As a charity representing thousands of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) it's concerning when we see sensationalised stories in the media about 'benefit cheats' and 'disability scroungers'. These unappealing headlines, along with the much publicised Government benefit crackdown, do little to help members of the public understand what it's really like to live with a disability.
The General Election is just 10 months away. But the focus of its debate is a generational challenge to share the benefits of growth, in an environment of ongoing reductions in public spending. The good news is that the current squeeze in living standards is not inevitable and there are choices we make to reach a different outcome.
Whoever forms the next Government must acknowledge and tackle the many barriers people with mental health problems face in finding and retaining a job. The benefits system is very complex and we often hear how people struggle to navigate it, so we also need to ensure such individuals can access advice and support to help them.
The election itself will inevitably focus on issues that matter most to voters - from jobs and housing to wages and welfare. But it is less well recognised that the election in 2015 will be determined primarily in our urban areas, and that the fortunes of each of the major political parties depend upon how they perform in, and help support, UK cities.
A good start for Labour would have been to expand the contributory principle, not further target it, whilst explicitly focusing on supporting young people, rather than restricting access to social security. If the causes of such deep, attitudinal change in the UK are indeed linked to the decline of the contributory principle and the changing views of young people, today's proposals by Labour could end up having the complete opposite effect.
Jodie is 31 and lives in London, last October she was given the devastating news that she had breast cancer. A few weeks later she was told it had spread to her bones. She had to give up work almost immediately and suddenly found herself with barely enough money to live on. Jodie was advised by her nurse to apply for the Personal Independence Payment, the UK's main disability benefit, which would offer her some financial support. She applied in November, but seven months on and she is still waiting to find out if she is eligible. She is now at crisis point, struggling to pay for day-to-day expenses such as food and bills. This is unacceptable.
I have been a user of the welfare state and social care most of my life as well as being involved in its development in one way or another from many perspectives, and this has provided me an broad insight to its strengths and weaknesses, and how it could be developed for the benefit of everyone, providing a system suitable for the 21st Century.