During his People’s Budget speech in 1909, then Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George said: ‘I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.’
- Thanks to billaday for picture (‘closing the blinds on mediocrity’)
The social reforms introduced by Lloyd George and the Liberal government of the day over a century ago marked the foundation of the modern welfare state, put in place to tackle a range of pressing social issues and aiming to help the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
Last week the French private contractor Atos – whose job it is to conduct work capability assessment (WCA) tests for the Government – came under the spotlight for their punitive treatment of sick and disabled people once more. In an emotional House of Commons debate, MPs from both sides of the political coin took turns to recite horror stories about their constituents, all of whom had suffered at the hands of Atos.
The woman with Crohn’s disease who was told she could go back to work by wearing a nappy. The young man with epilepsy who died shortly after he was classified fit for work and saw his benefit cut by £70 a week, and whose parents the DWP rang – a month after he died – to say that it had made a mistake and his benefit was being restored. The increasing numbers of people developing mental health problems and attempting suicide as a result of the stress the process caused. The cancer victim who was told she ‘only has hyperthyroidism’. If this isn’t wretchedness and human degradation arising as a consequence of poverty then I don’t know what is.
As Labour’s Valerie Vaz put it during the debate:
‘There is no common sense with these assessments, no humanity and dignity for the most vulnerable in our society.’
Lloyd George would turn in his grave, I expect.
These horror stories of the inhumanity of Atos are a pretty good indication that our welfare system is in need of reform. A private company being paid £110m a year to carry out assessments for the DWP, and a further £60m of public money being spent on administering appeals, because so many decisions are contested, doesn’t quite add up, does it? To put it as bluntly as John Prescott did last week, ‘This is what happens when you pay idiots by results. All they care about is getting someone off benefits so they get paid.’ Quite.
The welfare reform debate has been predictably divisive – the striver who rises early to go to work while his indolent neighbour still has his curtains drawn “sleeping off a life on benefits”’. Take this Independent article by Philip Hensher for example. Hensher talks of the ‘unconscionable’ number of people now claiming disability benefits and cites (vaguely) a few lurid examples of benefit fraud as evidence that Work Capability Assessments should continue as they are.
‘There are famous fraudulent claimants, such as the woman who was discovered skydiving while claiming to be unable to walk, or the Moulin Rouge dancer and keen badminton player who claimed more than £100,000 for a shoulder injury. These cases infuriate the genuinely incapacitated.’
In fact, cases such as these are extremely rare, with money paid out to fraudulent claimants accounting for just 2.1% of the total benefit expenditure in 2011/12.
Articles such as Hensher’s and those which populate the pages of the Daily Mail day-by-day have the dangerous consequence of reinforcing the false dichotomy painted by Osborne in recent months: his mendacious ‘strivers versus skivers’ rhetoric. The fraudulent few are being used to characterise millions of sick and disabled people as malingerers, and so the Coalition is succeeding, as Owen Jones put it, in turning the working poor against the unemployed poor, therefore justifying its current practice of pushing the seriously ill and disabled into work, and plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years.
The welfare state has saved countless children from poverty and greatly improved life for many families so it is worrying that the Coalition seems intent on dismantling it in this way with their ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics. John Harris argued in the Guardian this week that, rather than allowing the Tories to succeed in ‘cynically playing one part of the population against the other, and making out that ‘welfare’ is something that happens to other people’, we ought to go back to the first principle of the welfare state: universality.
While the government continues to employ a private contractor, working to ‘payment by results’ models I fear the welfare system shall continue to fail. The WCA is not really about assessing fitness for work, nor supporting people into work. The ‘capability’ tests demonstrate the government’s need to reduce social claims on the state, with business identifying financial benefit in the process. The wretchedness and human degradation it causes is deemed irrelevant by all parties.
Nevertheless, Harris has a point of principle worth pondering: rather than stigmatising those who do need benefits to survive, rather than permitting the government to segregate us into ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’, ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’, let’s go back to welfare’s universal basics. We’re all in this together, after all.
Mary-Rachel McCabe is a pupil barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. She tweets @MaryRachel_McC