Salus Populi Suprema Est Lex: The welfare of the people is the supreme law.
An investment banker, employed and now re-employed by this Labour government has decided to come out and declare that over two-thirds of the current 2.64 million people on Incapacity Benefit don’t deserve it. The rest, presumably, are an assortment of criminals, malingerers and hypochondriacs. Yet one wonders how such a wonderful figure was concocted.
If the solution posed to this problem involves private companies in purging the Incapacity Benefit roll by relentlessly scrutinising all applicants even up to independent medical checks a question begs to be asked. Since this wasn’t the method whereby Mr Freud, our new friendly investment banker, acquired his ‘2/3rds of IB claimants are bastards’ figure, did he pull the figure out of his bum as a scare tactic?
Call me cynical but there’s no reliable method whereby Freud could have suddenly decided that almost two million people are falsely claiming benefits. Even medical checks on a sample population wouldn’t be accurate. Despite this our government has not been behind the door with its attempts to reduce the welfare rolls. This brings me to a wider point that I do not often address; what should be the role of government spending on welfare in our society?
The idea that welfare spending creates laziness is a myth that has been well and truly exploded by various academics. There is no correlation whatsoever between economic performance and welfare spending (see Atkinson, A.B., 1995 and Goodin, R.E., 1999, both Cambridge studies). It is also most certainly acknowledged that high unemployment and low benefits, or benefits which are difficult to access, contribute to property crime (Sutton, 1996, Australian Institute of Criminology).
As a result of this, it worries me when the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions decides to publish a short speech citing ‘welfare dependency‘ as a problem of previous welfare models. I doubt very much that it was an accident that James Purnell made this speech at an employers’ conference. Cutting the number of people on welfare is exactly what employers want to hear.
A reduction in welfare or more hurdles to acquire it means more people looking for whatever jobs they can get. Often these jobs are with terrible employers who do everything in their power to ensure that trade unions aren’t involved anywhere near their place of business. McDonalds is an old hand at that sort of game. Coca-Cola is another. Yet these massive chains, with their thousands of jobs, will be exactly where people will have to look for jobs if forced off state welfare.
Welfare reduces the competitive nature of business by driving up wages. That is the central problem that the political right wing have with welfare. If that is their problem, then I for one am more than happy to countenance it. People shouldn’t have to accept any wage less than one which can sustain them and their family in relative comfort. If, as a result, Britain has less televisions and cars and radios per person than the United States, which some contend to be a fault of welfare, then I think it qualifies as a double victory.
With my justification of welfare dispensed with, and the disparity between my views and those of our Labour government made clear, I wish to clarify a few issues.
No one on the left thinks that people should be sitting at home doing nothing. In fact, there is more opportunity to get the disabled into work now than there ever has been, with the advent of jobs sustained almost entirely by the internet or by phone. Conscientious thinkers will also not want people to be forced to accept jobs in which they can never be happy. If the government was going to plan, long term, for a reduction in the number of people on the welfare rolls, then increased spending to match people with the right job is required.
As quoted in the speech above and in the BBC article also, the pervading ethos of the DWP has wholly corrupted this point of view. There are proposals afoot not to match people with jobs for which they are or could become qualified for but to reward private companies with taxpayers’ money for cutting the number of people on things like Incapacity Benefit. There is an additional reward should a person matched with a job stay in that job for a set number of years but staying in a job doesn’t mean happy within it, or progressing within it.
There also seems to be a strong element of suspicion concerning those who claim to be disabled due to a stress related illness – some quarter million of the total figure on Incapacity Benefit. Others cite alcoholism, obesity and eating disorders as reasons to be on Incapacity Benefit. Granted I wasn’t able to take cognisance of just how many people suffered from these things twenty years ago but today I see a startling proliferation, particularly in stress-related illness.
Some half a million people who are in work believe themselves to be suffering work-induced stress-related illness. There were in 2006/7, 5,900 new instances of mental health problems caused by work and the Health and Safety Executive believes this massively underestimates the true figure. Clearly stress-related illness is a huge and growing factor in Britain – and there are plenty of reasons which one might postulate, beginning with ever more stringent targets (nigh unachievable in some businesses I know of).
Of the others, I’m no medical expert but when medical professionals are telling me that around 2% of all women aged 15-40 suffer from either bulimia or anorexia, to name just two conditions, then I’d credit the high figures we’re seeing for Incapacity Benefit. The rapid growth from the figure of 700,000 people who claimed IB in the 1980’s to the 2.64 million we see today could well be the result of medical advances – particularly in recognising things like eating disorders and depressive conditions. These two in particular were the ’80’s equivalent of Gulf War syndrome.
In truth, I think the government is massively on the wrong side of this issue. Particularly with the desire to use private companies to regulate welfare rolls and labelling it as non-ideological, I think we’re being disingenuous at best. The very idea of using private companies is itself ideological; it testifies to a belief in the efficacy of the market as the great leveller. Ideologically speaking, I would challenge these assertions – not least because we’ll probably end up using companies with whom members of the government have worrying connections to. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I also think this government should have a good look at itself on the issue of welfare before preaching to the population of Britain, particularly those sections approaching pensionable age. We’re clearly prepared to spend billions on private companies who squander the money for absolutely no tangible result – cf. all the companies this government has employed for one purpose or another only to pay them even more to get them to abandon the contracts the government has signed with them, so as to bring in someone new. That’s not even mentioning British Nuclear Fuels or Northern Rock.
That’s not even mentioning the cases of computerised identity theft and resultant benefit frauds.
Overall, I agree with the comment of Cicero which I have quoted as my title: the welfare of the people is the supreme law. If we abandon that as our lodestar and let other considerations take precedence, we regress into more barbaric forms of class struggle. Left for long enough we would return to the situation prior to the 1930’s of two liberal parties battling each other for governance of a state for which time was running out.