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Laurie Penny on the battle against benefit cuts and “poverty pimps”

Disabled people and their allies are fighting back against cuts – shame on the rest of us if we do not fight with them.

Of all the obdurate lies peddled by the Conservative Party in the run-up to the last general election, perhaps the most callous was when the Tory disability spokesperson Mark Harmer told key representatives of Britain's millions of disabled and mentally unwell citizens: "I don't think disabled people have anything to fear from a Conservative government." It turns out that disabled people have a great deal to fear.

Despite a fraud rate of just 1 per cent, the government is determined to toss 500,000 people who currently rely on sickness benefits into the open arms of the bleakest labour market in a generation, to cut already meagre disability stipends to starvation levels, to confiscate mobility scooters and community groups from the most needy, and to remove key services that make life bearable for thousands of families with vulnerable relatives. The party assures us that someone's got to pick up the tab for the recklessness of millionaire financiers. So, naturally, they're going to start with the disabled and the mentally ill.

Disabled people, their friends, family members and allies, have much to fear – and much to fight. Today has been designated a national day of action against benefit cuts, and resistance groups across the country will be staging protests and spreading the word about how the government's plans to dismantle most of the welfare state and privatise the rest will affect them. "Housing benefit cuts mean I'm probably going to lose my home," says Carole, 32, "but the removal of the Incapacity Benefit safety net means that I'm terrified of looking for work. If I'm made to do a job I'm not well enough for and have to leave, I'll be left penniless. I don't know what to do."

Many of the demonstrations will target private companies like Atos Origin, which have been given government tender to impose punitive and – studies have shown – largely unreliable medical testing of welfare claimants before forcing the sick to seek work that even the healthy can't get. Campaigns like Benefit Claimants Fight Back are quite clear what they think about these companies – they are "poverty pimps".

As Britain's welfare claimants who are well enough to do so take to the streets, the beleaguered workers responsible for administrating the ersatz and vituperative benefits system have just finished a 48-hour strike over the way their jobs are being restructured to meet increasingly high targets of claimant turnover. "The system is driven towards saving money at the expense of vulnerable people. We want to help people but they're not letting us," says William, a 22-year-old worker in a call centre that deals with Incapacity Benefit claims. "You get old people phoning up in floods of tears when their relatives have died."

"I hate them calls. We're so limited in what we can say because all our calls are recorded and they watch us all the time. You're chained to your desk. It's hell working here," he says.

"We have people off sick with stress all the time – I've had to take medication for anxiety and I normally consider myself quite a strong, down-to earth person," Davies adds. "People come to work in tears, but they're terrified of saying they can't cope, because they know just what happens if they have to go on the sick.

"Nobody wants to have to deal with our system from the other end."

The withering of the welfare state is not just a party game. The gradual erosion of the principle, formalised in the Attlee settlement, that people who are unable to work and support themselves should not be left with nothing to live on, did not start with this government. Labour formalised the process in 2008, mounting grandiose campaigns against "welfare cheats" and flogging off support services to private companies whose express purpose was to deny benefits to as many people as possible – including, in several cases, terminal cancer patients. The argument, put forward by many commentators, that punitive welfare reform can't be that bad because "Labour started it", is the political equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and humming to block out the angry cries of a million human beings deprived of their dignity.

This is more than a party game. For New Labour, the financial intimidation of the sick and vulnerable was, in part, a desperate appeal to the prejudices of voters in marginal seats, a strategy tried and tested by PR professionals in Clinton's second term who later came to work for the Blair/Brown administration. Bullying people off benefits, however, is about more than just votes. It's part of a creeping cultural shift towards a public consensus that there is no room in this society for the weak.

In this country and across the developed world, labour is precarious, competition for jobs and adequate pay is fierce, workers are under terrific pressure and anyone who cannot keep up with the rat race, whether through sickness, mental ill health or physical disability, is mistrusted and shamed. "My clients frequently express more shame that they are not able to work than over the perceived inferiority of their bodies," comments an anonymous disability worker. "In a materialist society, apparently, the ultimate failure of the disabled is that we don't make money."

We like to think of ourselves as a nation where, if anything, 'political correctness' has gone too far, but our attitude towards people with disabilities and mental health problems has barely improved in 20 years. A recent survey revealed that four out of five employers would prefer not to take on anyone with a history of mental health problems. Meanwhile, rather than question the terms of a target-driven labour market whose precariousness routinely drives workers to the edge of mental and physical breakdown, ordinary people are taught to kick down savagely at any fellow citizen who can't keep up.

This is not just about a culture that puts profit before people. This is about a culture that has begun to believe, on some deep and terrifying stratum, that if one cannot turn a profit, one is not really a person at all. Disabled people and their allies are fighting back in whatever way they can. Shame on the rest of us if we do not fight with them.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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