Who benefits from disability cuts?

Tax evasion, not disability benefit fraud, is the real scandal.

We all like badgers don’t we? Well, most of us do. They look cute and cuddly (I assume; I’m going off hazy memories of picture books), they are beautiful, defenceless, wild creatures and there’s something quintessentially British about them. They go with cucumber sandwiches and pocket-watches.

They’ve had a good press, badgers have.

But they’re facing death: the badgers of the British imagination will undergo a major cull this autumn. So no surprise perhaps that the petition against the cull has attracted so much support – as I write, it has achieved 42,566 signatures over the 100,000 threshold needed to be considered in Parliament.

There is, however, another petition which fights against death – and you may not have heard of this one. This is because the species facing death in this case doesn’t have such a good press. Not only this, but the specific sectors of this species that the petition addresses are all but invisible, save the occasional negative mention in certain media outlets.

I am, of course, talking about human beings – specifically, those which are disabled and therefore rely to a greater or lesser extent on state support. These humans are the ‘”net drain” on society, the dregs, the unmentionables, untouchables and expendables.

And they are dying.

No, not in such great numbers as badgers and no not as part of a deliberate government cull, but make no mistake: these deaths are on the hands of the government. And they will be on our hands too unless we act.

Under Labour, the welfare bill increased by 30 per cent; under the coalition’s “belt-tightening” policies, this is painted simplistically as A Bad Thing. It fits neatly into the rhetoric that an economically incompetent Labour “got us into this mess” from which the no-nonsense coalition will save us. Labour money bad; Coalition cuts good.

But of course rises in costs are rarely that simple – and these are no exception. If they were, we would expect the welfare system to be, in Iain Duncan Smith’s words, “riddled with abuse and fraud”. But it’s not. It’s not, and he knows its not, because the figures on this “abuse” come from his own department, and they stand at 0.3 per cent – not perfect, but hardly riddled. Hardly riddled, and way below the coalition’s projected cut of 20 per cent – and this is actually expected to be exceeded.

And yet the government is pushing on with its plans, with 55 per cent of those who have undergone the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) being found fit for work. Is this cause for celebration? Have disabled people all over the country been magically healed by the Coalition Touch?

Hardly. According to a report by the Guardian, incorrect WCA decisions are costing the government £50m a year, with tribunals having to sit on Saturdays and increase staff by 30 per cent to deal with the backlog of appeals. The government’s own figures estimate successful appeals at at least 30 per cent, although the Guardian cites “a staggering 80-90 per cent” success rate “if the appellant seeks the help of an experienced adviser.”

And the cost is not just financial; in the mad dash for euphemistic terms like “flexibility” and “streamlined”, people, real people are getting left behind. Stories are emerging of suicides over cut support, while between January and August last year, 32 people a week died after being declared fit for work. That’s around 1184 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers who successfully stopped being a “net drain” in the space of six months.

The Guardian writes, “the WCA is so consistently failing to recognise those who are in dire need of support that it is hard to understand why society is not in uproar.” But when we consider the disingenuous nature of Duncan Smith’s remarks about welfare abuse, that went unchallenged in the Telegraph article in which they were reported, is it so hard to understand? When we consider the repeated insinuations made by the Daily Mail that the majority of disabled people are “scroungers” who “take advantage” of the system, is it any surprise that by September last year two-thirds of disabled people had experienced hostility and taunts, up from 41 per cent four months before? And in this climate of mistrust of the disabled, is it any wonder the badgers are winning our compassion by miles?

Of course, some will be reading this thinking that this is all very well, but we all have to suffer – after all, “we’re all in this together”. And to those people I say that firstly, there’s tightening your belt, and there’s dying. But secondly, and just as importantly, we certainly are not in this together. That’s the line that we’ve been expertly sold. But the reality is that there are plenty of people who aren’t feeling the pinch. And these people don’t even need to feel the pinch – they just need to make their own fair contribution to the society in which they live, and from which they benefit.

Tax evasion currently costs this country £25bn a year; tax avoidance – that is, large companies and wealthy individuals who “take advantage” of the system – cost us £70bn a year. In addition to this, £26bn is going uncollected, adding up to a staggering £121bn in total – or, to put it in context, three-quarters of the annual deficit. To put it in yet more context, the amount lost to disability fraud is estimated at £1bn – and this figure should be considered in the context of benefit underpayment, which consistently saves more than the fraud costs. This does not of course excuse fraud, but it does make a mockery of the coalition’s claims that abuse of the system is costing money that they will save by being “efficient” – another euphemism.

So what can we do about this iniquitous inequity? We can make our voices heard. We can hoist the coalition on its own e-petition petard: sign the petition against disability cuts. They are dishonest and damaging, and, most of all, they are unnecessary. And if anyone knows of a petition demanding for corporation tax to be enforced and tax-dodging loopholes for the rich to be closed, sign me up.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman. A version of this post first appeared on her blog here

Disabled protestors demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament about cuts to disability benefit. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.