“I Don’t do Politics”: A Mistaken ‘Luxury’…

There is a big problem with the popularity of the phrase “I don’t do politics” that accompanies disinterest in what this government is up to. For me, such apathy especially relates to the changes in the political economy and ideology since the 1980s and how there has been a clever programme of discourse reversal, individualism and related radical undermining of organised labour and workers’ rights.

For instance, unlike in the late 1980s when the Poll Tax sparked a series of riots resulting in its termination, Poll Tax 2 – the ‘bedroom tax’ – has got through with no mass public complaint. ATOS are able to go about legalised killing without much opposition. The NHS, with measures such as Section 75, is becoming increasingly privatised and subject to the will of the market and the profit motive, with people unaware that they may no longer be receiving their services from the NHS, related to the lack of corporate branding. Such lack of corporate branding by the for-profit beasts such as Virgin and Serco relates to these big companies piggy backing on the NHS’s legacy of respect and trust. The NHS then takes the blame for the faults of such contracts given such limited awareness of the real make-up of the services and provision. Then there are measures such as the Right to Provide that are extending this ethos and practices of non-statutory provision across the entire public sector; again, getting passed with not much mainstream debate. voting

As people lose their homes, disabled people are forced into work – some taking their own lives or dying because of the stress -, the NHS and public sector becomes increasingly tendered out to companies that by law are required to maximise the benefits of shareholders before anything else and as jobs are lost, benefits are cut and welfare claimants and immigrants are blamed for the legacy of the policies associated with measures such as the 1980s Big Bang and the 1971 Nixon Shock, that tiring line members of the Tory party love, “I don’t do politics”, is not good enough. However, it is essential to consider how changes in the economy and also the power of the mass media in disseminating information undermines coverage of alternative viewpoints fighting against the dominant ideology. There is this belief promoted by those with the most power and influence in society that neoliberal economic, political and social forces are ‘inevitable’ and ‘unstoppable’ – hence, why many in the public accept the need for cuts to the public sector, ignoring the neoliberal blind spot that is private debt at 450%. 

Discourse Reversal

As I wrote in a previous blog post, this refers to when:

The discourses (language, essentially) employed to justify such reforms are evidence of an inversion of power and related discursive reversal. I came across this whilst reading about the discourses employed during the Section 28 public debate. The discourses inverted the power relations to justify the repressive Section. By this, the government constructed homosexuals as the ‘threat’ to institutions such as the family, the same way the government are now constructing benefit claimants as the ‘threat’ to work…By rhetorically reversing the actual power relations, the government can then attempt to justify their reforms by scapegoating and distorting reality.

Fuelled by serious misrepresentation and misuse of statistics, the government and the mainstream media have constructed a narrative that many in society have come to accept as common sense. The idea that welfare claimants are responsible for the crisis, that they are sat at home, living the high life on their minimum £56.80 a week, laughing at those working hard. This therefore turns welfare claimants into being the problem – not the lack of jobs, investment, low wages, underemployment, the excessive and corrupt profits of the private companies, with our economy based around the City of London that is worth 7x the UK GDP and incidentally provide the Tories with 50% of their funding. As I wrote on Facebook, specifically in relation to the move towards increasing means tested benefits but also applies to the problems with misrepresentation regarding welfare in general:

Several problems with means tested benefits: you reinforce the ‘scrounger’ ideology that misrepresents facts to justify an ideological attack on welfare (only 0.7% of welfare budget is fraudulently claimed); related, you miss the real crisis in demand needing higher wages, benefits and more jobs; some people wont be aware they are applicable for the benefit; it increases a wrongful stigma attached to having benefits; it makes things more complicated so less people apply for the benefit; it ignores how there is more unclaimed entitled benefits than benefit fraud (24% or £11.77bn goes unclaimed). Universalism all the way.

Such discourse reversal was also seen in a recent 40/40 Tory strategy, with the basic premise being: hit the north real bad through ideological economic policies. Then – and this is the best bit – blame results on the benefit claimants and immigrants. It’s the same with things such as the job, housing, education and health care problems with under-resources, overcrowding and waiting lists; it is claimed that if migrants were banished and welfare claimants are made to suffer more and more, this will end the problems. It ignores the government’s unwillingness to build more homes (which relates to the Right to Buy scheme Thatcher introduced, and this government has extended) and the increasing privatisation of the NHS alongside the government’s focus on so-called ‘natural’ unemployment rates and their refusal to actually invest and create real jobs through restructuring the economy through policies such as job shares, higher wages and investment in the real economy rather than the finance sector and money that exists in no more than digits and complex, ‘innovative’ financial systems. More importantly, as mentioned, there is a common discourse that such unwillingness is instead unavoidable, as after all “there is no money left, and we all have to tighten our belts”.

Individualism and Opposition Undermined

Part of the problem, for me, is a culture of individualism that has been encouraged especially since the 1980s where people are told to look out for themselves. The idea of caring for others and protecting people’s rights – even if you don’t directly benefit – has somehow been lost on many members of the younger people. Long gone are the days where things such as voting and even taking an interest in who is running the country, or even knowing the names of those running the country, matter. Such things were once seen as obligations. They are now seen as ‘boring’.

Of course, not everyone is like this. There are many great people campaigning against these injustices every day; many of which are not reported on or confined to the small print or locked up in jail for over a 100 years. But after the decline of community networks and cohesion, things people didn’t want to talk about after the death of Thatcher, and the media blackout of sensible, rational based arguments we have a long way to go in tackling this. This relates to how since the 1980s, the opposition to the rise of finance have been continually undermined – be it through the miners’ strikes, the ongoing reduction in workers’ and trade union’s role and rights and the use of language such as ‘union barons’ to refer to ordinary working people. Whilst this has gone on, we have seen the rise of financial dominance. People have been encouraged, through individualistic, consumerist and short terms ideas, to get into debt, spend, consume, even if they don’t have a job in order to sustain the ongoing production of asset bubbles that are key to lining the pockets of the rich and that keep the financial system expanding whilst the rest of the economy crumbles.

We have to take more interest and ask more questions, collectively as a society, in what is happening to disabled people, welfare claimants, immigrants, the NHS and the public services that we have cherished for so long and people’s human rights that we have a history of giving a damn about, as mass privatisation, marketisation, liberalisation and individualism intensifies. Nevertheless, change isn’t easy in a system that has stifled opposition through financial dominance, undermined critical debate through media monopoly and where money equates to power and the ability to influence dominant ideas that promote this so-called common sense assumption that there is no alternative. Therefore, this is where community focused projects, alternative media and community renewal and regeneration are all important to move towards a counter system to one that is screwed for most people. Doing politics is key to this.

‘Liveable’ and ‘unliveable’ lives; this government’s disrespect for ethics…

In 2010, I wrote a blog post discussing ethics and welfare for Public Sociology, a blog affiliated to the University of Leeds.  I find reciting this blog post very timely given my recent readings regarding the power of capital flows to destabilise economies, nationally and internationally, and the safety nets that institutions such as the IMF have created for incompetent private creditors/investors, as taxpayers – especially those belonging to stigmatised and vulnerable groups – take the brunt for greedy investors’ mistakes. This is alongside the increasing clampdown on welfare claimants in the UK as Iain Duncan Smith goes all China-style in proposing the state limit how many children someone can own and still receive certain benefits.

Essentially, it draws on the work of Judith Butler and her analysis of ethics and her related concepts of ‘liveable’ and ‘unliveable’ lives:

Butler purports that we have certain assumptions about what constitutes a ‘liveable life’, that everyone is interrelated by varying degrees of vulnerability, and that this ethical interrelationship is key to making lives bearable i.e. ‘liveable’. However, the vulnerability of those who are seen as having ‘unliveable lives’ is ignored, consequently, so are ethical obligations.

With welfare claimants paying the price for a £1.5 billion bank bailout as private debt is turned into public debt, as the blog makes note of, claimants are also associated with negative, misrepresentative discourses. So-called ‘facts’ are utilised to support a neoliberal, back to basics nasty ideology that puts the blame of the market onto the public sector and those seen as ‘unliveable’ – namely defined by whether they are in work, and if they are in work how much money they are earning alongside if they claim any form of assistance. Corporate assistance is judged as meriting a ‘liveable’ life whereas any form of assistance, such as child benefit or disability living allowance, that helps ordinary people work and survive, is often viewed as a reason to define someone as ‘unliveable’ with their vulnerability and associated rights ignored and trounced on by a cabinet of millionaires:

Butler’s acknowledgement of the interrelatedness and shared experience of vulnerability is important when analysing the welfare changes from a sociological critique. Everyone is vulnerable; it is an ethical obligation for us to acknowledge this. When this vulnerability is ignored, this is when ethics are discounted. The government’s welfare proposals are clearly ignoring the vulnerability that certain groups face, as they construct their lives as ‘unliveable’ mainly because they aren’t working.  When people rightfully protest against these ideological, shock-doctrine inspired cuts, people are protesting to be listened to and for this government to consider them ethically. Of course, people may not frame it like this – but utilising Butler’s arguments, you can see the clear link between ethics, respect and the right to self-determination and a life that isn’t destroyed by the ‘right’ of the State to dictate work as equating to ‘worth’.

This could be clearly shown in the recent proposals by Smith to limit child related benefits to those who have two kids. As I facetiously commented when hearing the news, unsurprisingly, the cap is ideological and inspired by the nuclear family, dogmatic back to basics rubbish. It is also demonstrates a pathological hatred towards helping those who need it, whilst rewarding those who got us in this mess. Hypothetically, what about triplets? Should the family abort? Or would it be their fault because of Social Darwinist reasons?

Again, it all comes back to this central question of whose life is valued. Pathologically, a private creditor that makes risky investments due to free capital movements (which is more than can be said about labour movement) and then capitalising on crises they help create by utilising a bailout to make money back from their bonds as taxpayers take the fall is given more worth, more respect and rights to having a ‘liveable’ life than an ordinary person trying their best to get along in a system. This system that discourages full employment, encourages false needs, endless consumption, greed and profit at the expense of comfortable, diverse and flexible employment where wages are higher and all people – irrespective of their social background – have their rights and vulnerability respected through ethical considerations of public good – not private good. As a note here, I am hoping to do a blog post soon on the idea of a bail-in that has recently risen to prominence given the cost to taxpayers from the global financial crisis.

Liam Byrne, welfare and capitalism…

“Capitalism is a social cancer. It has always been a social cancer. It is a disease of society. It is the malignancy of society”. – Murray Bookchin.

Whilst it puzzles me that so many Labour activists would spend so long every day lambasting their leader, rather than spending energy into criticising the coalition, there are rightful grievances, especially when it comes to Liam Byrne’s recent article regarding welfare.

Byrne utilises the Beveridge Report to focus his attack upon the unemployed, supposed ‘idleness’ whilst ignoring the realities of capitalist relations. For instance, he refers to Beveridge’s support for full employment. Full employment was associated with Keynesian economics. Under the current capitalist system, the idea of full employment is a farce. As many influential thinkers have shown, full employment is impossible in a capitalist system, as we always need some sort of reserve army of labour in order to keep the system ticking over. Whether that be called the lumpen proletariat, NEETS or the underclass, these so-called parasites of the system are actually required to keep the capitalist neoliberal system in the balance.

Think of it this way. These people keep the competition for jobs and the ability for low wages alive. If full employment was achieved, which is possible if jobs were shared out and working hours were reduced to say a 21 hour week (as the NEF recommends), then we would have a healthier economy, a living wage and more time for creative endeavour. However, the catch is that for the economy to achieve full employment, for those who can work that is, there needs to be a removal of capitalist economics such as the profit motive, competition, greed and neoliberal ‘ideals’ of productivity.

The focus on the long-term unemployed Byrne has in his article ignores the realities of capitalism in another important way, as well. This is in terms of the problems with job creation, when the economy goes through a recession alongside the falling rate of profit endemic within capitalism and the self destructive dialectical nature of the capitalist system. In other words, as capitalism tries to adapt, we see more and more workers losing their jobs, as technology is often used to replace and downsize the workforce. In consequence, the ability for employees to reduce workers’ wages is reduced, thus to increase and maintain profit they have to increase the products costs due to the increasing capital costs. But because of the decreasing job rate, more people are unable to afford the rising product cost, therefore creating an even worse economic situation.

This is related to the increasing reliance on credit. Something Cameron said was a problem in terms of the economy’s recovery. That’s right, a capitalist criticising one of the very mechanisms capitalism relies upon. As train fares, bus fares, food, heating, water and so on all rise, as more and more people lose their jobs, as the gap between the rich and the poorest goes up – the leading parties look for someone to blame. Those with the least ability to kick back, to get their views represented in the parasitic media and tackle the misleading lies and information regarding them as people, are the ones targeted – like Byrne’s attack upon welfare claimants.

What do these people think benefit claimants are doing? Do they think all of them aren’t actively looking for a job? Do they ignore the fact that only £1bn of welfare fraud occurs, and that £16bn worth of benefits goes unclaimed every year? Do they ignore the fact that so many jobs don’t pay enough to survive adequately? Do they know how it feels like to lose their job and have little hope of finding an adequate replacement, as those at the top earn ridiculous amounts of money and receive knighthoods and £850bn of taxpayers money to make sure they don’t fail after nearly collapsing the country after their excessive risk taking and profit making activities?

Whilst attempting to defend disability benefits, Byrne still advocates some level of reform to disability benefit. The details of which are ignored. Yes, let’s not forget that Labour brought in ESA, used ATOS and still haven’t turned their back on this. There’s a long way to go before we have adequate mainstream representation within parliament fighting for groups such as disabled people. Too much focus on those with the money. Corrupt and perverse. Furthermore, there is a focus upon those trying to do the ‘decent’ thing and save up money. What about those who can’t afford to save up money? Those who will have to choose out of cutting down their food or leaving their house because of the housing benefit changes?

In sum, it’s the same tireless attack upon benefit claimants, the ignorance of capitalist social and production relations and the deflection of blame and responsibility from those at the top and those in power.

An analysis of UK disability policy with reference to international law…

With the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the optional protocol signed by the United Kingdom in 2009, the UK are now legally bound to the Convention and the protocol that enables individuals/groups to report – against government policies – to the Committee on Rights of Persons with Disabilities if they believe the government is breaking the Convention’s stipulations. However, many have recognised the problems of poor implementation regarding the Convention despite the Convention having the highest number of signatures on the opening day of a Convention in the UN’s history, alongside having the highest level of participation by civil society in a human rights convention.

For my degree, one of my modules involved an analysis of disability policies in line with international and national policy frameworks within a specific country. I studied France, finding that despite being one of the most advanced countries in the world, it still presides over a raft of poverty and authoritarian behaviour re disabled people shaped by ever-increasing neoliberal, European and international associated, pressures of deficit and debt reductions. Organisations such as Ni Pauvre, Ni Soumis are fighting the abject poverty many disabled people experience on a daily basis, given many of their benefits are below the poverty level. Ironically, a French company, ATOS healthcare (paid over £100m a year to run their ‘tests’) – a division of ATOS Origin, are primal architectures of the assault upon disabled people’s rights within the UK and the breaching of the UN Convention.

Below, I intend to demonstrate, through utilising specific articles from the UN Convention, how the UK are ignoring the framework they have ratified to law and why disabled organisations, disabled people and people in general are justifiable angry at the ideologically callous direction of this government and why the recent Disability Alliance legal challenge of the UK’s policies has power behind it.

Background Knowledge

Below is a quote from a recent Guardian article regarding a key change to disability benefits, just to contextualise the blog:

Since 2008, anyone claiming sickness or disability-related benefits for the first time has been required to take the Atos-administered Work Capability Assessment (WCA); from the end of this month (February 2011), all existing incapacity benefit claimants will be reassessed using this test, as the old benefit is phased out and a new system, employment support allowance (ESA), is brought in.

If they are awarded 15 points, they will be moved on to ESA, which has two levels – the support group, where claimants are judged to be too disabled or unwell to be expected to work, and the work-related activity group, where claimants are deemed to be capable of working, provided they are supported into employment.

If they don’t score 15 points, they will be moved on to the regular jobseekers’ allowance. This is around £25 a week less than incapacity benefit, and will leave people with their income cut by just over a quarter. This lower benefit also lacks the immediate, intensive support for getting back to work that ESA is designed to provide.

Article 13 – Access to justice

1. States Parties shall ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, including through the provision of procedural and age-appropriate accommodations, in order to facilitate their effective role as direct and indirect participants, including as witnesses, in all legal proceedings, including at investigative and other preliminary stages.

With the recent news that legal aid will be stopped for those on benefits, the government is clearly breaking Article 13, 1. I recount a recent blog entry, where I quoted a disability activist’s comments regarding the stopping of legal aid for disabled people and the deeply disturbing reasons, driven by neoliberal ideology, for why the government wants to end such provision:

It’s partially due to the failure of ESA – appeals are won at 40%, with an advocate, usually paid for by legal aid they jump to 70%. Cut the legal aid cut the number of people legally claiming what they are entitled to and it’s a double save. Also stops both the government and ATOS looking quite so incompetent and will stop it looking so necessary to reform or scrap the failing benefit and its corrupt test. They don’t want the same to happen with the new PIP – because it was legal aid that helped win the case-law that brought DLA into line with the equality legislation and therefore widened the criteria to all those who should be entitled not just the smaller group the government wanted to give as a gesture towards equality and independence for disabled people. The blind are a prime example, until very recently no one who was blind could get the higher rate of mobility – through challenges in the courts someone who needs a lot of support to get out and about can now qualify. That’s a completely new group of claimants who really do deserve the money who have been denied it for decades. It’s also why the claimant rate for DLA has gone up so much, because as legal challenges were made and won new groups became entitled to it and so they claimed and it made their lives easier and them more independent. They can’t get rid of the equality legislation no matter how much they drool over the thought, nor the payments towards independence, so they will fiddle around with the criteria, move the goal posts a bit and remove legal aid to make sure that no one can bring it back into line with what is actually fair and legal. Barely anyone outside the disabled community will blink because the propaganda about scroungers is so embedded into everyone’s heads they think we are all faking. They are so certain we are all faking they’ve forgotten if you look really ill your probably genuine and that the fakes are running around looking like the rest of them until they have an ATOS visit. 

Obviously, Labour signed the Convention and initiated many of the controversial aspects to the government’s disability onslaught, especially Employment Support Allowance (ESA). However, the current government is carrying out the plans with more ferocity; consider my analysis of the coalition’s initial agreement document where there was no mention of disability in line with equality, and the ignorance towards the independent living movement, instead focusing upon ‘care’ (interesting when considering Article 19 below). It was a year ago I wrote a blog regarding the BBC Scotland and the Citizens Advice Scotland’s report on ESA; the key findings, reported include:

  • It is “unfit for purpose”
  • It targets the most vulnerable
  • 2/3rds of claimants are being found to be fit for work – 20% more than estimated by the previous government
  • One of the most commonly appealed against benefit, with around 8,000 cases a month and around 40% decisions being reversed

The last point highlights the argument made by the disability activist above; the high number of appeals causes a problem for a government intent on pretending the system works and that the people are the problem. However, this doesn’t also consider the many stories of ATOS recalling successful appeal claimants for new tests, where one person for instance was said to have died through the stress and another who committed suicide because of it with the local job centre conceding there needs to be a review into the Work Capability Assessments:

Dismayed to find his benefit claim rejected, he had appealed against the decision, and won at tribunal. But shortly after that decision, he was called in for another assessment, and for a second time scored zero points and was told he did not qualify for the benefit. He began appealing against the decision again, but a few days before another tribunal date was set, he hanged himself.

It also says something when one of the main creators of the ESA system, Paul Gregg, has labelled the process a ‘complete mess’. There is no consideration of the waiting times involved when being assessed for ESA (discussed below), for instance. The Work Capability Assessments are what are used to analyse whether claimants are fit to work. These assessments have been heavily criticised, as has the company, ATOS, mentioned above. Even the TUC have been critical of the company, arguing that the tests are there to save money (especially when the government has estimated, because of the tighter conditions, it will save them around £1bn over five years; nothing when you think about the billions wasted by corporations and institutions such as bankers!):

 “The new incapacity benefit assessment is a much tougher test than previously and is designed to save the government money by excluding more people. The TUC has heard from disabled people all around the UK who feel the tests have been unfair and ineffective, and it is interesting to see that 39% of appeals against initial judgments are successful.”

To even believe that you can understand and assess competently someone’s disability levels through a computer led programme beggars belief. This is especially true when it comes to mental illness, but even the self-completion questionnaires that are often used to ‘track’ depression and hand out drugs are created by the drug companies themselves! Questions, alongside ‘side-ways’ questions such as “do you watch Eastenders”, included in the test illustrate the sheer ignorant and restricted nature of the assessment:

How did you get here, by train, by bus? How do you spend your day? Do you watch TV? Do you listen to the radio? Do you go to the pub? Do you drink alcohol? Do you have pets? Do you have a social life? What time do you get up? Do you do housework? Do you follow the news? What floor do you live on? Do you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm? Are you able to cook? Can you go to the shops? Can you get yourself dressed?

Whilst providing background knowledge beyond relevance to this specific article (13), the information above illustrates the government’s inadequacy when it comes to ensuring disabled people have access to justice. With a system so flawed, prone to a very high rate of appeals, to then reduce the legal aid available to those on benefits is deeply troubling and clearly a breach of disability rights – as is the system itself.

Article 19 – Living independently and being included in the community

States Parties to this Convention recognize the equal right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others, and shall take effective and appropriate measures to facilitate full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of this right and their full inclusion and participation in the community, including by ensuring that:

  1. Persons with disabilities have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement;
  2. Persons with disabilities have access to a range of in-home, residential and other community support services, including personal assistance necessary to support living and inclusion in the community, and to prevent isolation or segregation from the community

There are warnings by disability charities that such negative portrayals of disabled people, constructing them as ‘threats’ to society in order to take attention away from the government’s actions and rather to justify repressive policies that curtail the rights of those being attacked, will likely lead to violence against disabled people. As mentioned above, if claimants fail to score more than 15 points on the Work Capability Assessments they are placed onto job seekers allowance meaning that they lose around £25 a week. Furthermore, whilst waiting for the assessment to go through, claimants are placed on very low levels of income:

During the assessment phase you are paid a ‘basic allowance’. This is set at a similar level to that of jobseeker’s allowance. If you are aged under 25 you will receive a reduced rate of this basic allowance. Once you have completed the assessment period the reduction for under 25s does not apply.

This can make all the difference, especially when it comes to independent living given the extra costs associated with disability. As many have expressed, the employment market is poor in general – disabled people are often seen as too much trouble to hire and so inevitability many will be reduced to poverty with a quarterly long-term cut in income. Furthermore, there is the possibility that disabled people may find specific aspects regarding job seekers harder to meet and therefore end up losing or having their benefit suspended.

Rather than utilising a social model approach, which concentrates on the need to remove the social barriers, shaped by neoliberal political and economic conditions, so that disabled people are included within society instead of being shut out and then blamed – the government focuses upon the individual in a capitalist centric fashion. This point was highlighted by Labour’s Anne Begg who argued that without sanctions enforced upon ATOS when appeals occur:

“[It] adds to the suspicion that you are a private company, you are driven by a profit motive, and the incentive is to get the assessments done, but not necessarily to get the assessments right.”

This is especially concerning when considering the cost of appeals to the taxpayer, with some having their benefits stopped after not attending a test they weren’t told they had:

More than 150,000 people deemed fit to work by French IT company Atos have won appeals in a process costing taxpayers more than £30million a year, it found.

ATOS have been given the contract to assess claimants for the new personal independence payments, to replace the disability living allowance in 2013 and currently being piloted with 1,000 volunteers (which the Disability Alliance are critical of given they were not consulted), causing understandable concern across the disability community, especially the focus upon cost-cutting when it comes to the Welfare Reform Bill alongside limited testing criteria with Scope arguing that this is very much like the problems associated with the ESA tests:

PIP is in danger of being a poorly-targeted payment, which will see many disabled people, especially those with less complex impairments but high disability-related costs, losing out on vital financial support (Scope, Richard Hawkes).

Disability living allowance has already been cut back, including the potential removal of the mobility compartment of DLA for those living in residential care, confining and institutionalising disabled people en mass with 60,000-80,000 people affected. PIP will carry this on, as people in care homes, prison and hospitals will not receive it. However, Disability Alliance have launched a legal bid against the government’s cuts to DLA, citing the UN Convention as one of the laws the UK is breaking illustrating the Convention’s significance. In their statement outlining the reasons for the bid, Disability Alliance state their concern that the movement towards targeting the benefit to those with the ‘most need’ (illustrating connections to Scope’s comments above, regarding the ignorance of less complex impairments) will lead to many losing the lower rate of the benefit (around £19 a week):

Disability Alliance is especially concerned over plans to abolish Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for working age people (defined as 16-64 years of age by DWP) and introduce a new benefit (Personal Independence Payment – PIP) which will have a £2.17 billion lower budget by 2015. PIP will not provide an equivalent level of support for the 652,000 disabled people currently receiving low rate care DLA payments.

The practice of awarding DLA automatically to those with certain conditions will be removed, with regular assessments every few years introduced. Essentially, the desire to cut DLA by 20% is at the driving seat of these reforms. It is worth noting that the income-related Employment and Support Allowance, different to contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance, will be replaced by a generalised controversial Universal Credit system. The new PIP system is set to also further the time claimants have to wait until they can receive financial payments for their disability:

Under the old system, claimants would have to meet the criteria for three months before receiving payment (which was not backdated). I felt this was scandalous. PIP addresses this issue – by extending this period to six months, which is downright cruel…The proposed extension is for all long-term disabilities with the very specific exception of the terminally ill with a life expectancy less than six months.

PIP’s restricted requirements will again penalise disabled people, who often find themselves in poverty alongside trying to meet higher living costs – as the Disability Alliance have expressed, there is concern that such conditions will really undermine the benefit’s use and application:

This ‘real life’ aspect to the assessment is also affected by the rigid assessment which makes no consideration of where disabled people live and the accessibility of local produce.

Furthermore, in another attack against disabled people’s independence, the cuts to housing benefit are set to lead to 450,000 disabled people being affected, losing on average £13 a week, and potentially losing their homes. Again, the changes discussed clearly break a key aspect of the Convention, with disabled people’s independence being seriously threatened as their resources, living and freedom are attacked in a cost cutting neoliberal ideologically driven ‘exercise’.

Article 27 – Work and employment

2. States Parties shall ensure that persons with disabilities are not held in slavery or in servitude, and are protected, on an equal basis with others, from forced or compulsory labour.

For me, the Work Capability Assessments and ATOS – given the flaws so endemic within their practices – are central to the government breaking Article 27.1, as disabled people are literally forced into working or onto an inadequate job seekers allowance. This is especially true now legal aid has been cut, reducing people’s ability to appeal such provision. With independent living continually being threatened, this also undermines disabled people’s autonomy to a justifiably good life – again forcing many into situations that breach their civil, political and human rights.

This point is excellently evidenced in a recent Guardian article regarding the problems of the ATOS tests:

Since its preliminary rollout in 2008, people with terminal cancer have been found fit to work, people with mental health problems have complained their condition is not taken seriously, people with complex illnesses report that the tick-box system is not able to cope with the nuances of their problems. A revised, even more stringent version introduced this month means that blind and deaf people will no longer automatically receive sickness benefit, and are unlikely to qualify for extra help finding work.

This relates well to the brief discussion regarding the effectiveness of computer based analysis for such a complex area of life. Disability Alliance are highly critical of the omission within the assessments of considering the impact upon claimants if they are prevented or lose DLA; not to mention their survey that found that a half of those at work would stop working if they lost DLA. Furthermore, the Alliance refers to the exclusion of disability organisations when creating the Work Capability Assessments – these omissions of disability organisations within the disability related policy processes is a clear abbreviation of the Convention and goes against the high level of civic engagement when writing the Convention.

Article 28 – Adequate standard of living and social protection

1. States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions, and shall take appropriate steps to safeguard and promote the realization of this right without discrimination on the basis of disability.
2. States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to social protection and to the enjoyment of that right without discrimination on the basis of disability, and shall take appropriate steps to safeguard and promote the realization of this right, including measures:

c) To ensure access by persons with disabilities and their families living in situations of poverty to assistance from the State with disability-related expenses, including adequate training, counselling, financial assistance and respite care.

Fundamentally, the article as a whole illustrates the government’s breaking of the Convention rather well, especially given a third of disabled people live in poverty. Disabled people are being forced into a position of poverty, where their rights, standard of living and resources are being attacked in an ideological vendetta of sickening neoliberal hatred and callous desire to punish the most vulnerable whilst the top 1% is heavily represented by the blue-eyed cabinet.

ATOS, a private driven enterprise, is the epitome of what is wrong with this government. Instead of people’s needs and interests being considered, the destructive desire for profit and greed is promoted as neoliberal cost cutting targets are implemented with a devastating effect upon people’s lives. MPs on mass, from different parties, have criticised the system – with many questioning the ability of ATOS to deliver the ‘substantial savings’ they promised when their contract was lengthened to 2015. Furthermore, ATOS as a centre isn’t very accessible for many disabled people, as stated in a competent blog post regarding the problems of ATOS:

More problems occur because at least a fifth of ATOS medical centres are not wheelchair accessible. Only one third of the centres have onsite parking, while visitors are required to walk from car parks several minutes away for other centres, and just one has a parking space for disabled people. 30 of the centres are not on the ground floor some don’t even have lifts! Considering that people only visit these buildings when they are sick or disabled and a huge number of them will be using walking sticks or wheelchairs, this is ridiculous.

In fact, there is a recent Work and Pensions Select Committee report regarding the changes to disabled people’s benefits, which has been highly critical of the loaded negative language and misquoting of facts by the media regarding disability (also see here for a good analysis of biased media reporting regarding disability statistics; also here for a good analysis of the facts that illustrates that in reality incapacity benefit rates have been declining since the 80/90s when there was an movement towards removing many unemployed people out of the labour market, and the disproportionate focus upon long-term claimants ignoring the short-term temporary nature of many claimants’ impairment). Specifically, the report concentrates on the 1.5 million incapacity benefit claimants currently being assessed by ATOS via the Work Capability Assessments. I am planning to do another blog focusing upon the report’s findings.

Work In a Neoliberal World

I have discussed the importance of work in our capitalist neoliberal framed society before. As I made clear then, work is important – but it shouldn’t be the be all and end all. It shouldn’t be so important that without it people are made to feel worthless, not ‘normal’ and have limited resources, opportunities and income. That’s not a society you nor I should want to live in. As demonstrated throughout the blog, these changes are clearly breaking an international convention that the UK are legally obliged to meet. This highlights the problems with the United Nations as an enforcing body, but also the potential for disability activists to use such a valuable tool in our fight against this government’s callous actions.

Big Society, and the Social Anaesthesia State…

A recent reading on the French economy mentioned the development of a social anaesthesia state since the 1980s, within France, paralleling movements towards decentralisation, marketisation and the replacement of a statist mentality to more neoliberal framed constructions. Ironically, such a movement actually saw increased public spending, as they grappled with the various interests effected by the switch. Therefore, increased spending on welfare, for instance, helped with the formation of a social anaesthesia state, in an attempt to dampen the pain associated with cuts in services, and the inadequate transfers of funds between state and local authorities whilst functions from the centre to the decentralised zones were carried out more in theory than practice.

In a similar vein, the UK government’s plans, especially in line with constructs such as the ‘big society’, will result in higher spending on many social support services like welfare as people lose their job, and search for any sort of assistance they can. However, charities are being merged, destroyed and cut back whilst the government preaches about a ‘big society’ (well Cameron, seeing as many within the government are fastly distancing themselves from the vacuous rhetoric). Therefore, whilst spending will increase on things such as welfare through people being effected job, health wise etc., the venomous way the Tories are attacking our welfare system and services will mean that a social anaesthesia state is not implemented. Implicated within many of the government’s policies is a destruction of services and support for people, as marginalised groups are marginalised even further. With a continual declining slope towards neoliberalism, internationally as well (see recent blog on this), alongside the state being destructively attacked and dismantled, there is a lack of actual protection against the growth of dissent.

With the government only a year old, it is clear they are one of the most regressive governments to exist. The economic, political and social direction is worse than Thatcher. Our systems of support are being torn down beneath our eyes. As the cuts become more engrained, as more people’s lives are dismantled the stronger apathy – but also political resistance – will become. Without an anaesthesia construct, with the big society attempt rapidly failing apart, resistance will grow. The problem is translating this resistance into real change, given the corrupt international political system we find ourselves within.

Political Economy and Mental Distress…

On reflection, regarding a letter to the Guardian re the devastating effects the welfare system changes and the larger political economic direction of the government will have upon people’s lives, I think it is important to pay specific focus upon the often hidden consequences such changes can have on primarily invisible, mental conditions. Mental illness frequently has a considerably nastier stigma attached to it, in contrast to physical illnesses; you only have to look at the production of mental illness policy in France, recently, to see how individual unrepresentative cases are utilised to ‘justify’ repressive, authoritarian and sickening detention centres and surveillance systems to ‘police’ mentally distress.

Likewise, UK policy on welfare, social support services etc. is based upon a neoliberal discourse of callous ideological desire to promote a laissez faire unequal system, where those without the cash are left to fend for themselves. The authors of the letter state clearly that some people have already taken their life, through desperation. Reports have been made regarding ATOS highlighting the damages of their practices, and their strict attitude towards benefit claimants.  Again, such policies are ‘justified’ through atypical examples of people breaching the system, making out anyone on benefits are ‘scroungers’. Of course, those bankers (if we can call them that, Fred Goodwin), corporate bosses and elites creaming the system and spitting their dummy out threatening to flee the shores if they are even touched economically, well they are ‘essential’ for the economy.

People ‘manipulating’ the welfare system are often doing so out of desperation, not economic greed. There is a massive difference. The effects such economic political changes will have on people will create stress, alongside the fear of the atrocious ideologically driven harsher medical tests. Fearing you will lose your job, house, can’t afford food, bills and unsure about the increasing level of cuts and economic devastation is bound to have detrimental effects to people’s health. However, GDP will count this as economic growth; but that’s another issue.

As political activists, the effects of the current governmental direction and the situation of mental distress in general is important to consider. After all, we are all human beings, and the current policies and direction are treating some people’s lives as totally ‘unliveable’. By this, Judith Butler’s views of ethics are important and is something I have written about before. Essentially, Butler argues that everyone is vulnerable, that is what connects us together, but when someone’s vulnerability is not taken into account there life is deemed ‘unliveable'; only when it is seen as ‘liveable’ are they treat ethically. Essentially, those experiencing mental distress are often treat as ‘unliveable’, as people become frustrated and fed up of those experiencing problems; this has only been intensified through the current political economy with a sickening blame culture developing.

Real support, so people aren’t thrown on the scrap heap, where crisis centres aren’t shut, people aren’t shoved onto drugs, medical tests aren’t made impossible and waiting lists don’t take weeks or even months, is essential. We need to recognise that mental distress can happen to anyone, one in three in fact, and until we start treating it like a political economic issue, the harder the situation for many people will get.

The recirculation of ‘underclass’…

There has always been some term to describe the ‘bottom’ of society, in a case of classic simplification, groups of people are branded and stigmatised with highly loaded concepts. It appears that the ‘underclass’ is doing the rounds, with its Social Darwinistic associations the term is often utilised to ‘justify’ repressive policies such as tighter welfare requirements, cuts in provisions and services in the name of ‘helping’. Often, the underlying social structural factors are ignored, as people – the disabled, unemployed, single mothers, students, certain ethnic groups, women etc. – are lumped together as one ‘class’ and directed towards un-tailored and simplistic often repressive policies.

The Prince of Wales Trust has today said that there is the development of a youth underclass in the UK, with an ‘aspiration gap’ (structural factors, seemingly overlooked in comparison to values) forming between the rich and poor. For me, the ‘underclass’ – as a term – attempts to pigeon hole certain groups, emphasising the individual, their values, whilst ignoring any strong critical analysis of the underlying wider political and economic ramifications. There are underclass theorists who do try to relate the underclass concept to wider structural factors, but the term’s main associates are those such as Charles Murray, who utilise individualistic arguments, ignoring causal factors, privileging correlation – arguing crime, unemployment and out of marriage relations are almost ‘naturally’ part of the underclass (Murary even likened the underclass to cancer). Central to the underclass concept is picking atypical examples of say welfare claimants and utilising it to generalise all experience.

This isn’t to deny that there is genuine hardship (anyone who reads my blog, or follows me politically should know my views here) and serious concern regarding the real attacks upon welfare, jobs and education etc. that are undermining people’s chances, opportunities and experiences – especially in line with the current government’s direction. But the term, underclass, is too simplistic, associated with agency (but reductive) led repressive policies, views and theories – whilst ignoring the diversification of experience. The wider political economy is central to the repressive social, political and economic direction of the government – sadly, the underclass concept, which is set for a forceful return, does not competently allow for such an illumination.