I don’t usually begin blogs talking about myself, but I will here both to illustrate my argument and excuse my long absence. I have had some health troubles. An eye condition that means it hurts to look at screens, RSI in my hands that makes typing excruciating, and an operation elsewhere that made me generally immobile and tired.
When you’re young and fit, it’s easy to think you’re basically immortal. But even a few minor ailments that refuse to be fixed, or being rushed from hospital to hospital for an emergency operation, makes you consider a new perspective. Thoughts of long-term sickness pay or part time work loom, your appreciation for the NHS blossoms, and it all makes sense why you paid that unwelcome chunk of National Insurance contribution each payday. Then you look at what the 2010-2015 government has been doing for, or rather against, those less able to work or live with dignity.
And that’s really, really scary. What the Conservative-led cuts have done is take Labour’s inefficient, occasionally wasteful welfare system, and squeezed it blindly until many, many, eligible disabled, mentally ill or downright unlucky people are harmed.
If you aren’t convinced, I really urge you to look at just a few articles on the effects of austerity on this country’s most vulnerable. This article looks at the failure of the PIP (Personal Independence Payment) scheme – with huge backlogs, countless screw-ups, pinpricks of suffering, and management so bad that the whole initiative actually cost the taxpayer an extra £1.6 bn. This article details specific families crushed by the cuts, in the context of the government’s reorganisation. There are countless others across the web – on the humiliation of disinterested agency workers giving scandalous back-to-work tests, on bedroom taxes being levied despite health professionals confirming the extra room is needed, on horrific sanctions for claimants missing job interviews due to bereavement or injury, on mental health problems being exacerbated by the callousness of the system.
Even setting aside my broader opposition to austerity, the benefits approach of Iain Duncan Smith does not even make sense on the Conservatives’ belt-tightening terms. The Department for Work & Pensions reorganisation to ‘Universal Credit’ has already suffered a two year delay and gone far over budget. The government has delayed announcement of their estimate of the final cost until after the election, but estimates are as high as £12.8 bn when the original figure announced was under £3 bn. Elsewhere, work assessments have so often been successfully challenged, despite the prohibitive cost, delay and difficulty of appealing after the legal aid cuts, that court and repayment costs nearly balance whatever saving there is from denying benefits. Atos alone saw over 200,000 decisions overturned.
In an absolutely ideal system, there would be no waste. Every person would have been accurately and timely assessed, and every person in need would have the funds designed to help them, voted through by parliament, paid. This level of perfect efficiency is impossible, as demonstrated by the glorious ineptitude of Atos, Capita, Maximus and a4e. Any real-world system will fall a little way off – either too grasping or too generous.
It is apparent that, under New Labour, the balance (at least of some benefits, in some areas) was too generous. A tiny percentage of the welfare budget was therefore wasted in fraud, allowing the tabloids to endlessly indulge in outrage at examples of (at first glance) excessive payments to undeserving ‘scroungers’, typified by the celebrated Shameless character Frank Gallagher. Such fraud is actually outweighed by over £1 bn that is underpaid due to claimant or official mistakes.
But as a taxpayer and a citizen, I would much rather see this degree of overspending and ‘waste’ than risk the kind of depravities our state is currently visiting on its people. That margin of overspending saves lives: the government is currently reviewing 49 cases in which benefits claimants were ‘sanctioned’ then died, and 60 in which sanctioned claimants later took their own lives (since 2012). American moral philosopher Perry Farrell argued, “How you treat the weak is your true nature calling.” By any account, Britain’s treatment of the weak has been disgraceful over the last five years – and the Conservatives are gleefully promising more and harder cuts if they lead the next government: £12 bn needs to go.
It comes down to what kind of country you would like to live in. Simply put, I would rather think of Britain as a place wherein those in well paying jobs are taxed a whisker more, and nobody is left starving and immobile in their own urine in midwinter, than one that is so obsessed with the virtues of modern capitalism and wage labour that the same whisker is saved, and sick people suffer. Of course, it should not take a health scare to make me consider this. This seems a key priority for a modern state that can afford it: basic human compassion.
And that compassion is missing. In the face of mountainous evidence, Duncan Smith and David Cameron defend their record on the basis that people are being encouraged to get back into work, a defence with no factual basis. The Work and Pensions Secretary’s continued dismissal of extremely serious concerns, criticism from several parliamentary committees, and his simplistic rhetoric tarring all welfare claimants with the ‘feckless, lazy’ brush, is shameful. And don’t forget, this is the man who soiled the constitution to retroactively change the law when courts found against him in favour of ‘work programme’ (labour for free) resistors.
So even forgetting my dislike of their policies on immigration, justice, higher education, workers’ rights, prisons, asylum, civil liberty, marriage tax cuts, internet freedom, and ideological austerity itself, the Grayling-Duncan Smith model of welfare is a binding reason not to vote Tory. Post Script In the interest of fairness, I should say that I’m hardly jumping for joy at the rhetoric of Labour’s welfare spokesperson, Rachel Reeves. ‘Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people’, she asserts, as if the ‘striver vs scrounger’ fantasy was really that black and white. Really, the recession is forcing countless working families into benefits – over 80% of new Housing Benefits claimants are in work. Labour was formed for and by workers – but with the explicit aim to support those who were out of work due to illness or misfortune.