“Labour MPs sat perplexed … By cutting housing benefit for the poor, the Government was helping the poor. By causing people to leave their homes, the Government was helping people put a roof over their heads. By appealing the ruling that it discriminated against the vulnerable, the Government was supporting the vulnerable.
Yes, this was a tricky one.” – From an unusually insightful article in the Telegraph about the incoherence of Conservative welfare rhetoric: How bedroom tax protects the vulnerable.
“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.” – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill. Source: Hansard, Column 1557, 19 May, 2011.
Conservative policies are incoherent: they don’t fulfil their stated aims and certainly don’t address public needs. Furthermore, Conservative rhetoric has become completely detached from the experiences of most citizens and their everyday realities.
Under the Equality Act, provision was made by the Labour government to ensure that legislations didn’t discriminate against protected social groups, which included disabled people. However, the need for public bodies in England to undertake or publish an equality impact assessment of government policies, practices and decisions was quietly removed by David Cameron in April 2011. The legal requirement in the Equality Act that ensured public bodies attempt to reduce inequalities caused by socio-economic factors was also scrapped by Theresa May in November 2010, who said she favoured a greater focus on “fairness” rather than “equality.”
The Conservatives have since claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and introducing severe conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of unfortunate circumstances, bad political decision-making and subsequent politically-constructed socio-economic circumstances.
The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed a manipulated semantic shift, “fair” has become a Glittering Generality – part of a lexicon of propaganda that simply props up Tory ideology in an endlessly erroneous and self-referential way. Conservative ideology is permeating language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help”, “justice” , “equality” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.
The altered semantics clearly signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative narrative, constructed on the basic, offensive idea that people claiming welfare do so because of “faulty” personal characteristics, and that welfare creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support and opportunities – social insurance and security when people need it.
The government claims to be “committed to supporting the most vulnerable” and ensuring “everyone contributes to reducing the deficit, and where those with the most contribute the most.” That is blatantly untrue, as we can see from just a glance at Conservative policies.
Conservative rhetoric is a masterpiece of stapled together soundbites and meaningless glittering generalities. And intentional mystification. Glittering Generalities are being used to mask political acts of discrimination.
Cameron claims that he is going to address “inequality” and “social problems”, for example, but wouldn’t you think that he would have done so over the past five years, rather than busying himself creating those problems via policies? Under Cameron’s government, we have become the most unequal country in the European Union, even the USA, home of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, is less divided by wealth and income, than the UK.
I’m also wondering how tripling university tuition fees, removing bursaries and maintainance grants for students from poorer backgrounds and reintroducing banding in classrooms can possibly indicate a party genuinely interested in extending “equal opportunities.”
It’s perplexing that a government claiming itself to be “economically competent” can possibly attempt to justify spending more tax payers money on appealing a Supreme Court decision that the bedroom tax policy is discriminatory, when it would actually cost less implementing the legal recommendations of the court. As Owen Smith, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Just the Supreme Court session itself will cost the Government more in legal fees than the £200,000 needed to exempt domestic abuse victims affected.
“If the Tories had an ounce of decency they could have stood by the decision and exempted the two groups.
“Instead they are instructing expensive lawyers to fight in the Supreme Court for the right to drive people further into poverty.”
As a consequence of the highly discriminatory and blatantly class-contingent Tory policies, rampant socio-economic inequality apparently is the new Tory “fair”. There is a clear incongruence between Conservative rhetoric and the impact of their policies. This is further highlighted by the fact that the UK is currently being investigated by the United Nations regarding serious contraventions of the human rights of sick and disabled people, and other marginalised groups, because of the dire impact of Conservative welfare “reforms.”
It’s clear that the austerity cuts which target the poorest are intentional, ideologically-driven decisions, taken within a context of other available choices and humane options.
The rise in the need for food banks in the UK, amongst both the working and non-working poor, over the past five years and the return of absolute poverty, not seen since before the advent of the welfare state in this country, makes a mockery of government claims that it supports the most vulnerable.
Income tax receipts to the Treasury have fallen because those able to pay the most are being steadily exempted from social responsibility, and wages for many of the poorer citizens have fallen, whilst the cost of living has risen significantly over this past five years.
The ideologically motivated transfer of funds from the poorest half of the country to the more affluent has not contributed to deficit reduction. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the cumulative impact of Tory tax and welfare changes, from out-of-work and in-work benefits to council tax support, to the cut in the top rate of income tax and an increase in tax-free personal allowances, has been extremely regressive and detrimental to the poorest.
The revenue gains from the tax changes and benefit cuts were offset by the cost of tax reductions, particularly the increase in the income tax personal allowance, benefitting the wealthiest.
The Treasury response to this is to single out the poorest yet again for more cuts to “balance the books” – which basically translates as the Conservative “small state” fetish, and deep dislike of the gains we made from the post-war settlement. Yet for a government that claims a non-interventionist stance, it sure does make a lot of interventions. Always on behalf of the privileged class, with policies benefitting only the wealthy minority.
How can Conservatives believe that poor people are motivated to work harder by taking money from them, yet also apparently believe that wealthy people are motivated by giving them more money? This is not “behavioural science,” it’s policy-making founded entirely on traditional Tory prejudices.
The government claim that “Every individual policy change is carefully considered, including looking at the effect on disabled people in line with legal obligations,” but without carrying out a cumulative impact assessment, the effects and impacts of policies can’t possibly be accurately measured. And that is intentional, too.
Despite being a party that claims to support “hard-working families,” the Conservatives have nonetheless made several attempts to undermine the income security of a signifant proportion of that group of citizens recently. Their proposed tax credit cuts, designed to creep through parliament in the form of secondary legislation, which tends to exempt it from meaningful debate and amendment in the Commons, was halted only because the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.
The use of secondary legislation has risen at an unprecedented rate, reaching an extraordinary level since 2010, and it’s increased use is to ensure that the Government meet with little scrutiny and challenge in the House of Commons when they attempt to push through controversial and unpopular, ideologically-driven legislation.
Conservative cuts are most often applied by stealth, using statutory instruments. This indicates a government that is well aware that its policies are not fit for purpose.
We can’t afford Conservative ideological indulgence.
The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. An audit report earlier this month concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments themselves than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill – as Frances Ryan pointed out in the Guardian, it’s the political equivalent of burning bundles of £50 notes.
The report also states that only half of all the doctors and nurses hired by Maximus – the US outsourcing company brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out the assessments – had even completed their training.
The NAO report summarises:
Million assessments completed in five years up to March 2015
Estimated increase in cost per ESA assessment based on published information after transfer of the service in 2015 (from £115 to £190)
Estimated increase in healthcare professionals across contracts from 2,200 in May 2015 to 4,050 November 2016
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending
Proportion of ESA and PIP targets met for assessment report quality meeting contractual standard (September 2014 to August 2015).
This summary reflects staggering and deliberate economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically-motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people.
The government claim they want to “help” sick and disabled people into work, but nearly 14,000 disabled people have lost their mobility vehicle after the changes to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) assessment, which are carried out by private companies. Many more, yet to be reassessed, are also likely to lose their specialised vehicles.
In 2012, Esther McVey revealed that the new PIP was about cutting costs and that there were targets to reduce the number of successful claims when she told the House of Commons: “330,000 of claimants are expected to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced.” How else could she have known that before those people were actually assessed? A recent review led the government to conclude that PIP doesn’t currently fulfil the original policy intent, which was to cut costs and “target” the benefit to “those with the greatest need.”
That basically meant a narrowing of eligibility criteria for people formerly claiming Disability Living Allowance, increasing the number of reassessments required, and limiting the number of successful claims. The government have used the review to attempt to justify further restrictions to PIP eligibility, aimed at cutting support for people who require aids to meet fundamental needs such as preparing food, dressing, basic and essential personal care and managing incontinence. “Greatest need” has become an ever-shrinking category under Conservative austerity measures.
The use of political pseudo-psychological “diagnoses” to both stigmatise and “treat” what are generally regarded by the Conservatives as deviant behaviours from cognitively incompetent citizens, infering that the problem lies within the individual rather than in their circumstances, or arise as a consequence of political decision-making and socio-economic models, has become the new normal. We are discussing people here who have been deemed too ill to work by their own doctor AND the state. Not for the first time, the words Arbeit macht frei spring to mind.
Welfare has been redefined: it is preoccupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social wellbeing.
The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.
It is the human costs that are particularly distressing, and in a wealthy, first world liberal democracy, such draconian policies ought to be untenable. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.
However, Maximus is serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions. Those prescriptions are costing the UK in terms of the economy, but MUCH worse, it is costing us in terms of our decent, collective, civilised response to people experiencing difficult circumstances through no fault of their own; it’s costing the most vulnerable citizens their wellbeing and unforgivably, it is also costing precious human lives.
It’s not just that Conservative rhetoric is incoherent and incongruent with the realities created by their policies. Policy-making has become increasingly detached from public needs and instead, it is being directed at “incentivising” and “changing behaviours” of citizens to meet a rigidly ideological state agenda. That turns democracy completely on its head. There is no longer a genuine dialogue between government and citizens, only a diversionary and oppressive state monologue.
And it’s the sound of one hand clapping.
There are many ways of destroying people’s lives, not all of them are obvious. Taking away people’s means of meeting basic survival needs, such as money for food, fuel and shelter – which are the bare essentials that benefits were originally calculated to cover – invariably increases the likelihood that they will die. The people most adversely and immediately affected are those who have additional needs for support.
The moment that sick and disabled people were defined as a “burden on the state” by the government, we began climbing Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice.
Whilst I am very aware that we need take care not to trivialise the terrible events of world war 2 and Nazi Germany by making casual comparisons, there are some clear and important parallels on a socio-political level and a psycho-social one, that I feel are crucially important to recognise.
Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes acceptable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards “others” that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.
The process always begins with the political scapegoating and systematic dehumanisation of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, genocide.
If you think this observation is “extreme” then you really haven’t been paying attention. By 2012, hate crime incidents against disabled people had risen to be the highest ever recorded. By 2015, there was a further 41 per cent rise in disability hate crime. This is the so-called “civilised” first world, very wealthy liberal democracy that is the UK.
Most disabled people have worked, contributed to society, paid taxes and national insurance. Those that haven’t genuinely cannot work, and as a decent, civilised society, we should support them. Being ill and disabled is not a “lifestyle choice.” Unfortunately it can happen to anyone. A life-changing accident or illness doesn’t only happen to others: no-one is exempted from such a possibility. That this government thinks it can get away with peddling utter nonsense about the characters, lives and motivations of a marginalised social group, dehumanising them, directing hatred, resentment, prejudice and public derision towards them, demonstrates only too well just how far we have moved away from being a decent, civilised society.
It seems to be almost weekly that there’s a report in the media about a sick and disabled person dying after being told by the state that they are “fit for work” and their lifeline benefits have been halted, or because the state has sanctioned someone and withdrawn their only support. There are many thousands more suffering in silence, fearful and just about living.