Adam Hills and Alex Brooker of Channel 4's 'The Last Leg' launched a scathing attack on UK welfare cuts on Friday, likening them to "genocide" against disabled people. The hosts of The Last Leg, who both have disabilities of their own, attacked the process of assessment that has recently seen double amputees and a man with half a skull, declared completely 'fit for work'. This is arguably the first time a British TV programme has come out so strongly against (cynical) government welfare reforms that has also seen benefits removed from disabled adults with the mental age of children, people dying from terminal illnesses or people with no limbs at all. Again, all under the ruse of being 'fit for work'.
While the current reforms have been widely criticised since their introduction in 2008, arguably with the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) itself, this is perhaps the first time the word 'genocide' has been used in conjunction with welfare reform, certainly on British TV. In essence, 'The Last Leg's' argument focused upon decisions that mistakenly find disabled people fit for work, but where in most circumstances the people involved are quite clearly and quite obviously, not fit for work. Decisions that do get overturned on appeal, although only after months of legal battles, after months without a financial income and after months of unnecessary distress to the individuals and families involved. In some cases, sick and disabled people have died or committed suicide during this process.
The presenters of the 'The Last Leg' linked this serious ad-hoc nature of disability welfare to the fact that assessors are paid bonuses in order to process as many people as possible. Targets bloody targets, eh? Putting two and two together and painting a tawdry picture of disability assessment that has been dogged for years with accusations of Government driven target setting, the programme also cited the case of a man with no legs who was declared fit for work, simply because 'he could go up and down stairs on his hands'.
Firstly, 'The Last Leg' should be praised for highlighting this issue so passionately. While one or two British newspapers will print stories of the plight of disabled people within 'austerity' hit Britain, most media outlets would still rather focus on the disability welfare fraud angle far more than the tragic and totally unnecessary effects of 'austerity'. Even the use of the 'G' word on a popular TV entertainment show, shocking in itself and a word not to be used lightly, is still not powerful enough to make the pages of Britain's tabloids nor provoke an immediate government response, and that silence may be quite significant in itself. Why add to a fire-storm when it is far easier to let the heat go down?
If disabled people are being denied access to welfare that they are legitimately entitled to, either by sheer incompetence or by fraudulent behaviour on behalf of the assessors, then that is a serious matter in any book and we need to be looking at these problems ASAP. Unfortunately, since these problems have been highlighted time and time again to Government, and with Government no nearer to admitting that such problems even exist, never mind attempting to resolve them, we can only come to the conclusion that something more sinister is indeed happening behind the scenes.
Let's look at the facts. Nearly 90 sick or disabled people a month have been found to have died shortly after being declared fit for work within the UK, according to statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2015. Additionally in 2015, the DWP reluctantly admitted that 1 out of every 5 claimant deaths that have been subjected to secret DWP reviews had occurred while their welfare payments were under 'sanction'. When we consider that 'sanctions' may be applied for months, meaning that some non-working sick or disabled people receive no financial help at all during this time, should we be too surprised when people die, either by starvation or by taking their own life?
However, Government continues to insist that its own data does not automatically link such deaths to welfare reform nor the application of sanctions, a stubborn stance that is not just disingenuous, but insidious. Certainly, if people are being found 'fit for work' and subsequently die two or so weeks later, clearly something is not quite right with the overall assessment process. Similarly, if the poor, the sick, the mentally unwell or those with learning difficulties are dying during the application of sanctions, then we have a system that again is clearly not fit for purpose. If Government is made aware, time and time again that such things are taking place and are reluctant to even treat the matter seriously, then we can only come to the conclusion that this is not simply a case of an unfortunate systemic failure of the welfare system, but a systematic policy that government is taking full advantage of, for whatever reason it decides. I personally believe this is really the only conclusion we can come to, particularly when we consider that terminally ill cancer patients within the UK are being forced to attend work interviews or even undertake work in fear of losing any benefits they may be receiving if they don't. For god's sake, if Government can't even treat dying people with respect, then surely any sane person should be able to easily detect the way in which a very cold wind is blowing across the UK right now. But is it genocide?
In 1944, it was the lawyer, Raphael Lemkin who first coined the term 'genocide' in a book documenting Nazi policies of systematically destroying national and ethnic groups. Lemkin defined genocide as "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves." My own criticism of British welfare reform is probably well known by now. In the past, I have regarded such reform as simply being an on-going 'ideological' battle to re-instate or re-affirm a 'work ethic' within the British population. A 'work ethic' that is constantly assumed and intimated as being eroded or seriously under threat, while being undermined by an over-generous welfare state. Look at Government speeches on welfare, employment and industry (past or present) and it won't be long before you will come across statements concerning 'over-generous benefits', 'dependency', 'responsibility', 'doing the right thing', 'the nanny state', 'competitiveness' or 'unproductiveness'. For years and years, this rubbish is continuously rolled out, like an old broken record. In essence, what we have is a British Government, as indeed previous British Governments have also been, completely obsessed with individuals perceived as not being independent enough, not being responsible enough and not being productive enough.
It's an age-old 'British' problem perceived to be caused by the inherent immorality and laziness of the poor, and encouraged by easy access to welfare and charity. Wayward behavioural traits that have unfortunately become socially associated over time with disability. As Lemkin indeed proposes as a mechanism of 'genocide', the state will instigate actions aimed at the destruction of the essential foundations of life for certain national groups, long before those groups are actually 'eliminated' physically. Arguably, we can see the beginning of the process within the political treatment of disability and unemployment in general. Without being factitious, we don't need to go as far as employing Nazi gas-chambers to get rid of the non-working poor, if there are more covert ways of getting the job done.
With changes in disability welfare, the introduction of the 'bedroom' tax and the erosion of employment rights, we can easily detect such a destruction of the foundations of life that disabled people depend upon for survival. And there are no prizes for guessing what comes next after such a devastating, initial attack? In my mind, Government's continual reform of disability welfare is at the very least, a cruel and deliberate policy of sink or swim. A highly simplistic policy solely aimed at 'motivating' sick and disabled people adjudged able, but perceived as unwilling to do more for themselves. It's a tacky motivational ploy that attempts to (haphazardly) redefine what disabled people can do or not, and then simply push people into the water to see what happens. A policy where some sick or disabled people have indeed quickly sunk to an early death, being denied access to the welfare they once needed and now falsely (as well as cynically) deemed fit to work, and without actually being physically, mentally or intellectually... fit to work.
Many disabled people themselves argue that the WCA itself is indeed primarily driven by political 'ideology' and about redefining what disability is and what is not. And in the case of the double amputee who was told that he was not disabled enough to receive welfare benefits simply because he could alternatively climb stairs on of his hands if he needed, we can easily illustrate this re-defining process in actual practice - warts and all.
In effect, by refining what disability is, Government is indeed seeking to 'eliminate' disability, but by shifting the qualifying criteria for what is considered being 'disabled'. Nothing wrong with that in itself if the aim is primarily benevolent and aimed at helping disabled people into work for those who are able and capable of working. However, what we have witnessed for a number of years now, is Government rhetoric and action that has not been focused upon eradicating employment discrimination and the other blocks to disability employment, but instead upon a welfare system judged to be unsustainable. A system being brutally abused by the immoral and the lazy, with people claiming to be sick or disabled in order to get out of work, and all at the taxpayer's expense.
Certainly, the majority of opinion polls indicate that the British public are slowly turning their backs upon the welfare system full stop, perceiving it indeed as being over-generous and open to abuse, despite the fact that the majority of welfare spending is actually spent on pensions and upon working people themselves. But the erosion of unemployment benefits, sickness benefits and disability benefits is arguably still only the beginning of a deliberate, callous and calculated shutting down of Britain's welfare system. Once the benefits Gestapo have finished coming for the unemployed, the sick and the disabled, the chance is that they are going to be coming after the working poor and the pensioners too.
As I intimated earlier, welfare reform is essentially driven by political ideology and primarily about shoring up the 'work ethic', and not essentially about saving money. Welfare reform in the UK is actually costing more than its saves. No, welfare reform is simply a ruse, a con. If you are not working and poor, then work is argued as a process to set you free from poverty. If you are working and still poor, then you are obviously not working hard enough. This is the mantra that is to be chanted at you regardless of age or ability to work. It also totally dismisses the reality of many disabled people's lives, that disabled people want to work but can't, or want to work but nobody will employ them, simply because of discrimination. Ticking the 'disabled' box on a job application form will certainly be the kiss of death for most employment roles.
And despite the hype, more government money is lost year upon year through DWP error than by fraudulent claims of disability. And again, despite the hype that disabled people are economically dependent and not capable of working, nearly 50% of working age disabled people are actually in paid employment. However, disabled people of working age only make up around 18% of the UK working population and yet are twice as likely to be unemployed than the able-bodied. Government often claims to have been successful in getting more disabled people into employment via their welfare reforms, with an extra 500,000 disabled people in employment compared to 2013. However, these figures don't really give us any real indication of how many disabled people are actually entering the workforce or are leaving during any given period, nor how they are faring within the workplace itself, the type of work they do nor the contracts disabled people are being offered. They only show how much the total number of working disabled has changed over time.
If welfare cuts are indeed designed purely to aggressively force disabled people into work, via the sink or swim method, then we should not be too surprised if the employment figures do increase. However, we can also guarantee that there will be some disabled people within work who will be struggling to sustain such employment, working under intolerable conditions, while still not earning enough to claw their way out of poverty. Clearly, if you are disabled, working or not, you are far more likely to be living in poverty than an abled-bodied person, and according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, disabled poverty increased again by 2% last year. Interestingly, a University of Hull study suggests that there is also a correlation between the use of foodbanks and areas with high numbers of people who are unable to work due to long term illness or disability.
What that really means is that despite the fanfare and trumpeting of an extra 500,000 disabled people within employment, welfare cutbacks are actually making disabled people become more dependent upon charity for survival, than ever before. Additionally, if in work, you are also far more likely to be the target of bullying and harassment than an able-bodied colleague. In any work place, we hear workers complaining of unreachable targets, work pressures that pit work groups against fellow work groups, and out and out bullying by fellow workers or by employer's themselves. For somebody with an intellectual disability, this is more likely to be the 'norm' rather than being a mere blip on the landscape.
Despite the employment figures concerning the numbers of disabled in work, disabled people claim that government welfare and legislative reforms have worked either intentionally or unintentionally to undermine the chances of finding employment, as well as undermining their ability to travel to work and the conditions to sustain employment. This has occurred by making it far more difficult for the disabled to gain access to training and work experience, by removing disabled access to mobility cars or other modes of transport, and by relaxing employment legislation which makes it far easier for employers to discriminate against disabled people or even to sack disabled people - without redress.
So, just what the flip is going on here? Clearly Government say they are moving to 'help' more disabled people into work, but at the same time moving the goal posts and deliberately placing even more obstacles in the way of disabled people finding or sustaining employment. For sure, no matter how the definitions of disability or the criteria for benefits are tinkered with, the reality for disabled people is that if they are capable of working, they will. If they are not capable, they can't. If they cannot meet the demands of unscrupulous and bullying employers, they won't be able to.
Establishment concerns over the 'work ethic' in which the sick, the disabled and the unemployed are perceived as not pulling their weight, not doing enough or deliberately abusing the system is not a new thing, and such fears are very deep-rooted within British society. In essence, if you are poor and not working within Britain, you are perceived as being inherently lazy and in need of motivation, preferably by the stick rather than by the carrot. We know this because this is what British businesses and it Governments have told us constantly, in the past as well as in the present. Therefore, if you are British you will always be perceived as not doing enough to find work or perceived as not doing enough while you are in work, while at the same time, being perceived as not working long enough before we actually retire. If we are poor it is generally perceived to be our own fault. Only in Britain could politician's come up with the idea that withdrawing housing benefit from young people would motivate them into finding employment, rather than forcing them into homelessness as a consequence. Or that financially fining homeless people will somehow deter them from sleeping rough on the street? It's an authoritarian mentality that seems to be completely away with the fairies in terms of logic.
The disabled unfortunately suffer a double burden of this authoritarian mentality, not only being perceived as being inherently lazy, but generally not as productive as the able-bodied - and generally problematic or troublesome to employ. We only have to hark back the remarks of a Government welfare reform minister a couple of years ago that suggested that disabled people should be prepared to work for less than the national minimum wage in order to make themselves more 'attractive' to employers. It is quite clear that if Government could get away with pushing disabled people into the arms of exploitative employers, it would happily jump at the chance. In reality, such ideas are not about helping disabled people into work, but about helping the cogs of Britain's profit-hungry, capitalist system keep turning over, while eliminating any faulty thinking within the population that might be damaging the establishment's treasured 'work ethic'.
Arguably, Britain's deep-rooted and authoritarian obsession over 'work ethic' and not doing enough comes from two directions. Firstly, old school religion, where the 'devil' will always find work for idle-hands to do. Secondly, deeply rooted notions of self-responsibility and wealth creation, where wealth creation becomes the dominant philosophy, and by which people become perceived merely as a commodity to be bought and sold in a market place of competing skills and abilities. In this dominant philosophy of wealth creation and self-responsibility, the wealthy, the privileged and the not so privileged also become highly fearful of those who are not closely adhering to these preferred norms.
So, if you are in poverty, you will be subjected to the moral judgements of your fellow citizens and designated as either deserving of help or not deserving of help, dependent upon which way the political wind is blowing. However, to receive such help, people not only need to prove that they are actually destitute, but willing to humiliate themselves in front of the system, while willing to withstand the intolerable conditions the system will throw at them, before they are considered genuine enough to be helped. This was the ethos behind the concept of the 'workhouse', a place so horrific only the disparate would tolerate.
An underlying ethos that can be levelled also at The Work Capability Assessment. The WCA has been criticised for many years for humiliating sick and disabled people, getting them to 'perform' tricks and movements so that assessors can judge if they are capable of working or not. A system that some disabled people have termed 'miraculous', as people with a disability go in one door and come out another door half an hour later completely cured of their afflictions - well at least on paper. Disability eliminated at the stroke of a pen. Easy Peesy.
What we have in the UK may indeed be a form of 'genocide', where the disabled are being slowly eradicated by a mere shifting of the ideological goal-posts, and then dying off through the resulting extremes and harms of poverty. In an increasing authoritarian society, it will certainly do capitalism no harm at all for Government to be seen to wielding the big stick in order to punish those who are not working, even if only to deter others from following the same path of laziness and immorality. Therefore, full credit to Adam Hills and Alex Brooker for bringing the 'G' word into the homes of millions of Brits last Friday. While sick and disabled people are dying through having their welfare benefits erroneously taken away, so too is the safety net being removed that any decent society needs to have in place in order to protect its vulnerable.
While Government will undoubtedly throw up its hands in horror that some of us have the sheer audacity to accuse Britain of practising 'Genocide', we should not forget that the UN has already found the UK guilty of riding rough-shod over the human rights of disabled people. Not that it's done much good so far, as Government and Britain's media continue to ignore such findings. But ultimately, Government doesn't need the extremes of the Nazi gas chamber's to similarly kill off some of its most unwanted citizens, while it can just as easily turn off the oxygen supply that many disabled people depend upon survival.