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21 July 2010

Just a week after we asked Benefits and Work newsletter readers to help get a disability and race-hate government website closed down it has ceased to publish any comments or proposals and is now just an empty contact box.

On 12th July we sent out a special newsletter alerting people to the existence of the Spending Challenge website. The site, set up by the treasury to allow people to suggest ways to cut government spending, was full of hate-filled racist and disablist suggestions, including the sterilisation of benefits claimants, the return of the workhouse and the forced repatriation of asylum seekers and migrants. 

We asked you to contact your MP and to complain to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Judging by the number of emails we received, many hundreds of you did just that:

The following day at Commons question time Shadow Treasury minister Angela Eagle condemned the site as “racist and offensive” .  She added, sounding rather like she was quoting from the Benefist and Work newsletter that

“it is currently featuring issues such as sterilising the poor; reopening the workhouses; asking single parents who cannot finance their children to terminate the pregnancy; benefit claimants to work in sweatshops; and immigrants to be moved out of cities?”.

By the following day the first national newspapers had picked up the story and by the Thursday it was featuring in newspapers as far afield as New Zealand.  The site also featured on numerous blogs and online news sites, where it was held-up to ridicule, with the most popular opinion being that it was a site where ‘race-hate meets comedy gold’

The ‘comedy gold’ was a reference to the increasing numbers of people posting spoof suggestions, such as putting sofas in all city centres for the public to sit in and then collecting all the change that had fallen behind the cushions at the end of each day.

Meanwhile, the response from the EHRC had been disappointing, to say the least.  Many members forwarded us emails from EHRC which claimed that:

“Unfortunately the issue is not within the scope of the Race Relations Act as it relates to comments made by individuals.  The Treasury has a duty to monitor comments placed on their website, therefore we have forwarded your email to the relevant department on your behalf.”

In reality, what people had been complaining about was not comments made by individuals, but the willingness of the treasury to publish them without pre-moderation and in breach of its disability equality duty.

The confidence of many people in the EHRC to fight for the rights of disabled people will have been greatly diminished by their response.

However, many members continued to complain to their MPs, the parliamentary ombudsman, the internet watch foundation, the police - at least one force contacted the treasury and was assured a team was working to clear the offensive remarks - and other agencies.

At the same time, the Spending Challenge site crashed repeatedly and had to be closed to allow some of the most offensive posts and links to pornographic videos to be removed.

By Friday it was clear that the site was a public relations disaster and the treasury gave in.  All the content was removed to be replaced by a box in which visitors can type their spending cuts suggestions.

A notice on the site explains that:  “As you may have noticed, the site has been the subject to a small number of malicious attacks so we have unfortunately had to pause on the interactive features for now”

In fact, preventing people posting links is very simple and the government continues to run a very similar site, Your Freedom using exactly the same software without any concerns that it is insecure.

The reality is undoubtedly that mounting complaints about the hate-filled content, combined with truly international ridicule, brought an end to a site which, unless the government was prepared to moderate it properly, should never have existed in the first place.

So, well done to everyone who took the time to make their feelings known about the Spending Cuts website.  You’ve shown, yet again, that working together you really can make a difference.

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