STATE AND THE UNION

It’s official. I am a dysfunctional human being and I am a problem for society. These are facts I’ve long suspected, but I required confirmation from an expert – preferably a happily-married rich man who lives on land owned by his even richer father-in-law. According to this expert, I frequently have inherently unstable relationships because I’ve never tied the knot; as a consequence of this, I commit crimes, I drink too much, I take drugs and I have fathered multiple children. Considering yesterday’s post dealt with the legacy of IDS in his stint at the DWP, it’s nice that the old egghead has provided me with something to talk about today as well as giving these often disparate posts a semblance of continuity. You can’t keep a good man down, even when his CV is illuminated by a stint as leader of his party so ineffective that he was axed before he had the chance to fight a General Election.

The notion that the root cause of society’s ills is down to ‘cohabitating couples’ deciding not to have their union certified by an archaic, style-over-substance ceremony in a House of God or a registry office is one I should imagine cartoon characters like Jacob Rees Mogg fully endorse – as long as the couples in question are of the opposite sex, of course; but it would seem the IDS theory conveniently excludes poverty, piss-poor job opportunities, low wages, long working hours, lack of affordable housing and a world in which putting the hours in has little or no rewards. The have-not drones are expected to be content with their lot when the haves parade their tax-free gains across the media, rubbing the nose of the plebs in it as they do so. Unless they get married, naturally; all their problems would be solved in an instant then.

The stock of IDS has now sadly sunk so low that he is reduced to speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference rather than the official corporate shindig itself; but at least it gives him free rein to expound upon his increasingly detached-from-reality theories allegedly formed via his spell as Work and Pensions Tsar under David Cameron. He eventually walked out on this post, claiming Dave and Gideon couldn’t care less about anyone who didn’t attend even a minor public school in his resignation letter; stating the bleedin’ obvious, maybe, but a pre-emptive strike that nicely facilitated the IDS role as a prominent Leave cheerleader during the EU Referendum. The Brexit sitcom may be an ongoing Whitehall farce, though Mr Duncan Smith has no part to play at Government level, so is forced into falling back onto his former favourite subject as a means of garnering self-publicity.

IDS claimed men unbound by the burden of wedlock were ‘released to do all the things they wouldn’t normally do’; this implies married men are impeccable models of respectable probity, the kind of gentlemen who wouldn’t dream of cheating on their spouses, so bound are they by the contract they enter into as though it had the God-fearing authority of a Medieval oath. ‘They are out,’ he said, ‘no longer having to bring something in for their family…so levels of addiction, levels of high criminal activity, issues around dysfunctional behaviour, multiple parenting – all these things are as a result of the un-anchoring of the young man to a responsibility that keeps them stable and eventually makes them more happy.’

It’s rather quaint that IDS firmly believes the kind of irresponsible men he speaks of somehow didn’t exist when any cohabitating couples siring offspring required a ring on the third fingers of their respective left hands. The idea that this acted as a preventative aid to men who don’t have it in them to play the husband/father role from wandering and philandering is a tad amusing; in actual fact, it merely kept the wife in a state of permanent misery, unable to hook up with a far more suitable candidate because she was tied to a waste of space courtesy of the social contract that marriage represented in less enlightened days.

The mistake made time and time again by the likes of IDS or Peter Hitchens at his reactionary worst is that a union sanctified preferably by the Church of England is one that will be honoured by both parties; a pleasant, Ladybird book ideal that doesn’t necessarily equate with reality, the belief that a partnership sanctioned by the state has a stamp of legitimacy that negates the kind of activities IDS blames on ‘common law marriage’ is one that may well play to traditional Tory principles, but has no basis in fact. Being married to the ‘fragrant’ Mary didn’t serve as an obstacle to Jeffrey Archer playing away with a prostitute, after all.

Twenty years ago next February (on Friday 13th – an ominous omen if ever there was one), I came within a whisker of officially certifying a union that was destined to collapse into chaos courtesy of the other half; had she not changed her mind at the eleventh hour, I doubt it would have lasted much longer than Cher’s union with Duane Allman, one that resulted in the former filing for divorce within nine days of the wedding in 1975. This was long before the Posh & Becks/Jordan & Peter Andre showbiz blueprint of the wedding ceremony that has descended into a tacky festival of bad taste via Reality TV and its PR publications, proving to be a pernicious influence on the mindset of the young and responsible for vast fortunes squandered on ceremonies hosted by country hotels and stately homes that often have little bearing on the actual relationship.

As it happens, Mr Duncan Smith, I’ve never been married and I’ve never indulged in parenting of any kind (multiple or no); my addictions and criminal activity have been limited to a level that wouldn’t have troubled the tabloids, let alone the boys in blue; and tarring everyone from a low-income demographic with lazy clichés that suit your self-image as a patrician lecturer based upon a reforming nineteenth century model simply isn’t good enough in the twenty-first century. IDS says one in five dependent children have no father figure at home, adding ‘A child in Britain is more likely to experience family breakdown than anywhere else in the world’; that may well be true, but a sanctified C-of-E union isn’t the solution, and believing it is simply shows a genuine lack of understanding of (as someone once said) crime and the causes of crime.

© The Editor

BLOOD MONEY

£40 million – it’s one of those unimaginable amounts that humble folk such as me and thee regularly hear being bandied about by the powers-that-be, yet its sheer immenseness in comparison to what most of us handle on a daily basis renders it almost meaningless as a number. When Lottery winners scoop £12 million, I often wonder if it’d make that much of a difference to the sudden transformation of their lives if they’d simply won half of that; to people who normally survive on a few grand a year, I would think £6 million would probably suffice, wouldn’t it? Of course, in the hands of government, £40 million is merely loose change. But it still sounds a lot to those members of the electorate bereft of non-dom status. It also serves as political proof ‘something is being done’.

Q: What are you doing about the NHS, Minister?
A: Well, we’ve already promised £40m to invest in the NHS and…
Q: What are you doing about the railways, Minister?
A: Well, we’ve already promised £40m to invest in the rail network and…
Q: What are you doing about the housing crisis, Minister?
A: Well, we’ve already promised £40m to invest in affordable housing and…

You get the picture; we’ve all heard the same words emanate from the ministerial mouth time and time again; and while £40 million is a modest amount when compared to some of the dough divided up and dispensed by the Treasury, it’s still a hell of a lot of money. And that’s roughly the amount of taxpayer cash our lords and masters in the Conservative Government have squandered in their desperate and mean-spirited attempts to prevent the sick and disabled from receiving benefits. FOI requests published by the Independent (yes, it still exists out there in cyberspace, apparently) reveal the extremes to which the DWP will go to reduce the number of disability benefit claimants that Iain Duncan Smith claimed it would during his reign of terror.

Let us not forget the promises made when Theresa May seized power and installed Damian Green in the old IDS hot-seat; the punitive austerity-driven nastiness of the previous administration’s attitude towards those incapable of regular employment was to be phased out in favour of a more humane approach. Unfortunately, the statistics don’t support this ambitious hyperbole. Last year, £22m was devoted to processing appeals lodged by claimants against sanctions – and officials handling appeals are advised to turn down four out of five – whilst those claimants making it all the way to court were fought by a government that spent £17m doing so. Happily, the bastards lost 62% of the cases in 2016, but that still adds up to a large chunk of the public purse spent doing what – saving face?

The 62% of appeal cases lost by government lawyers – government and lawyers; what a marriage made in Hell that is – related to the ESA (Employment Support Allowance). The success rate for the Westminster mafia when it comes to the PIP (Personal Independent Payment), which is for the long-term ill, isn’t much better from their perspective; they lost 65% of those in the second half of 2016, though for all Mrs May’s empty promises of a fresh approach, nothing has changed. Between January and March last year (under Dave), the Government spent £1,166,459 trying to deny ESA claimants money; in the same period this year (under Theresa), that amount has risen 77% to £2,069,849.

The loathsome and rightly infamous assessors going by the name of Atos and Capita have so far been paid £578m to make lives that are already pretty miserable even worse ever since the PIP was introduced in 2013; despite condemnation of these assessments by those at the receiving end of them and an appalling record of mind-boggling insensitivity (not to mention the high number of deaths amongst many affected), their contracts have now apparently been extended to 2019. Ever since private firms were brought in to shave a few million off the figures for those claiming disability benefits (by Gordon Brown), the specific medical expertise necessary to assess a claimant’s ability to earn a living has been deemed unimportant, resulting in the likes of physiotherapists judging on mental health sufferers. This largely appears to be the root cause of the endless inaccurate findings and the consequent appeals.

Ken Butler of Disability Rights UK spoke of how the mistakes made during the initial assessments were as responsible for this appalling state of affairs as the Government’s determination to take on claimants, regardless of the cost to the public purse. ‘If the assessments were better, then you wouldn’t have need for mandatory considerations,’ he said. ‘The system now only functions really to put people off going any further; the whole process is quite lengthy and stressful.’

Anyone reliant upon disability benefits already feels marginalised as a second-class citizen; to then be told by someone not always in possession of the correct medical qualifications that they’re not even disabled enough to receive financial assistance is an additional source of anxiety. Having to go through the complicated process of challenging, and then appealing against, the decision is an exhausting and wearisome drain on the claimant that can drag on for months before it reaches a tribunal; and throughout this period, the outcome remains uncertain. The ever-present possibility and constant worry that it could end badly hardly improves the health and wellbeing of an ill individual.

The Citizens Advice Bureau were last year called on to help out in almost 40,000 PIP appeals, 37% more than the year before; and, lest we forget, the people they’ve come to the assistance of are usually representative of some of society’s most vulnerable. These are the people the Government is intent on mercilessly browbeating – those who are in the worst possible position to fight back. Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it.

© The Editor

BROKEN CLOCK BRITAIN

poorWhen Iain Duncan Smith walked out of the Cabinet last year, his resignation letter seemed to confirm the suspicions many of us had long held regarding the old-school-tie cabal of Cameron and Osborne and the contempt with which they viewed outsiders – i.e. the majority of people in this country. But let us not attribute an abundance of heroic honesty to IDS; after all, he knew the EU Referendum was imminent and was already positioning himself towards his role in the campaign. Moreover, his post as Benefits Tsar in the Coalition had seen him inflict appallingly punitive punishments on those in society least capable of standing up to the regime he represented.

After justifiably carrying the can for a relentlessly visceral assault on the sick and the poor, IDS realised the shit that was poised to rain down on him following Osborne’s latest proposals to crush the same demographic and headed for the exit door before he could receive the blame for it. However, within a few months, Dave had fallen on his sword, Gideon had been banished to the backbenches, and Theresa May had moved into No.10, promising a Government that would cater for everybody with a compassion sorely absent from the administration of her predecessor.

The man who inherited the old IDS role in May’s team was Damian Green, which was something of an unenviable task considering how tarnished the job of Work and Pensions Secretary had become in the wake of the whole Atos affair. But despite an apparently promising start in which he appeared willing to address some of the worst crimes committed in the name of Austerity re the disabled, Green has reverted to Tory type by burying bad news when nobody was looking.

With Parliamentary business last week dominated by the ongoing Whitehall Farce between the Commons and the Lords on the subject of the Brexit Bill, Green sneaked through one of Gideon’s discredited proposals late Friday afternoon while the House wasn’t sitting; the proposal in question was the move to axe Housing Benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds, something initially unveiled in Osborne’s 2015 Budget and subsequently shelved due to vociferous opposition. How ingenious of the current Work and Pensions Secretary to announce this not in a grandstand press conference, but at a moment when he knew media attention was focused elsewhere in Westminster. Although the plan will be debated by MPs, the nature of the way in which the news was placed back on the agenda speaks volumes.

An estimated 11,000 under-22 year-olds will be affected by the move if it becomes official Government policy, no longer eligible for assistance with their rent should they require it. For all the Prime Minister’s hollow words about ‘a country that works for everyone’, this is a throwback to the worst elitist elements of the brief all-Conservative Cameron Government, whose appetite for reserving the sharpest edges of its scythe for those residing on the bottom rung of society’s ladder was no longer restricted by the Lib Dems. Not only does it have the potential to increase rather than reduce the plague of homelessness among the young, but it makes a mockery of any promised Government initiatives to tackle the problem.

As a pre-emptive strike, the DWP claims there will be exemptions to the new rules proposed – such as youngsters who cannot live in the family home due to the threat of domestic abuse, those with children, or those working at Minimum Wage level for at least 16 hours – but housing and homeless charities like Crisis and Shelter have condemned the move and labelled the exemptions inadequate, as has the National Landlords Association. Shadow Housing Minister John Healey says those targeted are ‘young people (who) are old enough to fight for their country, but in Theresa May’s Britain not old enough to get the same help with housing costs as everyone else.’

Yet again, it seems the coordinated demonisation of those who don’t slot into a favoured demographic such as the so-called ‘Jams’ is afoot, with a revival of that old chestnut, ‘preventing a life on benefits’ being tossed back into the ring as justification for the policy. It merely reinforces a lazy stereotype that fails to acknowledge the reality of needing a little leg-up in that tricky transitional phase between leaving home and making it on your own if you can’t raise a loan from the Bank of Mum and Dad. Few can afford to buy a house now, but this move even rules out renting.

Another exemption promised concerns any 18-21 year-old lucky enough to have been working six months prior to claiming Housing Benefit. Considering even the most soul-destroying of what are laughably called ‘careers’ – call-centre work, for example – are inundated with hundreds of applications from degree-heavy hopefuls when one poxy position becomes available, the likelihood of a youngster having found a job before applying for Housing Benefit is extremely limited, which is (of course) the point.

‘Vulnerable people will continue to be protected’ is the DWP’s response to criticism, but the phrase ‘will continue to be protected’ is troubling; it implies the DWP has already been protecting the vulnerable, which is debatable; and what does it define as protection – providing a sleeping-blanket for shop doorways during the winter months? And is not a jobless and potentially homeless teenager confronted by the consumer society and all its unattainable riches vulnerable? If so, this latest change to the benefits system will offer precious little protection to that particular class of the vulnerable.

Once more we are witness to the unnecessary punishment of individuals, each with their own unique set of circumstances, who are not in a position to fight their corner. The pavement and the food-bank – is that the legacy of the twenty-first century? Discarding so many members of society at such a young age is a short-sighted recipe for future disaster; today’s books may be balanced, but there seems to be little thought being given to tomorrow’s.

© The Editor

THE DEPARTMENT OF ILL-HEALTH

davrosPerhaps the most extreme example of the Nasty Party tag as well as proof that the Cameron coalition’s contempt for anyone who didn’t vote Tory was no hissy fit slur on the part of IDS came via the punitive persecution of the sick and disabled on the bottom rung of society’s ladder throughout the six-year reign of the Old Etonians. In their attempt to balance the books and knock a few quid off the deficit in the wake of the 2008 crash, Dave and his team didn’t have the balls (nor, one suspects, the inclination) to stand up to either the banking industry or the tax-dodging corporations, so they played a classic Conservative game by honing in on those they knew couldn’t fight back. The Flashman bully in Cameron and Osborne showed its true colours during this, one of the most shameful sustained assaults of any modern British government.

Out-sourcing the task of reorganising the benefits system – particularly that corner of it occupied by the ill – was something already in place before the 2010 General Election. Gordon Brown had introduced the Work Capability Assessment in 2008, and hiring the controversial French firm Atos to tackle this was yet one more toxic legacy of the Blair era, another private-public initiative pursuing profit at the expense of the individual (or patient) that was destined to end in tears. Not that Gordon Brown gave a toss anymore than his successors. The propaganda machine had succeeded in painting every disability claimant as a scrounging shirker through its media mouthpieces, particularly in the press; stories exposing those claiming they were incapable of walking unaided as they then turned up for their local Sunday League football team had become such a regular element of tabloid reportage that the public were already convinced.

The sponsorship of the 2012 Paralympics by Atos was akin to Nick Griffin opening the Notting Hill Carnival; the boos that rang around the Olympic Stadium when none other than Gideon himself stepped up to present athletes with their medals was a landmark showcase for the protests against the Work Capability Assessment programme, though it continued regardless. Eventually, news began to circulate from former Atos employees of the pressures that the DWP had put them under, commanded to reduce the employment figures at any cost – including disregarding the conclusions of medically-trained fitness-for-work testers should their conclusions contradict the belief that everyone claiming disability benefits was more than capable of earning a living.

The unsentimental and common sense-free approach of Atos as directed by the DWP was blamed on the 2,380 deaths of disability benefits claimants within two months of their claims being rejected that occurred from 2011-14, many of them suicides. There was a great deal of buck-passing taking place when Atos was forced to carry the can for these cruel practices, with only the premature severance of the company’s contract with the British Government in 2015 releasing Atos from the pretence of being wholly responsible for the tragedies associated with their regime. The Atos website made it clear that they were following in time-honoured SS traditions by ‘only obeying orders’.

The resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith in March sent Cameron’s administration into unprecedented back-tracking when they were already staring oblivion in the face courtesy of the upcoming EU Referendum. George Osborne had announced a fresh assault on the disabled in his spring budget, measures that even IDS – a man who had given every impression of being the apostle of such measures – found too much.

Quitting the Cabinet within days of Gideon’s announcement forced the swift cancellation (or denial) of these plans, with the likes of the now-unemployed Nicky Morgan declaring the Chancellor’s proposals were ‘just a suggestion’. Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation could be cynically translated as the actions of a man bound to bear the brunt of opposition to such measures absolving himself of the responsibility; but the dropping of the proposals as soon as IDS quit seemed indicative of a sea-change in the approach that had characterised Tory policy towards the sick and disabled from day one of the coalition.

Now, of course, we have a new leader at the helm; and is it mere coincidence that a conscious rejection of the previous policy has been announced on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham? This weekend, Theresa May’s Secretary for Work and Pensions Damian Green declared that those afflicted with life-threatening illnesses will no longer be subjected to six-monthly assessments re their capability for work. Even IDS has given the announcement the thumbs-up. This is undoubtedly welcome news and another sign that David Cameron’s successor is cut from a different cloth; but there has been no mention yet of that invisible affliction, mental health.

Nevertheless, there is small cause for celebration at the news that one of the most reprehensible policies enacted by a British Government in recent years has at least been belatedly recognised as the appallingly cruel injustice it always was by those who instigated it in the first place; we can only hope this is the start of a long-overdue phase of realisation that will eventually extend to all those deserving cases who fall under the shadow of a system that has punished them for circumstances beyond their control for far too long.

© The Editor

ALWAYS THE QUIET ONES…

UntitledWho’d have thought it? Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, arch-advocate of cutting benefits to the bone for the best part of a decade, has resigned on the pretext that the cuts to disability benefits proposed by the Chancellor in the Budget went too far. Yes, you heard right. I know it sounds about as plausible as Nick Griffin regarding Oswald Mosley as someone who was a bit extreme, but that’s what ‘the quiet man’ said in his resignation letter as he walked out of the Cabinet.

George Osborne had again exhibited his charmless talent for embodying the Nasty Party mantle that continues to plague the Conservatives when unveiling this week’s Budget. This time – surprise, surprise – the recipients of his purse-string-pruning belonged to one of the few sections of society that he and his spivvy cronies can’t make a profit from: the sick and the disabled. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose memories of a ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ sketch spoofing Chancellor Geoffrey Howe were evoked, the one where he announces taxes on wheelchairs, white sticks and guide-dogs, adding ‘I am deliberately targeting those who can’t fight back’. So far, so predictable – but wait! There are actually some Tories sitting in the House who didn’t endorse his proposed disability benefit cuts, some who don’t fit the born-to-rule profile, some who are decent constituency MPs concerned that the wrong people are being punished again, some who are even threatening to stage a backbench rebellion if Gideon attempts to force the measure through Parliament.

The backtracking has already begun, barely 48 hours after Osborne proclaimed the policy with his customary brand of misanthropic smugness; Education Minister Nicky Morgan – wearer of a curious expression that implies she’s being permanently goosed – has hastily stepped in to declare that Osborne’s Personal Independence Payment cuts were ‘just a suggestion’. Of course, Gideon has been here before – just last year, as a matter of fact. Remember his attempts to slash £4 billion from Working Tax Credits? That’s the one that was famously thrown out by the Lords and resulted in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement being dominated by the humiliating abandonment of the idea. And if that concept was regarded as an attack on David Cameron’s favourite standby of ‘hard-working families’, how will this latest example of Osborne’s arrogance and conceit blinding him to his own miscalculations be welcomed?

One would expect the Opposition to oppose Osborne’s idea; it’s their job to do so, after all. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the Chancellor and his party of waging war on the disabled, but I doubt anybody would have anticipated less. However, the fury of disability campaigners – 25 charities have wasted little time in composing a joint letter asking the Government to think again – seems to be complemented by an unexpectedly sympathetic response to their concerns from within the Conservative Party itself.

Iain Duncan Smith, in his role as the man with whom the buck stops when it comes to benefit cuts, has responded to Osborne’s plans by suddenly agreeing with anyone in possession of a heart. ‘I have for some time,’ he writes, ‘and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled, and the context in which they’ve been made, are a compromise too far.’ For a man who has already overseen more than £30 billion cuts to the welfare budget to exit government on such a pretext sounds a bit rich, yet Duncan Smith goes on to cite the unfairness of a Budget that benefits higher-earners and penalises those at the bottom. He knows he would have been in the firing line had these cuts been implemented and he also knows his position as a long-term Euro-Sceptic, in direct opposition to Osborne, would have rendered his post even more intolerable at such a politically perilous moment for Britain’s EU membership. Iain Duncan Smith has ironically quit on a day when Cameron and Osborne have quickly distanced themselves from these controversial proposals, but the fact that the quiet man hasn’t gone quietly is further evidence of Tory tensions as the EU Referendum edges closer.

For all IDS’s apparent U-turn on benefit cuts, one cannot but see this resignation in the context of the Brexit issue. It colours everything in Tory circles right now. One could even be cynical – perish the thought! – and suggest the backbenchers who oppose Osborne’s plans might just be doing so because Gideon represents the anti-Brexit faction and they’re making the most of every opportunity to give him a bloody nose.

George Osborne has gleefully promoted himself as the main man in the Remain camp along with scaremongering Dave, yet he increasingly seems to be going further out on a limb in a party that can call on some of its most prominent heavyweights to sell the opposing message. Another Budget cock-up is the last thing Gideon needed; that it has resulted in the voluntary exit of a man he hoped would deflect the vitriol of disability campaigners away from him is an additional blow that doesn’t bode well for his Prime Ministerial ambitions. If that’s the case, I suspect there won’t be a moist eye in the House.

© The Editor