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.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage