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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories