New kind of cruelty
Shaming and demonising the poor: James Linney takes apart the Tories’ ‘back to work plan’, but nobody should expect anything positive from Sir Keir and Wes Streeting
Ahead of the November 22 autumn statement chancellor Jeremy Hunt and the secretary of state for work and pensions, Mel Stride, unveiled their ‘back to work plan’. They claimed that the aim was to create:
… a package of employment-focused support that will help people stay healthy, get off benefits and move into work … Getting more people into work, and ensuring work pays, remains a key priority for the government. It is important for growing the UK economy, managing inflation, controlling spending and improving living standards.
Despite these claims, on reading the plan, it is immediately clear that the attempts to “support” people back into work are at best superficial. Adding up to doing more of the same, it is the same patronising, dehumanising ‘employment coaching’ that has been failing people for decades. These will be familiar to anyone who has had to sign on - basic writing of your curriculum vitae, interview skills, etc - things which sound helpful enough in theory, until you have to do them. Then you realise that the reality is arbitrary, demoralising and seems aimed at getting people to lower their expectations so much that they are well primed to submit to the first (likely zero hours) job that comes along.
If these token and pathetic support measures are the meagre carrot, then we soon get to the enormous stick; revealing the actual reason for the plan: to demonise and punish anyone too sick to work. Hence we are told how the growing problem of work avoidance is the direct cause of the economy stalling and contributing to everyone else’s hardship. As Hunt puts it, the plan was necessary to stop “anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers”.1 Stride was equally emphatic, saying of the plan: “… our message is clear: if you are fit, if you refuse to work, if you are taking taxpayers for a ride - we will take your benefits away.”
Now I know what you are thinking - all this talk of good-for-nothing work-dodgers sounds very familiar. Indeed, it is the same language used to demonise people on benefits - fashionable amongst New Labour and the coalition ministers in the late 1990s and 2000s. During this time, not a week went by without a story in the newspapers about how someone was having dozens of children so they could cash in their benefits and buy multiple homes, cars and luxury holidays!
Shaming and demonising the poor became so ubiquitous that it became a form of cheap entertainment - hence TV shows such as Channel 4’s utterly contemptuous Benefits Street. The Daily Mail is, of course, on board with attempts to rehabilitate the ‘benefits scrounger’ myth - hence its recent headline: ‘British taxpayers are paying for an army of shirkers unless we get tough on sickness benefit scroungers.’2 Despite the Mail’s hopes, people are now much less likely to buy into these lies. Recent experience of the pandemic and the rocketing costs of living have meant that many more people (working or not) have had experience of what it means to be unable to afford the basics - they know that anyone living on universal credit (£73 a week if you are under 25 years and single) is struggling to survive.
Let us look for evidence of this ‘army of shirkers’ by examining current statistics. Unemployment is actually at a fairly low level (currently 4.3%, or just over one million people) - true, it has climbed by 0.3% since the pandemic, but since the 1980s, unemployment rates have been about 10%.3
Official figures distinguish between those who are currently seeking and available to work and people categorised as “economically inactive”, who have not been “seeking work within the last four weeks and/or are unable to start work within the next two weeks”. Such “economically inactive” people may have disabilities or illness, which currently means they are unable to work, but actually the majority of this category are made up of students (26%), as well as people looking after their family (22%) or having taken early retirement. None of these people are actually “inactive” - clearly raising children, caring for family members and studying are all essential and valuable contributions to our society.
The ‘economic inactivity’ rate (21.1%) is just 0.9% higher than before the coronavirus pandemic, but it has remained fairly steady at between 21% and 24% over the past two decades. There has, however, been a significant increase in the number of people unable to work due to long-term sickness; the numbers having risen to 2.6 million in July 2023, compared to 1.97 million in 2019. This is no big surprise, when you consider what has been happening since 2019.
For anyone following the current Covid-19 inquiry, it should be blatantly obvious that the responsibility for protecting UK citizens from the worst pandemic in a century fell to a bunch of desperately self-serving, back-stabbing clowns. The Tory leadership’s shambolic attempts at interpreting epidemiology via their own tooth-and-claw capitalist filter, whilst trying to make a quick buck on the side, would be comical if it had not resulted in the unnecessary death and suffering of thousands of people. For anyone who cares to see, the inquiry has pulled the thin veil of pretence from the face of our government. Their concern, in their own words, was always for the pandemic not to interfere with the continued flow of profit and, if the bodies had to be piled high, then so be it.
The pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the health of many - 1.9 million people still experience symptoms of post-Covid syndrome4 and for many those symptoms are actually disabling, such as severe fatigue and breathlessness. Of course, the psychological impact has been equally appalling and both the pandemic and the rising costs of living have been devastating catalysts for worsening mental health. Rates of people seeking help for their mental health have been rising steadily for a decade, but in 2022 mental health services in England received a record 4.6 million referrals (up 22% from 2019).5
For people whose poor mental health has forced them out of work, the current system for claiming benefits is guaranteed to exacerbate their problems. The application process has always been an onerous, overcomplicated experience, but since the Tories rolled out their ‘reforms’ in 2013, which switched people to universal credit, it has reached new levels of bureaucracy that would seem at home in one of Franz Kafka’s nightmarish novels. Predictably universal credit has been used as a vehicle to deny as many people as possible their benefit payments and force the most vulnerable into destitution. This is evidenced by the increasing number of children officially in poverty - 4.2 million (or 29%), up from 3.6 million in 2011.6
Applicants for universal credit are subjected to a humiliating ‘work capabilities assessment’ where a privately contracted clinician attempts to determine whether a person is fit to work, based on a short (less than an hour) examination, reducing a person and their mental and physical conditions to a set of arbitrary score points. Not surprisingly, the outcomes are not a fair reflection of a person’s ability to work and any appeal of the decision is even more stressful and lengthy, leaving people unable to pay their bills or being threatened with homelessness. A recent study examining the traumatic impact this process can have on applicants concluded:
Our findings add considerable detail to emerging evidence of the deleterious effects of universal credit on vulnerable claimants’ health and wellbeing. Our evidence suggests that UC is undermining vulnerable claimants’ mental health, increasing the risk of poverty, hardship, destitution and suicidality.7
The suffering of such people is being exacerbated by the failing national health service. The Tories have been so successful in defunding the NHS and demoralising its workers that it is currently not able to meet the basic needs of many patients. As has been well documented, current waiting lists are at an all-time high and growing. 7.75 million people are now waiting longer than 18 months for treatment. People with illnesses such as severe back pain, osteoarthritis, depression and cardiovascular disease (the most common causes for having to sign on for benefits) are not getting the care and treatments they need and predictably are getting more disabled as a consequence.
Having established then that the Tories have manufactured a growing population of people too sick to work, unable to get the help they need from the NHS and made sicker by the already criminally unfair benefits system, let us see how their ‘back to work plan’ aims to make amends.
The body of the plan and clearly the real reason for its launch are the list of draconian sanctions to be imposed on people who are still having to claim benefits 12 months after signing on. People at this time, we are informed, will have to undertake forced work-placement trials, unpaid work experience or some other (unnamed) “intensive activity” to improve their employability prospects. We are left to guess what this might be, but the message is clear: you will perform work, possibly unpaid, of any sort, no matter how harmful to your health, and if you refuse your benefits will be immediately withdrawn. The plan goes on to set out new powers for the department for work and pensions to digitally track people, and this surveillance will enable
a work coach to track a claimant’s attendance at DWP-organised job interviews or job fairs. This tool will provide work coaches with better evidence on a claimant’s work-search activities and ensure that claimants, who do not attend mandatory appointments without a good reason are sanctioned.
These horrific measures are not even the worst of it; the plans go on to reveal that if people remain unable to work then additional benefits, such as free NHS medication prescriptions, dental care and legal aid, will be withdrawn. This attempt to paint people with chronic debilitating health conditions as work-shy benefit-scammers, whilst denying them their medications (which will lead directly to their worsening morbidity and possibly death) is a new kind of cruelty. The paper-thin arguments made by Tory ministers that these measures are aimed at incentivising and supporting people back to work are intuitively and blatantly false - and, of course, the minsters making these claims are well aware of their untruth. In 2019 the government funded its own research into the benefits system, which stated:
Of all the evidence we received, none was more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition. It does not work. Worse, it is harmful and counterproductive. We recommend that the government immediately stop imposing conditionality and sanctions on anyone found to have limited capability for work, or who presents a valid doctor’s note.8
We learn towards the end of the ‘back to work plan’ that the government has attempted to sadistically negate this recommendation by proposing to simply remove the power of general practitioners to provide sick notes to the DWP - thus cutting out of the process the health professional best placed to provide accurate, balanced information regarding the state of the health of a claimant.
Any sensible person will have already worked out that ‘Back to Work’ was never a genuine attempt to support people. This is the Tories just doing what comes naturally to them: namely, blame and punish the poor for their poverty. Rishi Sunak’s intentions in green-lighting these benefit reforms now were less about gaining popular support than for his own short-term political benefit - providing breathing space by further indicating to the right wing of his party that he is on their side.
But it is easy to fall into the habit of pantomime politics - we know we should boo when the Tories take the stage. This feels less fun, however, when the working class has nothing to cheer. Sir Keir Starmer has been propagating the ‘benefit scrounger’ myth since his days as a QC, when as director of public prosecutions he championed up to 10 years in prison for benefit fraud (which accounts for just 0.7% of total DWP claims).9 And as Labour leader he has been equally vocal about getting tough on benefit fraud - clearly indicating to the establishment that he intends to continue Tory austerity.
Equally there will be little to cheer for in terms of reversing the NHS decline if he becomes prime minister, as seems likely. His shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, has recently been boasting that he wants to “hold the door wide open” to the NHS for the private sector, if Labour wins the general election.10
We must be clear that demonising certain sections of the working class, painting them as lazy, criminal and to blame for their poverty - whether it be the unemployed or migrants - is not a tactic unique to the Tories. It is part of fundamental capitalist ideology, used to justify the dominance of one minority class over the majority.