possible heard about the death of Karen Sherlock and the fear and exhaustion of her final months.

I did what a writer does. I wrote. Then I wrote again. I tweeted the great and the good, charities and politicians and I made them hear her story. But all through the madness of a story spreading around the world, I don’t need to think. It’s only when the messages slow down and the journalists stop calling that I face what the fury of writing tried so hard to soothe. Karen had died and I couldn’t save her.

In the epic fight against the Welfare Reform Bill, we campaigners chose our weapons. Some polished the sword of truth to use against large corporations like Atos, responsible for so many of these terrible decisions that ruin lives. Some concentrated on the shields to protect the Independent Living Fund, others on exposing the lies of our politicians in parliament. Yet more dug up news stories and challenged social care cuts.

But I focused on Employment & Support Allowance and most specifically, Government plans to time limit sickness benefits for all but the most desperately ill or disabled to just one year. It’s ironic that I came to be known for the Spartacus Report, exposing the myths behind Disability Living Allowance, because actually, it was not my greatest battle.

So, last night, exhausted and horribly deflated at the news that had had hovered over us all for so long, finally a reality — the death of one of our warriors — I suddenly felt enormously and helplessly angry.

I’d worked with Liberal Democrats for months to persuade them, oh so carefully to first hold a vote at their annual conference, and then to support it. I’d put aside my own politics at a time when few others would. Finally after months of planning, they pledged for "Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA."

I won! Of course, others were involved, but this was my very specific battle. I persuaded the Liberal Democrats to oppose a policy that I knew would be dangerous, I knew would cost lives like Karen’s.

I can’t tell you the excitement of that day. We won!! It was the first big breakthrough of our campaigning, the first time anyone stood with us, heard us, defended us. You can read about it here.

For months and months and months, I ran a campaign to lobby peers about the time limiting of contributory ESA. I don’t know if anyone ever campaigned to peers in that way before. We emailed, we prepared briefings, we built relationships with individual peers we respected, we wrote endless articles and sent them in to parliament. We built spreadsheets to make it easier to contact peers when a particular issue cropped up. We pored over debates, we live tweeted every session of the Lords stages of the bill to make sure as many sick and disabled people saw democracy in action as possible, to hold peers to account.

And we won! We did it, we achieved what the media and the opposition failed to do or in most cases even tried to do. We won!!! We won every ESA vote in the Lords in a flurry of glory that left the mainstream media playing catch up. Do you remember Spartacii? Do you remember how it felt that day? We’d stayed calm and reasonable and intelligent. We’d put our case forensically, we’d pleaded and cajoled — some even begged. We’d built a database of last minute waverers and focused our efforts in the last few days on convincing them we fought for justice not special treatment. Do you remember? We did it.

And we won!!! We won for Karen and the 700,000 like her who would eventually lose all of their ESA under this most arbitrary of cruelties.

But I sat with my glass of wine last night and I wanted to scream out loud, to howl like a wounded animal, "But we won!!" We beat you fair and square and you cheated."

Most of you reading will know that despite all of our work, our endless endurance, our David and Goliath resilience and belief, this Government cheated us. They cheated people like Karen.

They used the archaic convention of financial privilege to simply overrule the will of the Lords; they used their party whips to ignore the grassroots of the Liberal Democrat party, supposedly their coalition partners; they ignored every main charity and Disabled Persons Organisation and campaigner. They ignored their own Conservative peers who expressed doubts and concerns.

With arrogance and ignorance they simply abused their power and swept us aside.

Daily, Karen asked me, "Will we win, Sue?" "Will we stop the time limit?" Frightened for her family and how they would survive. And I couldn’t answer. I knew we should, that if there was even a scrap of justice left in our democracy we should be able to stop this nightmare, but I knew too, that a government that had lied and cheated their way through welfare reform were unlikely to ever back down.

Daily, with a terrible, fragile hope in her tweets or emails, an urgency and a fear, Karen asked me, "Will we win, Sue?"

And days, even weeks after the bill had passed, she was still asking me, "Surely we can still do something, Sue? We won??" And I had to tell her gently, over and over that we’d won the battle but lost the war. We’d won the hearts of minds of those who mattered, but someone else had won their souls.

So Karen spent her last months fighting to escape the terror of the time limit, appealing, gathering "evidence" to prove what should have been as plain as day — she was ill and she needed our support.

And she won too. Just two weeks before her death she heard that she had appealed successfully. She had finally been put in the Support Group of ESA, meaning she would not be subjected to the time limit or forced to seek work she patently could not do.

Then she died. Again, it was too late. Again, the system had failed her. Again she was cheated. Cheated of the security she had fought so hard to win.


When I warned and urged and pleaded, I didn’t want to be right. I knew this would cost lives, or at the very least make them miserable and barely worth living.

When the welfare reform bill passed I warned politicians that time limiting ESA would be the single biggest issue come election time. It would haunt them, possibly haunt the Conservatives forever. An emblem of cruelty that really did cross the line of decency. I promised them that I would make sure of it.

And I will.

Get up, Stand up ………………
By Karen Sherlock, April 29, 2012

"Get up, stand up.  Stand up for your rights.  Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight"…… Bob Marley

Right, where are we now and what is happening to me?

Well, let’s start with the health side of things, as they have moved along since last time. Here’s a quick reminder of my medical conditions;


I don’t do this for any other reason other than to just jog memories, although the more astute will see there are a couple of bits of info missing from the list, that is because there have been some changes.

Firstly, there has been an awful lot going on with my kidneys. I have a fantastic renal nurse who has been helping me with lots of things. What I am moving closer to saying is that I am going to be starting dialysis soon. I first have to have an operation to raise the vein in my arm. I could not have the "normal" operation as my veins in the lower half of my arm are useless, and there are none suitable for doing this with, so I have to have a more complicated operation, but it means I will have to start dialysis 6 weeks after this has been done, and another vein may not be available. As my renal nurse said, "You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t". How did it make me feel? Daunted and shocked. Like a rollercoaster ride, full of ups and downs, hurtling towards the inevitable. It had been sat in the back of my mind for a while that I would need dialysis, I just didn’t expect it to be at the front of it so quickly. I am preparing myself for it, and I will cope with it, because I have to.

Also I have to have an angiogram as I have a heart problem. All I know at the moment is that my heart is not being supplied with enough blood, so I cannot undergo an operation that requires deep anaesthesia. My renal nurse (there she is again) has said she wants me on dialysis before the angiogram as it is 90% certain it will make my kidneys worse as the dye that is used damages them further, and she wants the function that I have left protected before that happens. I don’t like the thought of it, but unless my heart gets sorted out, I can’t have the transplant operation and that’s what it’s all about, after all. But in the meantime I still have poorly kidneys. I was supposed to be having a double kidney/pancreas transplant, but it has now been decided to try for the kidney transplant first and do the pancreas one later. This came as a bolt out of the blue, so going to see the surgeon for an explanation of this, waiting for an appointment for this. So, currently the health road is still very much uphill, but it looks like there is a light at the end of it.

Now as for the benefits side of things. That’s become a thorn in my side.

My ESA is being stopped ……………

Now, I have turned over in my mind how they can do this to me. Where it is going to leave us money-wise and what we can do about it?

The answer is; I don’t know.

I am not entitled to a penny more due to having a husband that works too many hours and brings in too much money.

I am worried and frightened, I do not see how they can just snatch this away from me. I am chronically ill and I am never going to get better, not even with the transplant will I feel better, all my conditions cannot be magically cured.

Also, I sent an ESA off a little while ago (February) and I have just forwarded lots more information that my doctor has compiled including some of my medical records and details about me going on dialysis and my other debilitating conditions. I sent this Special Delivery, I have tracked it and it has been received.

I fail to see how they can place someone who will be on dialysis, and in hospital 3 days a week with recovery days in-between in any group other than the Support Group. After all, where can I possibly work or even get involved in "work related activity", anybody? No I thought not ……

That’s because what the government are doing is totally unbelievable. Stripping the most vulnerable of the essential benefits they need. No thought for the effect it will have. Just throw them on the scrapheap. Don’t worry if they can’t feed themselves or heat their homes, or pay for taxis to take them places because they cannot walk anywhere. No, that doesn’t matter, they are leeches on society.

The thing is, we are not. We need this money to have some quality of life, not scrimping and scraping to get through one month to the next, not being punished for something we have not done.

Nobody wants to be disabled or chronically-ill, it is horrible. So ill that you cannot even manage to make a drink, or get out of bed in the morning or even to enjoy what’s going on around you.

After 22 years of work, up to a stage where I was so ill I was away from my job more than I was at it, my company had to let me go. I was costing them more money to pay me for being away from work than at work and I was only working 2 days in the end. I paid my NI for all those years, and yet the DWP suddenly have the right to call you and tell you that your money is being stopped because your year is up and you haven’t paid enough NI contributions. I’m sorry, but I have.

They can’t give you any advice on what to do next apart from "apply for income related benefits or go on jobseekers allowance." Okay then, show me where the jobs are and which employer will take me on then? They can’t, and so we are back to square one again. How do we cope with this loss of money? They can’t answer that, apart from giving their very basic, useless and empty words of advice.

Read the words from the Bob Marley song I shared at the top of this article. And remember them.

We need to be passionate about standing up for our rights, and if we can make enough noise, and get enough people to listen then we can overturn the inhumane changes this parasitic government have made. If nothing else, we do still have hope and our rights on our sides ……………

Note: For more on Karen Sherlock, see this article put together from her writings on the excellent Benefit Scrounging Scum website.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, "The Complete Guantánamo Files," a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new "Close Guantánamo campaign," and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

:: Article nr. 88855 sent on 15-jun-2012 04:57 ECT


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