The partitioning of vulnerable people into the deserving and underserving poor is a reflex of capitalism that salves society’s conscience. Various strands of these moral judgements have raged for generations, but since the coalition began their campaign, the demonisation of people on benefits has infiltrated public discourse with a more vicious tone redolent of the workhouse era.
When Iain Duncan Smith took charge of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), he gave orders to reduce the benefits bill by any means test necessary. ATOS, a French IT firm, were contracted to perform examinations as part of the renewed Work Capability Assessment, re-defining medical science in order to sanction people. As we now know, thousands of people were sanctioned after being declared fit for work despite being physically and mentally incapable. The legal way to get past such absurd decisions was to make the bureaucratic process as infuriating as possible when claimants appealed. As claim and counterclaim slowly moved its way around the department, often getting ‘lost’ in the process, people’s conditions worsened and thousands died as a result. This is the modern equivalent of drowning a woman to see if she’s a witch whilst not believing in witchcraft.
Every human being, regardless of their political persuasion will have been affected by illness and disability in their lives. David Cameron had a severely disabled son who neither he nor his wife could have looked after without help from carers. Even so, he doesn’t equate his own experiences with other people’s lives. Instead, he displays the symptoms of a careerist sociopath citing his personal interest in disability policy whilst paying millions to ATOS to inflict avoidable misery on people in need of care. Through outsourcing the dirty work to private consultants, the government has been able to wash its bloody hands over what they themselves describe as ‘significant quality failures’. ATOS has become such a toxic brand that Maximus, an American company (with a similar brand), are to be the new assessors given carte blanche to sanction disabled claimants in line with DWP targets.
Flaunting a lack of compassion has become de rigueur in a post Thatcherite society but even for the Tories this is brazen. They have led a shameless campaign against the country’s poorest areas via a tireless, media backed attack on the widely caricatured workshy. In the process they have convinced a large part of the public that they are being ‘firm but fair’. Divide and rule tactics that scapegoat benefit claimants are depressingly familiar to anyone with even a short grasp of history and yet, many of those who buy into the party line have more in common with those they vilify.
The expensive DWP advertising campaign encouraging ‘hard working people’ to ‘shop benefit thieves’ is only visible in the poorest wards where benefit fraud tallies in the millions compared with tax evasion throughout the country which is in the hundreds of billions. To readdress the balance, I left an anonymous call with the personal details of everyone on the Queens Honours list but I am yet to see any concrete action taken. Instead, the majority of the 600 calls a day will concern neighbours in areas where material jealousy and poverty collide. This is the strong arm method of sanctioning people and works to great effect where the illusion of capitalism is strongest.
This fractured outlook continues to be prevalent in areas worst affected by austerity measures thanks to the culture of stigmatizing people on benefits. Naming and shaming benefit cheats has become a national sport that is voyeuristically enjoyed by many people – including its potential targets. On TV, prime time comedians give politics a wide berth and lambast the poor to gain cheap laughs; poverty porn clogs up the airwaves between doses of Jeremy Kyle re-runs and payday loan adverts and newspapers offer up feckless sacrifices on a daily basis. It is in this atmosphere of fear and distrust that such harsh sanctions are allowed to flourish unabated.
When the DWP contracted job matching firm Monster to implement Universal Jobmatch, they claimed it would ‘revolutionise’ the job search process. Despite the fact that many of the listed jobs were discovered to be fraudulent by the National Audit Office and many more to be duplicates or outdated, you are required to apply for a minimum number (average 24) of jobs through this system every week. These can often take over an hour to complete and if you fall below the recommended amount you can be sanctioned for up to 12 weeks. The system monitors how long you spend on job searches but does not take into consideration the one in five households without internet access who must scramble to get a computer at their local library – if they survived funding cuts. There are also large waiting lists to use the limited resources in the 6,000 job centres nationwide as people struggle to get access online. All of these factors are well known to the DWP who persist in turning the screws on defenceless people with dwindling options.
The ruse that ‘tough decisions’ are taken to save money is also discredited when considering the billions Iain Duncan Smith’s team have squandered on failed reforms. Instead, it should be viewed as what it is – a politicised attack on poor people, disabled people and working people that enshrines division where there could be unity. The sanctions have become so widespread and absurd that they can no longer conceal the coalition’s true intentions.
The past five years has seen political capital plummet faster than the Euro, and much like the financial crisis this ongoing farce is being re-written as it plays out. The traditional pillars of government communication are losing influence but the wider culture of stigmatising poverty remains entrenched. If the Left gets its act together, they can offer proof that the politics of fear doesn’t have to be the default setting in times of bad harvest and help to restore pride in communities decimated by austerity.
To quote the DWP – ‘We’re closing in.’