I would think anyone who’s ever been seriously ill for however short a time could understand why the Tory/LibDem plans to send sick people out on unpaid work placements is such a horror.
The denial of benefits to people who need them to survive, on the grounds that the austerity programme inflicted by George Osborne needs those cuts, is terrible enough. George Osborne claims that sick, disabled, and unemployed people “enjoy a lifestyle” that people in work are unable to. I’m unsure what the man who seems to routinely buy a standard train ticket but take a first-class seat knows about the “lifestyle” of people who depend on benefits: my guess is, only what he reads in the Daily Mail.
“The Conservative party, the modern Conservative party, is on the side of people who want to work hard and get on,” says Osborne – providing they’re not under 25, or living in a high-rent area, or disabled, or falling into debt, or a single mother, or demanding a living wage.
“Low wages cause families to struggle with the costs they face, trapping them below the breadline. Changes across five decades demonstrate poverty is not inevitable – reductions in child and pensioner poverty show that.
“But it is in-work poverty that is becoming the modern face of hardship, and at the same time support for working people is being cut. The high level of in-work poverty undermines any idea that better incentives to enter work, the centrepiece of universal credit, is some kind of cure-all.”
Nor is George Osborne and the Conservative party on your side if you want to work hard and get on but can’t because of illness or disability. Sue Marsh wrote in An Open Letter To Mark Hoban about the excruciating process of applying for support after years of work:
He sees a sentence about “submitting evidence” and cringes at the suggestion he is somehow under trial for breaking down. He thinks for a minute, searches out an old repeat prescription form that proves he relies on morphine simply to get out of bed, signs the form, seals the envelope and does his best to forget all about one of the hardest days of his life. The day he had to beg for help.
The following week there is another 40 page form, this time for Disability Living Allowance, but Bill doesn’t know you have to say different things on this new form to qualify. He thinks it’s enough to say his back is crumbling and he suffers terrible pain daily and now must use a wheelchair. It isn’t.
The following week there is a social care assessment that concludes Bill doesn’t need any help at night. In deep deep shame, Bill whispers, barely audibly how he will get to the toilet now his daughters have all left home? The assessor says not to worry, they’ll provide him with nappies, he won’t need to go to the toilet at night any more.
Broken and desperate, at the lowest point in his life, Bill starts to get letter after letter telling him he is fit for work, not eligible for any support at all. No ESA, no DLA, no care package, despite facing gradual paralysis and a dependent future.
This kind of sustained attack on the poorest and most vulnerable lets the Overton window shift so that even a more-or-less leftwing publication like the New Statesman can blithely assume that the Bills who claim benefits are dipping into “a pot from which people take as much as they dare” rather than getting the support they deserve.
The modern welfare state was founded to liberate people from hunger, poverty and want. The document that laid those foundation, the Beveridge Report, was released 70 years ago this month and it makes for fascinating reading, not least because one so seldom encounters a government document which proposes to make life better for people, rather than burying planned abuses under shovelfuls of waffly obfuscation.
Beveridge, who was far from a radical, proposed that nobody should be left destitute by virtue of being unable to work. Bear in mind that this report was written in 1942, when the nation was at war. “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching,” wrote Beveridge in the introduction, which recommends a minimum guaranteed income level for every citizen, leaving everyone the option to earn more and improve his or her circumstances.
George Osborne claims that billions have to be cut to drive those already suffering worst from the recession and from his austerity programme, because unless people are homeless and willing to accept below poverty wages to survive, the economy won’t recover.
But this is economic nonsense.
Each year the government figures what it will cost to run the country and borrows the amount it will need. Each year, the government taxes our economic activity, and that taxation pays back the amount the government borrowed. If the tax income for a year exceeds the amount borrowed, this is a surplus: if it is less than the amount borrowed, this is a recession.
So the less economic activity there is – the less people are working (and being taxed on their pay), the less they are buying and selling (and being taxed on each transaction), the more big corporations raking in the money and are evading tax by ingenious schemes which claim the profit is somewhere else (yes, Starbucks, looking at you!) the less money the government gets.
It will be easily seen that the most effective way for the government to bring the country out of recession is to increase economic activity. If small businesses are easily able to obtain loans from banks to increase their productivity, if there’s high employment, if people are confident they can buy and businesses are finding a ready market to sell, then the government gets more tax and things go well.
George Osborne is doing the exact reverse. It could be his economic ignorance – Maria Miller is better qualified to be Chancellor than he is – but I think the benefit cuts are having exactly the effect that a cheap-work conservative wants: in a collapsed economy, wealthy people get to hire people to work for them cheaply and with minimal rights. And the UK economy, not in great shape when the Tories took over, is moving steadily downwards.
Many new benefits claimants are effectively receiving a subsidy paid by the government to support employers paying low wages and landlords charging high rents: the working poor, whom David Cameron and George Osborne are apt to talk sentimentally about while slashing their support.
George Osborne, apparently ignorant of the fact that the person leaving their house early in the morning is likely to be claiming housing benefit and tax credits so that they can survive on their low wage – presents a picture of petty spite by employed against unemployed:
“We also think it’s unfair that when that person leaves their home early in the morning, they pull the door behind them, they’re going off to do their job, they’re looking at their next-door neighbour, the blinds are down, and that family is living a life on benefits. That is unfair as well, and we are going to tackle that as part of tackling this country’s economic problems.”
How demonising the destitute to the working poor will bring the UK out of recession, Osborne didn’t trouble himself to explain.
The new benefits system appears to be one where figures are massaged by denying a person a benefit to which they are lawfully entitled, claiming that this means the figures have gone down: the person desperately needs the support to survive, they go to an adviser, get help with their appeal, and quite often – because they are legally entitled to receive the benefit – win their appeal. The system then sends them for re-assessement, which denies them again, they appeal again. This is a huge cost, and a big saving would be made by improving the assessments system so that people were given the benefits they are entitled to first time.
By this time, we know that isn’t how the Conservative/LibDem coalition operates. Instead, people who are entitled to appeal will be denied legal aid, because the government wants to save £350m a year on legal aid by 2015 and sees the simplest way of doing this to deny justice to the poorest and most vulnerable.
“At no point in progressing our… reforms did we say it is our intention for all first-tier welfare benefit appeals to receive legal aid.
“The government’s position throughout has been that in these economic times we need to target legal aid at cases of the highest priority and where it is needed most.”
And George Osborne’s position is steadily that the poor, sick, and disabled are never a high priority.