UK government Cabinet papers from 1982, now released under the 30-year disclosure rule, confirm that the dismantling of the welfare state, the privatisation of the NHS and the savage cutting of public services has been a long-held ambition of the Conservative party.
All that stopped them making their dream come true in the 1980s was the knowledge that it would be politically unacceptable. But the ambition has nonetheless been nurtured over the decades, and with the recent banking crisis the perfect opportunity arose to implement it.
As the public was bombarded by economic doom and gloom from every angle, Conservative Party ideologues knew that this was the best chance they would probably ever get. Policies that would have been unacceptable under normal circumstances could now be presented as “regrettable, but necessary”, in order to save our economy.
That is why George Osborne, rather bizarrely for a Chancellor, put so much effort into talking the UK economy down, to convince us all that we were in desperate straits, such that desperate measures were called for.
This, combined with a stream of propaganda that suggested a section of the population were idle parasites bleeding the country dry, paved the way for cuts to benefits and the punitive treatment of the unemployed.
Prime Minister David Cameron uses a cricketing metaphor to describe this process, he calls it ‘rolling the pitch’, or preparing the ground politically.
A similar process is happening now with the National Health Service. A constant stream of stories about poor care and neglectful staff have started to appear in sections of the media, presumably so that when the public wake up to the fact that the NHS has actually been privatised, and therefore abolished as we know it, it will not be mourned too much, and the outcry will be diminished.
So when Mr Cameron and other members of the government talk about “tough choice”’ they are really being rather disingenuous. They are actually implementing policies that the Conservative party have wanted to implement for decades. Their choices may be tough on us, but they actually are their choices. Others can, and should, be made.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor.
The UK government’s ‘work capability assessment’ for sick and disabled people has been revealed to be blatantly unfair, and decisions are frequently overturned on appeal.
But even those found to be currently unfit for employment, though with some possibility of work in the future, may face hefty fines if they are unable or unwilling to take part in work-related activities such as training or work placements.
From December, £71 may be slashed from an employment and support allowance of up to £99.15. Those affected may include terminally ill people estimated to have more than six months to live, stroke survivors, cancer patients undergoing treatments such as radiotherapy, people with chronic conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia and those with worsening neurological diseases who have had to give up their jobs. Those with impairments such as autism may also be left with just £28.15 if they are cannot understand or follow the instructions of job advisors or cope with an unfamiliar environment.
Obviously, employment-related support schemes are helpful to some, and should be on offer – but the drastic cut, which would leave many people having to choose between food and heating, is clearly aimed at those who would otherwise fail to take part or drop out.
The plans have been widely criticised as harsh and unjust, especially since some of those affected have paid into National Insurance schemes for decades or contributed to society in other ways. If the real purpose were rehabilitation for those who might be able to get back to work, such measures would be counter-productive too. Carefully planned therapy under medical advice, combined with periods of rest, might be required for, say, someone badly hurt in an accident to get better, not a demand to undertake activities that might damage recovery.
Yet the government might reckon that the move would release extra money to enable further tax cuts or other perks for the super-rich, whom they see as more deserving, and win favour with voters, many of whom believe state and media rhetoric about ‘scroungers’ and favour harsh treatment of welfare benefit claimants. However, this might backfire.
A minority of those forced into work-related activities which they would otherwise have avoided might be able to cope, especially if training providers or managers were sympathetic.
Another set would probably drop out and be supported by their families, a financial gain for the Treasury but which might cost the government votes. Still others who lost most of their allowance, could no longer afford the necessities of life and as a result died, whether by natural causes or suicide, would again represent a financial gain – except that some of those affected would be parents or carers, so that local authorities would have to find ways of supporting those left behind. But that, too, could prove politically costly. Patients who dragged themselves to their placements while feeling terrible, and were taken severely ill or died there, might prove even more of a vote-loser.
Yet other costs might rise as those who previously would have been able to cope in community settings were kept or placed in institutions by health or social care professionals to ensure their wellbeing and survival. Those who might have been discharged from hospital to undergo community-based rehabilitation after illness or injury might be kept in longer, mental health patients at risk might be admitted as voluntary inpatients or sectioned, disabled people placed in care homes if they could not live independently and safely on £28.15 a week. This could prove hugely expensive overall, and politically embarrassing.
Even if the government cares little about the humanitarian cost of a work-or-starve policy for some of the sickest people in the country, or about the impact on human rights, it might wish to consider the financial and political cost, and rethink its plans.
(c) Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious issues. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate.
Atos, the company that conducts Work Capability Assessments (WCA) for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), is sponsoring the Paralympics. The irony of this is almost beyond words. A company causing fear and distress to countless disabled people is attempting to improve its image by associating itself with the achievements of other disabled people.
The devastating impact Atos is having on the lives of many individuals cannot be overstated. Take my friend Yvonne, for instance.
Yvonne is a person who has always put more into life than she expected to get out of it. She has enhanced the lives of countless people, whilst enduring more than her fair share of pain and illness.
Born with a heart and lung condition, Yvonne had a double lung transplant twenty years ago. She is now experiencing all the problems of organ rejection. Her condition is deteriorating and she knows she probably won’t live for more than two or three years. The anti-rejection medication has caused various problems, including breast cancer, for which she had surgery and radiotherapy. Her condition is such that on her frequent visits to the transplant clinic at Harefield in Middlesex she gets hospital transport from North Wales.
Yvonne was recently summoned to a Work Capability Assessment. She approached it, as she approaches everything, with a positive attitude and faith in the person who would be carrying out the assessment. What actually happened shocked her. She found the whole experience humiliating and distressing. The physical tests exacerbated the pain of a collapsed lung which she had sustained a short time before.
Yvonne has just been informed that she has been placed in the Work Related Activity Group, which means that she is required to attend interviews at Jobcentre Plus, to prepare her for a return to work. This is patently ridiculous, but she doesn’t know if she has the energy to appeal. She is now worried about paying her rent, and it seems the final years of her life may be blighted with anxiety and hardship. All she wants is the minimum support to enable her to live her last few years without fear of penury. It seems that UK plc, or Team GB, or whatever we’re calling ourselves this week, can’t afford that.
Thanks to a report by the National Audit Office, we now know that Atos is not only damaging to the wellbeing of disabled people: it is also poor value for the taxpayer.
According to Tom Greatrex MP, “The taxpayer is effectively paying for this service twice – once through the £112 million a year Atos receives from the DWP, and then again through the £60 millon a year spent on appeals and clearing up the mess that results from Atos assessments.”
For months disabled people, their friends and families have been desperately trying to get this issue the attention it deserves, with very little help from politicians. Recently though, two TV documentaries exposed the cruel nature of the system. Panorama highlighted several individual cases, including a man with a serious heart condition declared fit for work only to die shortly afterwards.
Channel 4’s Dispatches went undercover in Atos and found that, although the official line is that there are no targets, assessors are under pressure not to put more than 12 per cent of claimants into the ‘support’ group. This means that the vast majority of people assessed will either be declared fit for work immediately, putting them on Jobseekers Allowance, or like Yvonne, placed in the Work Related Activity Group. No matter what anybody says, this is all about the government’s austerity programme, taking money from those who can least afford to lose it.
Disabled people are organising a week of protests against Atos to coincide with the Paralympics, and let’s hope they have the desired effect.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that whilst Atos is implementing this inhumane system, it is doing so at the behest of the DWP. Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling could, if they chose, call a halt to this debacle and create a system with some humanity and compassion.
There is to be a debate on the WCA and Atos in Westminster Hall on 4th September, so one can only hope that enough politicians have enough interest, and enough compassion, to speak out loud and clear, and demand urgent change.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.