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Laurie Penny on the human cost of welfare reform

The scandal is that no one is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision.

The scandal is that no one is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision.

Who will stand up for the welfare state? Not the Conservative Party, whose mantra - "Making work pay" - has turned out to be a cruel euphemism for slashing already meagre welfare payments and steering the long-term sick into the magical land of jobs. Not Labour, which declined a second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill; after all, its attacks on disability and sickness benefits when in power laid the groundwork for the coalition's planned destruction of the Attlee settlement. And it won't be the press.

With most official statistics indicating that gutting welfare on the brink of a second recession will leave millions in penury, the government has resorted to stoking tabloid hysteria, feeding the weekend papers a ready-boxed scare story tied with a thick ribbon of prejudice. Details of the most ersatz claims used by fraudulent welfare claimants have been distributed to build the growing consensus that the poor are simply not worth looking after. This is a consensus that nobody in opposition seems to have the guts to challenge.

In reality, benefit fraud rates remain stubbornly low, at 1 per cent. For every person who claims that a fear of ladders prevents them from cleaning windows, there are 99 others for whom incapacity or unemployment benefits are a vital lifeline. So vital that staff at jobcentres have been issued a six-point plan for how to deal with rejected claimants at risk of suicide. The government appears relaxed about the human cost of welfare reform.

The headline figure is that benefit fraud costs taxpayers £1.6bn each year. That figure is a fabrication. According to statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, this includes over £600m in "official" and customer errors. Factoring out pension scams, the figure is just £250m. To put that number in its proper context, the most conservative estimates hold that corporate tax avoidance costs the Treasury £25bn per year: 100 times the cost of benefit fraud.

Moral case

Threatening the workless with destitution may make good headlines but it is no way to increase employment when there are no jobs to go to. Unemployment in Britain stands at 2.5 million, including almost a million under-25s. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, wants us to believe that the private sector will provide jobs for these people, as well as another million public-sector workers and welfare recipients who will soon be joining the dole queue. Unfortunately, private-sector employment has flatlined, there are six dole claimants for every vacancy and Father Christmas is just your dad faffing about in a nylon suit.

There used to be a liberal consensus that it was the government's responsibility to provide employment and ensure that those unable to work were entitled to a minimum standard of living. As the Welfare Reform Bill oozes unchallenged through the Commons, the real scandal is not that the government is lying through its teeth in order to justify its evisceration of the welfare state. The scandal is that no one in Westminster is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision as the honest heart of social democracy.

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

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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Female genital mutilation is not just a women’s issue, it’s a human issue

A new play explores how two women react when their daughters' friend is subjected to FGM.

Alice Denny was born into a body that didn’t feel like hers. There is no one ‘right’ way to live and no one should have to hide who they really are.  For years, she accepted the guise before eventually making the transition she deserved.

“A life and body to finally match my mind,” she says softly, quoting one of her own poems to me. “I know, it’s silly,” she adds in a fluster, but Alice needn’t be so modest. In fact, she should be very proud.

We’re at The Joker, an offbeat bar in Brighton, and Alice explains how the realisation of her womanhood inspired her to take up a leading role in CUT, a community play highlighting the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM), which premieres next week.

“For anything to stop women from being women, I find so upsetting,” Alice tells me with a communicable heartbreak in her voice.

FGM involves the removal of a woman’s clitoris, inner-and-outer lips of the vagina, and the sewing or stapling together of the two sides of the vulva leaving only a small hole to pass urine and menstruate – depending on the variation. Typically, FGM is carried out with a razor blade on girls between the ages of four and 15, often without any anaesthetic.

This misguided practice, fed by some faux-rationale about raising girls properly, is most common among cultural and religious groups in Africa and the Middle East with the World Health Organisation estimating around 125 million cases across the globe. Many of these communities believe FGM will serve to limit a woman’s libido, discourage sexual promiscuity and strengthen the institute of marriage.

“It’s brutal and makes me almost ashamed to be a human being,” Alice states emphatically.

Of course, to take solace in the fact FGM is not as common in Britain, where it is illegal, is to cataclysmically miss the point. It shouldn’t happen anywhere or to anyone. As it is, an approximate 137,000 women in Britain are affected by FGM, but even that number could be more given the ‘hidden’ nature of the crime.

Daughters of some first-generation immigrants and asylum seekers can be at a particular risk, with these girls taken to their countries of origin against their will during the school holidays for the procedure, allowing them time to ‘heal’ before their return. In reality, the lasting effects both physical and psychological never cease completely.

It is a terrifying thought and one that the incisive CUT, written by Suchitra Chatterjee and Susi Mawell-Stewart, explores. The play chronicles the lives of two women, Brona and Kiva, neighbours forced to face up to the problem of FGM on their doorstep when a shared African friend of their daughters is about to be sent away to be mutilated. Parent of two Alice stars as Brona, while Norma Dixit portrays Kiva. 

So what does CUT hope to achieve?  “It’s about trying to break the conspiracy of silence surrounding this issue,” an impassioned Alice reveals.

The former psychiatric nurse continues: “FGM isn’t something that’s isolated to one place or one group of people. It’s a wider feminist issue, a human issue, which needs to be addressed collectively. The play is about raising awareness, a vehicle to say to women to make the world a better place for each other.

“Women matter, never mind culture, never mind traditions of people being subjugated. We matter and we can make our lives what we want them to be. I’ve made my life what I want it to be and I feel so happy about that.

“People who say ‘it’s nothing to do with us,’ of course it is. It’s brutalizing women. I would love people to say, ‘actually I do know something that’s going on and I will go to the police and they will listen to me.’ I want people to be energized and make it their business.”

Admittedly, CUT, directed by Rikki Tarascas, is not for the faint hearted and will no doubt leave the audience shocked in their seats. Then again, that’s the idea.

CUT will premiere at the BrightHelm Community Centre in Brighton on May 10 and features a pre-show event with speeches from, among others, Khadijah Kamara, an FGM survivor and Heather Knott, a former Soroptomist International UK committee member.