Punishing welfare after rewarding irresponsibility

the Recusant’s Statement on the New Labour Government’s ‘Radical’ Proposals on Welfare Reform: No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility

It’s all happening this Xmas isn’t it? While Woolworth’s stores all around the country are selling their lasts stocks, even their in-store furniture, just prior to closing down for good – or rather, ‘going into administration’ as the euphemism goes – the Bishops of the C of E are speaking out to condemn a ‘morally corrupt’ government for its countless ethical failures since it swept into power in 1997. And the Recusant applauds such a stand from the established Church, an unprecedented backlash from the clergy of this country against its residing government, which should rightly shame Gordon Brown and his canting new Labour minions (though ex-premier Mr Blair’s smarmy grin, sadly, will not be wiped off by this momentous move, he having converted from Anglican to Catholic, after an initial stalling by the Pope due to his spiritually suspect co-architecting of the Iraq invasion). Most notably of all, the Right Rev. Tom Wright of Durham has said:

"Labour made a lot of promises, but a lot of them have vanished into thin air. We have not seen a raising of aspirations in the last 13 years, but instead there is a sense of hopelessness. ….While the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer. When a big bank or car company goes bankrupt, it gets bailed out, but no one seems to be bailing out the ordinary people who are losing their jobs and seeing their savings diminished."

How aptly summed up: Blair and his successor’s legacy, at least among the Left, will be as the most catastrophically wasted political opportunity in modern British history, having completely neglected to transform a society spiritually brutalised by Thatcherism, even with the wind fully behind them with a staggering Parliamentary majority on coming into power. Instead, they have by and large openly championed – with occasional lip-service to social ‘fairness’ – the very anti-socialist dictums of the party they were supposed to be supplanting; entrenching privatisation into our societal fabric even more deeply than the Thatcherite reach. Rather like the drug of debt, which the Archbishop of Canterbury, for one, has accused the Prime Minister of further fuelling by encouraging the population to spend what little they have left, like an "addict returning to the drug", new Labour’s opium has indeed been power, and the maintenance of it at all costs.

How appropriate then that at a time of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the Thirties – triggered, of course, by the unregulated greed of degenerate City speculators – this breathtakingly amoral government has pushed forward its proposals to ‘reform’ the welfare state and ‘reward responsibility’. New Labour’s spin-deep pharisaism is without equal in the annals of British governments: just as they countenance (albeit to the Presbyterian disapproving frown of Mr Brown) global bail outs for the duplicitous banks, and bonuses for the City speculators, rewarding extreme and globally-damaging irresponsibility, they then turn on the poor and incapacitated of society and harangue them with veiled threats to their already pitifully small incomes by claiming that they will reward them for responsibility. It is blackly comical as it is deeply disillusioning that under a so-called Labour government, we have a swathe of legislation as baldly discriminative against the impoverished of our society as ever Thatcher and her hatchet-men could muster back in the Eighties. Here then, starkly but with the usual pusillanimous doublespeak we have come to be sanitised to under new Labour, is yet another ringing concession to the so-called ‘wealth creators’ of our country (who are in truth wealth speculators, the wealth being created by the actual workers), now patently wealth-snatchers and job-cutters; blatant proof, yet again, that in the UK there is indeed one rule for the rich, and one for the poor.

The death of Harold Pinter, our greatest living playwright and radical denouncer of the Blair-Bush evangelical pugilism of the past decade, happened sadly but poignantly on a Xmas day marred by global Depression, further atrocities in the Gaza Strip, and the latest in new Labour’s war on the poor. What a pitiable state of affairs it is, not to mention deeply ironic, that just as hundreds of thousands of underpaid shop workers throughout the country are being ejected from their jobs into the abjectness of poverty-level ‘benefits’ (I mean, stipends amounting to what ‘the Government says’ one needs to live on – the same Government whose MPs wouldn’t roll out of bed for less than one and a half grand a week; our GPs, for no less than double no doubt), the bruised and battered Incapacity Benefit ‘customers’ (as they are now called) are about to be further brutalised into stresses which, by dint of their conditions, should not be theirs to shoulder. There being, as a matter of further irony, a rapidly shrinking pool of jobs for them to fill, thanks again to the speculating City succubi of the globe and the supine governments that encourage them. From the austere justness of a straight-talking Pinter to the Whiggish bigotry of a double-speaking Purnell. Speaking of whom, is it just a coincidence that an ex-public school, Balliol-quarried, Corporate Planner – and a fellow arbiter who happens to be a Dame – should come up with such a short-sighted, sheltered-minded and misleading set of proposals, whose authors rather quaintly term as ‘radical’, when in fact the word they’re looking for is ‘reactionary’.

Let’s examine some bits of this document.

5.74 Evidence shows that work is generally good for health and inactivity bad for it. Yet too often when people develop health conditions they leave work, often never to return. Tackling long-term sickness absence requires a something-for-something deal between the State, employers and individuals.

Ok. First of all, which ‘evidence’ do they claim purports to the assertion that ‘work is generally good for health’? That’s not to say we necessarily dispute this finding, but some reference here wouldn’t go a miss, especially in such a loaded document as this. It is significant here the use of the term ‘work’ as opposed to that of ‘occupation’. According to Occupational Theory, from the ancient Regimen Sanitatis through to Gary Kielhofner’s Model of Human Occupation (MOHO; of the Sixties onwards), ‘occupation’, specifically occupation, as opposed to merely economically necessitated work or labour, is conducive to health and wellbeing. But ‘occupation’ does not necessarily – indeed, in the views of various theorists such as Karl Marx and William Morris, in terms of being of true value to the individual, almost always does not – manifest in the form of a ‘job’. To Marx and Morris, and to many on the Left, ‘work’ or a ‘job’ is an imposed form of labour, something performed for a wage in order to feed and clothe oneself, but not, in the main, a true ‘occupation’, which is mostly in the form of an activity which an individual chooses to do, not for money but for self-fulfilment.

[Socialists would argue that while Capitalism gives one the freedom to own a shop or work in a bank, Socialism would give us true freedom in which to express our true selves, creatively as much as industriously. Though many may scoff at such a utopian view, to our minds, at least aspiring to such a state might eventually make it into a reality. Such as was the point of Socialism in the first place: to imagine and then build a better way of life; or as the Fabians would put it, 'a more intelligent society'. Thanks in part to the materialistic regression of Thatcherism, we now have a pathologically consumerist society obsessed with celebrity – which isn’t by definition celebrity, simply fame-baiting mediocrity – whose citizens, quite dystopically, are only given the power of direct voting through televised competitions while their governments are largely decided on their behalves by gerrymanders and tabloid moguls.]

But to return to the initial point on these welfare proposals and the very deliberate use of the word ‘work’: this is both to underline the fact that we the people, including the incapacitated and disabled, are as ever still the industrial pawns of profiteers, while spuriously shoe-horning in Occupational Health Theory but via the crucial substitution of ‘work’ in place of ‘occupation’. It is occupation that is good for health and wellbeing, while work may or may not be, depending on its suitability to the interests and abilities of the protagonist. By and large, jobs are not generally good for peoples’ health: and for evidence of this just look at the very figures this document scaremongers on, and the oh-so-shocking £100 Billion per annum cost on welfare payments, on the backs of the British taxpayers, and for what return?, taxpayers cry. Forgetting, as usual, the fact that most of the incapacitated populace on benefits were formerly taxpayers themselves, and so have a right both economically and morally to their own ‘return’ from the system which, indirectly or directly, contributed to their meagrely compensated conditions in the first place. As for the £100 Billion figure, let’s remind ourselves of the $50 Billion that was gambled away by stockbrokers and speculators in the US, and for which, due to the inevitable knock on effect internationally, the taxpayer is now paying, with inexorable interest well into the future. Mmmm. Not to mention the £500 Billion squeezed out of the taxpayer to bail out UK banks, some of whom have subsequently dishonoured their part-nationalised contracts with the government in a reaction against new Keynesian measures, and reverted to tight-fisted form almost immediately. Unconscionable behaviour which our government give the banks a light tap on the knuckles for. Then turns its knuckle-dusters on the most vulnerable in society to vent their duplicitous spleens.

5.88 We have also selected 12 Primary Care Trust pilot sites which, from spring 2009, will test embedding employment advisers as a core component of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. They will work alongside therapists, providing information, advice, guidance and practical support to help people with poor mental health remain in work or return to work as quickly as possible.

Ok. On the verge of economic global Depression and a tsunami of redundancies into 2009, the incapacitated are now going to be bullied back into the marketplace – for that is exactly and solely what it is – in spite of a dearth of any actual jobs, not least vaguely suitable ones. Employment advisers will be ‘embedded’, seemingly by way of a bribery system by which one might be denied access to urgently needed psychological therapies if they do not demonstrate an immediate willingness, in spite of their condition, to look for an unspecified job. At the very least, the implication here is indeed one tantamount to bribery, apparently with the collusion of the medical professions (no surprise there) to the effect that access to therapies may be fast-tracked if one seeks work they are no doubt still unfit for. Work that perhaps they may have been more fit for had they already received the therapy their condition required, rather than having been kept waiting for year-long stretches for any help at all (or even, in the case of someone I know, had their therapy abruptly axed due to ‘financial setbacks in the NHS’ that curiously coincided with the global credit crunch). The last line is surely a rather insensitive joke Mr Purnell? Why, one might ask, should people with poor mental health remain, or indeed be in, work in the first place? And why should they be expected to return to work ‘as quickly as possible’? Mental health conditions, sadly, are not improved to a set timescale that suits the exploitative interests of a capitalist hierarchy. That said, would it not be then fair that the appropriate therapy and treatment be provided by our ever-dismantling NHS is instigated, in turn, ‘as quickly as possible’ prior to expecting the mentally ill to accelerate their recoveries – from often chronic and incurable conditions – by themselves apparently, so they can get back to labouring in creating the wealth from which the corporate sector profits at their expense?

5.38 Community Allowance is a scheme proposed by CREATE, a consortium of organisations, where benefit claimants would undertake paid work to benefit the community in which they live, while continuing to receive benefit payments.

This snippet is telling too: no mention as to whether this ‘paid work’ will be in line with the national minimum wage for a start. And who are CREATE? We’re told, a ‘consortium of organisations’. Right. No hand of the profiteering private sector in this I suppose? Community work for communities which Thatcherism and new Labour have both disenfranchised and marginalised for the past three decades. Suddenly ‘communities’ magically reappear, and those mostly alienated from them, the mentally ill and disabled, are obliged to crutch their way out to cut grass and insulate lofts – for the good of the community of course. Well, cynicism aside here, while it is a noble and positive thing to contribute to one’s ‘community’, such as it is, by contributing some of one’s spare time when out of work to, say, volunteer in the public sector, this is not the way to instigate it, since again here there is the whiff of bribery and exploitation.

3.55 We also need to ensure the medical certification system helps, rather than hinders, recovery and a quick return to work. Dame Carol found that this was not always the case with the present sicknote system which could leave people with the impression that you have to be 100 per cent fit or well to be in work. But there is an increasing consensus that, for many people and for many conditions, staying in work can actually help recovery. 

An ‘increasing consensus’? Among whom exactly? Corporate Planners and Dames perhaps? Staying in some form of occupation, in the true sense of the term (an activity that promotes one’s wellbeing), can help recovery, but rarely if ever a job imposed on one by the crushing demands of unregulated capitalism. A ‘something-for-something’ approach is what Mr Purnell and his minions wish to promote – but some would argue that existing on poverty-level benefits, contending with poor health and social conditions and added to that, the stigma of being ‘on the dole’, which often even results in one's social circle slowly peeling away (as if being on benefits might be contagious in some way), is enough punishment for the pitifully small ‘something’ doled out by the State. A ‘something’ which, in often falling below the level of subsistence, and due to various loopholes, even denying the recipient free medical treatment – most oddly of all, those on IB, unless also in receipt of Income Support, are not eligible for this; whither the NHS? – is more a ‘practically nothing’ or at best a ‘barely something’. Certainly a ‘something’ which is so insultingly paltry, it would warrant an equally tiny ‘something’ in return; if that. To my mind, speculating and profiting on the wealth produced by another’s labour is ‘something for nothing’. It is indeed the world turned upside down, but sadly not in the manner hoped for by the likes of the Levellers
of yore.

3.69 We will be building on this progress over the coming months by setting out a National Strategy for Mental Health and Employment.

Without wishing to sound unduly deterministic here, the above phrase ‘Mental Health and Employment’ is not only arguably oxymoronic (even, in many cases, tautological) but also smacks of a chicken-and-egg scenario: does it not occur to Purnell and his consortiums of well-heeled theoreticians that perhaps the reason for such prevalent mental health statistics is in some way related to the actual nature of ‘employment’ in modern society? That through its inflexible demands on a person’s time, energies and wellbeing, it is one of the factors that often induces mental health problems in the populace in the first place. The vast figures of those incapacitated and on related benefits should surely serve as a damning indictment of our society since Thatcher and under new Labour? Instead, it is used as an alarm call to middle class taxpayers that some of their monies is being used, Heaven forbid, to provide paltry stipends to people less fortunate than themselves, though with the blatant implication here that since these figures are so large, surely many on Incapacity Benefit must be pretending to be ill, in spite of the fact that in order to get IB they have to have their GP’s written sanction. So are the GPs pretending as well then? Oh, but of course, the sick notes are also going to be ‘reformed’.

3.70 We have asked a steering group of specialists, chaired by Dame Carol, to oversee the development of the strategy. They will be assisted by members with business and third sector backgrounds to advise on all aspects of mental health and employment. In particular, they will focus on how mental health provision can be better tailored and integrated to help people find, stay in or return to, work.

Ok. Here is the document’s concession to the need for better awareness of mental health issues in the work sector. That is to be welcomed, though, again, not in the way it is being addressed in this wording. It is the very nature of ‘work’ in our society that needs to be fundamentally reformed before any ostensive stratagems and lip-service steering groups are cobbled together to work on incorporating better provisions for mental health within it. The only way to make employment compatible with good mental health is to completely overhaul its ethical – or rather, unethical – character, and then perhaps in time there will be less cases of mental illness for it to accommodate.

3.71 The aim of these proposed reforms is to deliver a step change in support and expectations for people currently written off and trapped on benefits as a way of life. These reforms mark a radical shift towards a truly active and personalised welfare state, boosting employment and tackling long-term benefit dependency. They increase support and aim to raise the expectations of disabled people – backed up by positive action by Government and employers to support them to make a reality of their aspirations. They will go a long way to helping us achieve our goal of reducing the number of people on incapacity benefits by one million.

But why? What are the motives in reducing the IB figures? Is it a genuine will of government to help heal its incapacitated citizens primarily for their own benefit, and only secondly for that of keeping the cogs of capitalism oiled? I think not. It is semantic window-dressing, a will only to rub out some noughts on a statistics list, in some cases more than just metaphorically, so new Labour can continue to woo its middle England stakeholders. To cynically twist their true intentions by claiming to be ‘raising expectations’, liberating those from the trap of benefits (though it is indeed a poverty trap in that one can barely exist on such pitifully low state stipends, the fallout from which is hardly conducive to getting on one’s bike), having ‘no one written off’, and so on, is among some of the worst chicanery and moral duplicity of any British government in living memory.

The brief honeymoon of nationalising measures and redistributive hints in the wake of the trans-Atlantic crash has suddenly overturned with a thump in the unconscionable moral hypocrisy of this government’s drive against the incapacitated and vulnerable of our society. And if this government – Labour only in name – and its self-deluded supporters might cast a glance of sanguine amusement at some left-wing crank ranting on a fringe webzine, they should perhaps pay a little more attention to a unanimous condemnation of their appalling record in office since 1997 by the leading figures of the Church of England, who will no doubt cut more mustard with them. Or perhaps not: since when
has new Labour ever listened to anyone who tried to appeal to their power-curbed consciences?

The final insult of all has been Purnell’s cynical pirating of a speech by Keir Hardie, from 1893, which he has taken completely out of all context to try and tenuously claim that the argument for the unemployed working for benefits is a Labour tradition: on close examination however, it is clear this speech by Hardie was made long before an official unemployment benefit even existed, and was arguing for the creation of some form of unemployment benefit, or for the opportunity for the unemployed of the time to be allowed to colonise arable land in order to sustain themselves while out of work – echoing Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of the 1650s’ experiments – and not, emphatically not in any way suggesting some sort of slave labour for benefits, as Purnell is, utterly out of synch with the Labour tradition, via a twisted Thatcherite initiative instigated by New Labour.

Let New Labour not forget, the ‘pit from which’ their first leader, Keir Hardie, was ‘dug’, before they finally tip headfirst into the grave they have dug for themselves and the future of their party, now arguably deserving of another stint in the wilderness. One can only hope that during another Parliamentary hiatus, the Left rearguard of the Labour Representation Committee can use such an opportunity to finally shake the party back to its socialist roots, in time to oust a resurgent Tory party after a probable and equally dreaded return to office, which hopefully will prove in the future only an historical glitch.

To return to Keir Hardie, might I quote him myself Mr Purnell, with something perhaps more germane to the monumental greed and avarice of recent times, part presided over, and promoted by a business-besotted so-called Labour government - here's what Hardie said at the beginning of the last century, which many of us are still asking at the beginning of the 21st:

“We are called upon at the beginning of the 20th century to decide the question propounded in the Sermon on the Mount, as to whether we will worship God or Mammon. The present day is a Mammon worshipping age. Socialism proposes to dethrone the brute god Mammon and to lift humanity into its place.” 

Since things have seemingly only got worse in this regard, we ask you, New Labour, what on earth have you been playing at?

the Recusant opposes the New Labour Government's proposed welfare reforms in the name of social compassion and fairness, and supports the Labour Representation Committee's campaign against it. For further information on how to support this campaign please visit http://www.l-r-c.org.uk/