Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Welfare State

"You have to score 15+ points, I scored 6 so therefore I am deemed fit to work, I asked how can that be, I have a deteriating [sic] health problem, things won't get any better, I will only get worse. She told me my disability is not being questioned, they know I have JHS/EDS3. She said it's not your disability being questioned, it's your capability. I said I wasn't capable of holding down a job, some days I can't get out of bed, I can't even cook anymore. She said it wasn't there [sic] problem, it's the job center's problem to find me a job" - Reader's comment below article on Atos Work Capability Assessment for people claiming disability benefits (minor punctuation errors corrected)

On the morning of the 1945 UK general election the Daily Mirror newspaper dedicated almost its entire front page to an iconic cartoon by the legendary Philip Lec entitled: 'Don't Lose It Again!' It depicted a wounded, heavily bandaged soldier returning home and delivering a note upon which a message was written: 'Victory and Peace in Europe'. This cartoon is now considered by historians as a significant factor in the landslide defeat of Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party by Clement Atlee's Labour Party, one of the most shocking election results in history.

From 1940 the UK was governed by a wartime coalition government comprising Labour and the Conservatives, with Clement Atlee eventually becoming the nation's first ever Deputy Prime Minister. In 1945, with victory over the Nazis achieved, Labour demanded that the nation be offered a choice at the polls. It became clear that while Churchill commanded great respect as a wartime leader, people nonetheless seemed apprehensive of his credentials on the domestic front.

Voters weary of the austerity enforced during the war proved eager to embrace Atlee's promised radical reforms, namely the nationalization of several major industries including coal mining, the steel industry, transportation, electricity, gas and so on, even the Bank of England. Atlee also espoused the liberal economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, now known as Keynesian economics, as well as the 'cradle to the grave' welfare state conceived by the economist William Beveridge in the visionary Beveridge Report of 1942. This report detailed a system of social insurance for all citizens regardless of income.

Beveridge identified 'five giant evils' in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Squalor damaged the nation because the poor could not pay for medical attention and could often therefore not work, creating a lack of labor as well as less income; ignorance described those of higher social class seemingly ignorant of their role in a community; want covered the necessity to provide an adequate living for all; idleness applied to Beveridge's desire for full employment (leading to the creation of job centers); and disease described the obvious handicap of those suffering from a disease being unable to earn an adequate income.

The radical reforms passed as a direct result of the overwhelming public support for Beveridge's report. In coalition, the 1944 Education Act was passed, providing free education for all up to the age of 15. After gaining power, Atlee passed (among others) the Family Allowances Act of 1945, the National Insurance Act of 1946, the National Health Service Act of 1946, and the Pensions Act of 1947. Clement Atlee, once memorably described by Churchill as a 'sheep in sheep's clothing', proved to be anything but, presiding over one of the most radical administrations in the nation's history.

The welfare state was born. The UK was now a community where, in theory, even the most vulnerable would be cared for and not allowed to slip through the net. To this day, the National Health Service, the largest and oldest single-payer healthcare system in the world, is regarded as Labour's crowning achievement and, despite its endemic bureaucratic and funding problems, still commands public support.

And to this day we arrive. Proposed changes to the NHS in the form of David Cameron's Health and Social Care Bill have inspired widespread opposition, not only among the general public, but also from medical professionals. As an aside, this mind-boggling list of Conservative Lords who have financial links to the private healthcare industry, demonstrating an obvious conflict of interest, will likely not aid the Coalition government in its cause.

A remarkable article published earlier this year in the Daily Mirror shows, thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests, that 32 people die every week after failing the Work Capability Assessment, a controversial test that is intended to get people claiming disability benefits back to work if they are able, and being put in the so-called Work-Related Activities Group (WRAG).

It is important to note that while it is obviously impossible to determine whether all these people died as a result of being forced into the WRAG, the endless stream of tragic personal stories (many of which can be found below the article linked in the previous paragraph as well as elsewhere) make it clear that a significant percentage of them did. Readers of this article are urged to read all the comments as they more than adequately convey the magnitude of personal suffering. More can be found here.

As Owen Jones of the Independent newspaper writes, those claiming benefits are now demonized as 'scroungers' and 'lazy'. He further notes that numerous voices within the media spread the myth that benefits fraud is rampant, no thanks to countless articles in newspapers like the Daily Mail depicting extreme cases as representative of the entire population. Meanwhile charities reported in September that verbal abuse of disabled people had risen 41% over four months in September, with up to two-thirds suffering some form of hostility or taunting.

What kind of person abuses or taunts someone in a wheelchair?

As usual with modern mainstream tabloid journalism, the reality is quite a different story. The Department for Work and Pensions' own estimates put fraud at 0.5%, hardly a figure representative of all disabled people, while a simple read through some of the personal tragedies which can be found in abundance online shows that the vast majority of disability benefits claimants worked hard before being struck down by the vagaries of fate, and indeed would jump at the chance to work if they were able.

Despite all this, however, there is one issue on which most can agree: the UK is in severe debt (over 1 trillion pounds) and is running a deficit of around 91 billion pounds. It is obvious that the nation needs to put its finances in order. For this to occur, either income must be increased or spending cut.

The UK's coalition government has gone for the cutting option, specifically aiming at the welfare state. Ministers argue that these cuts are vital for the country to get back on its feet. It is worth examining this claim.

A useful graphic in the Guardian gives a clear picture of the UK's finances for the financial year 2012-13. The Coalition is looking to cut a further 10 billion pounds in benefits cuts, mainly after the next election.

Is it really necessary to target the weakest and most vulnerable members of society? Are there no other areas that can be cut?

From an earlier article on this topic (which is worth reading in full):

The reality is that the government could save a great deal more by dealing with tax evasion and avoidance. In this very informative article, we can see that the tax gap, namely the amount of tax evaded, avoided and not collected, is estimated to be over 120 billion pounds.

Cameron and his rich chums, along with The Daily Mail, like to vilify those on welfare as lazy scroungers and benefits cheats. As can be seen from a chart in the same article, benefits fraud accounts for less than 1% of that lost in the tax gap. If Cameron was truly serious about reducing the debt and deficit, he would address tax justice at the very least, but as this would upset his support, don't hold your breath.

It is not only the tax gap that can be worked on; huge sums of money are wasted on private consultants in the armed services or in education and multiple other areas, fields that could be easily staffed by the armies of unemployed with proper training. Again, this would not please the Tory donors so...keep holding that breath.

Even more money is thrown into the totally unnecessary Trident program, not to mention the bottomless hole also known as the Afghanistan War, and let's not forget our proud military adventures in Libya, where we saw costs like 183,000 pounds for a Brimstone missile and 50,000 pounds per Paveway guided bomb (see article for the full scandalous list).

An article by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) expertly explains the dubious tick-the-box practices behind the Work Capability Assessment carried out by staff from the private firm Atos, which is on the receiving end of a 100 million pounds a year contract for providing this service.

Atos made a 42-million-pound profit in 2010.

Social security exists for everyone, meant to provide dignity and professional support for those who suffer the misfortune of long-term illness or disability. It is particularly easy for those who have (thankfully) never suffered a debilitating condition to condemn those less lucky as faking it. Yet the fact remains that every single person on this planet (excepting those lucky enough to have substantial funds) is vulnerable at any time to accident or illness which could strike them down, rendering them incapable of working no matter how strong their desire to earn for themselves.

Seventy years ago Beveridge and Atlee understood this simple fact of life and put their strong desire for social justice and equality to good use, providing generations with free health care and education and allowing people to live without fear of falling through the cracks. In the new millennium we see a systematic dismantling of these noble structures. We see the voracious private sector waiting in the wings, desperate to have their slice of the action. We see politicians who themselves have invested in said private companies and stand to benefit handsomely. We even see GPs themselves in the trough.

And we see multitudes of unfortunate souls who pay the price.

NOTE: For those struggling to cope with the complex forms involved in the process of maintaining sickness or disability benefits, please visit this helpful site.

NOTE 2: A reader emailed the following comments after reading this article. They add an important dimension missing from the original article:

WRAG, wrong though it is, isn't the worst thing that can happen, especially if you are sent to a sensible back-to-work advisor who acknowledges many clients are too sick to work and excuse them from work-related activities (this may be about to change with the probable introduction of mandatory Workfare). Far worse is that many really sick and disabled people are dumped onto Jobseekers Allowance and expected to get back to working like a healthy person immediately. Because they are no longer officially ill or disabled at all, little data is held on what happens to them. The 32 deaths per week in WRAG figures are, of course, a very good indicator of how poor the WCA is as a means of assessing sickness.

People are facing total denial of their sickness/disability (the Brian McArdle case http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/atos-killed-my-dad-says-boy-1411100 and that of Colin Traynor: http://www.channel4.com/news/disability-testing-system-failing-says-dead-mans-parents were both examples of terribly ill people given zero points on the system).

There's far more to the WCA debacle than just politics, it is based on the fundamentally flawed bio-psychosocial model of illness. More info here: http://downwithallthat.wordpress.com/category/dubious-academics-universities/professor-mansel-aylward/ and here: http://www.internationalgreensocialist.org/wordpress/?page_id=1716.

My thanks to the reader for these helpful comments.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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