Laurie Penny on the coalition’s war on the disabled and destitute

Being sick and tired is no reason not to keep fighting - a growing number of people are refusing to accept this new, cruel reality.

Lucy Aldridge is on hunger strike. She is disabled, but her state benefits were suspended after she received a “death-in-service” payment for her 18-year-old son William, the youngest British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. New, harsh welfare rules mean that Aldridge, from Herefordshire, is entitled to nothing.

Christos Palmer is on hunger strike. The 32-year-old Welshman is also disabled, and has spent the past month protesting outside the Cardiff offices of Atos Origin, the private firm charged with turfing thousands of sick people off the welfare rolls. “After a few days, due to a lack of nutrients, the hunger striker will feel dizzy and faint,” explains Palmer, whose bodyweight has plummeted following his protest. “Why do people like myself and Lucy take this form of action in protesting? We see it as a last resort. No-one seems to be listening to us. We are the invisible silent minority that everyone is happy to ignore.”

A hunger strike is a phenomenal act of willpower. It’s a final attempt to wrest back dignified control of your own body when your dignity and control have been confiscated. That’s why the hunger strike has historically been a strategy employed by political prisoners and peaceful civil rights protesters: it’s the last resort of proud, desperate people with nothing to lose. It is suicide as spectacle.

The hunger strikers have assumed – as most of us did, until very recently – that the government gives a damn about whether or not very poor, sick people die early and in pain. Given recent pronouncements by the Department of Work and Pensions, this may be a dangerous assumption. Over the past four years, an all-out assault has been underway against the disabled and unemployed in Britain. The attacks have come on all fronts, from the financial to the moral – rewriting the social script in this country so that the needy are no longer full human beings with just as much right to a life as anyone else, but parasites, scroungers, burdens on the state, barely even human.

Let’s step back for a moment. Let’s take a look at how far we’ve come.The modern welfare state was founded to liberate people from hunger, poverty and want. The document that laid those foundation, the Beveridge Report, was released 70 years ago this month and it makes for fascinating reading, not least because one so seldom encounters a government document which proposes to make life better for people, rather than burying planned abuses under shovelfuls of waffly obfuscation.

Beveridge, who was far from a radical, proposed that nobody should be left destitute by virtue of being unable to work. Bear in mind that this report was written in 1942, when the nation was at war. “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching,” wrote Beveridge in the introduction, which recommends a minimum guaranteed income level for every citizen, leaving everyone the option to earn more and improve his or her circumstances.

When the welfare state was built, the world was changing. A working class which had been asked to put itself on the line to fight fascism and protect a faltering British Empire was growing restless. For the first time, the notion that being sick, widowed or unemployed might not have to mean living in the sort of hunger and filth described in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier seemed like more than airy fantasy. In the early years of the Second World War there were still 100,000 people living in ghoulish, Victorian-era workhouses. There are no workhouses left today – they were closed after the modern welfare system was instituted, and the buildings turned into retirement homes and community centres – but the ability of those who would once have needed them to live free, independent lives is rapidly disappearing.

The Conservative front bench is keen to remind us that the world of work has changed since Beveridge’s day. One of the most important changes has been that a full salary can no longer be expected to provide any sort of decent standard of living, or indeed to cover basic rent in many cities where employment is to be found – which is why the majority of recipients of housing benefit, among other benefits, are in work. And yet the fantasy that removing benefits will “get Britain working” continues, because we allow it to.

In a time of soaring joblessness, encouraging an underpaid or unemployed person to seek work by removing their benefits is rather like encouraging a desert traveller to find an oasis by setting them on fire.You cannot simply bully people into jobs that aren’t there. Nor can you order a person to get on their bike and look for work, as Norman Tebbit did in 1981, if it is physically impossible for them to ride a bike, or, indeed, to stand.

You can, of course, bully them off the welfare rolls so that your figures for unemployment and incapacity aren’t quite so embarassing when election time rolls around. Indeed, up to 1.8 million needy new claimants may have been frightened away from applying for benefits to which they are entitled for that reason. This sort of figure-fiddling only works for so long. A dramatic increase in net national destitution tends to get noticed, after a while. If you’re going to accustom people to living smaller, meaner lives, you need to persuade them that it’s wrong to want more and always has been. You need to tell them they’re scroungers, spongers and shirkers. You need to get rid of other people’s empathy by blaming them for every possible social ill. You need to justify the degradation of the disabled.

And that’s just what’s been happening in Britain over the past decade, as the poisonous rhetoric of “shirking” and “scrounging” has come to dominate the mainstream debate about social security, the truth about benefits obscured by fairytales about welfare recipients living rent-free in mansions made of gingerbread in a magical land of full employment.

This week, a study by the Elizabeth Finn charity revealed that press attitudes towards benefit recipients have hardened considerably in recent years, and that many of the negative stories about benefit claimants parroted in the tabloid press have been instigated by a government determined not to let the facts get in the way of its philosophy of slashing state support for all but the extremely wealthy.

It's difficult to stay calm about this. I'm finding it difficult, as someone who has been writing and campaigning about the attack on welfare for four years and more, since I was a caregiver with a severely disabled boyfriend who went through the process of prostrating himself for incapacity benefits that came too late or not at all. Back then, it was the Labour Party attacking disabled people’s right to live with dignity. The Work and Pensions Minister whose offices we were picketing was James Purnell, not Iain Duncan Smith, who today mouths the same torturous rhetoric about getting people back to work by taking away their means of support.

In those four years, years in which the insanity of ripping enormous holes in the social safety net during a double-dip recession has only become starker, disability campaigners have made the arguments over and over again about why we need a welfare state. We’ve watched extremely sick people sacrifice what little health and energy they have fighting for their rights to live independently, coming back from welfare offices with stories of being made to walk until they fall over, being made to undress to show their self-harm scars, and still being turned away. We’re getting weary of explaining why blaming those who have almost nothing, not even their health, for the state of the economy is callous and evil.

It’s a struggle to come up with new ways to reiterate the facts behind the torrent of propaganda pouring out of the Conservative press office. It’s a struggle to remind people that welfare costs have risen because wages have failed to rise; that most welfare recipients are in work; that the rates of benefit fraud, far from being a drain on the state, are as low as they've ever been, at one per cent; that the cost of corporate tax avoidance to the exchequer (£25bn a year) is a hundred times higher than the cost of benefit fraud, and yet it is the poor and needy whom the government chooses to blame for the state of the economy.

Those who’ve been fighting this cause for years are sick and tired of repeating the arguments over and over again and watching the public conversation about disability slide backwards into hate and suspicion. We’re sick and tired of hearing about another disabled person dying or committing suicide days after being found “fit” for work that isn’t there, another terminal cancer patient sent to the job centre, another person afraid to leave the house on crutches because they might face harassment, another parent or caregiver watching helplessly as their loved ones sink into despair, as their health and hope are worn away.

Right now, reading over the government’s latest plans to take away benefits for everyone under 25 who isn’t earning money, I don’t want to lay out yet another reasonable case for why humans shouldn’t have to starve because they weren’t born rich. I want to put my fist through the computer screen until it comes back bloody. I’m sick and tired of the cruelty and the lies.

But being sick and tired is no reason not to keep fighting. Karen Sherlock, who died in June after a suspected heart attack, not long after having her benefits cut and being told to seek work by the DWP, was sick, and she was tired. She was just 44 years old, and severely disabled. In one of her last blog posts, she wrote: “We need to be passionate about standing up for our rights. If we can make enough noise, and get enough people to listen then we can overturn the inhumane changes this parasitic government have made.”

There is a growing phalanx of people in this country refusing, like Karen Sherlock, like Christos Palmer and Lucy Aldridge, to accept this new, cruel reality. Disabled people and their allies are refusing to lie down meekly and accept their new status as scapegoats and social parasites. They are angry, and desperate, and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect their right, and others’ rights, to live with dignity. If the rest of us aren’t standing with them, we ought to be.

Laurie Penny is an NS contributing editor

Disabled protestors demonstrate at Parliament in May 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

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 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation