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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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