Welfare politics: A 'morally disabled' government

Disabled actor, writer and comedian Francesca Martinez, who has been outspoken in support of those challenging the impact on vulnerable people of the Welfare Reform Bill (WRB), put the matter powerfully and poignantly on the This Week TV politics show: the government, she said, is "morally disabled" in its approach to these issues and to the human effect of its policies.

The comment came to mind in watching the House of Commons debate yesterday (1 February 2012), not least as some on the government side appeared to snigger through harrowing accounts of human suffering, as being disabled and on benefit was categorised as a "lifestyle choice", as evidence of the negative impact of specific WRB provisions was dismissed by one Liberal Democrat as mere "rhetoric", and as well thought-through Lords amendments were casually cast aside.

We are surely right to be absolutely astonished that the government wants cancer sufferers undergoing painful treatment and chemotherapy to 'prove' that they cannot work; and that it is determined that people with terminal illnesses who might live too long and therefore be a 'drain on resources' must be tested as to their work capacity after six months to stop them 'scrounging' off the rest of us.

What is even more astonishing is that so many MPs and ministers seem utterly unaware that, as the estimable Lord Patel put it three weeks ago, in backing such policies (and the warped assumptions behind them), they are now crossing a moral line marked out by what many of us can only consider sheer thoughtlessness and heartlessness. "If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, then we enter into a different form of morality," he rightly declared.

The lack of understanding of disadvantage and deprivation displayed by the comfortably off (in some cases the plain wealthy, and in the instance of 18 cabinet members, millionaires and multi-millionaires) is sadly unsurprising. But their apparent invulnerability to humane argument and rational critique by those with considerable experience and expertise is no less appalling for that.

In her gentle but pointed Open Letter to Iain Duncan Smith (a man who "does God" rather openly), my Ekklesia colleague Jill Segger urged the 'quiet man' to take "a quiet moment to consider some of the facts" in relation to the government's top-slicing benefit cap and his comment aimed at poor families, disabled people and others: "They're not suffering." By contrast, Jill outlined the personal and financial realities of living on the edge and the impact an arbitrary cap will undoubtedly have.

The Free Churches, too, are among those who have gone into some detail as to why the benefit cap - though superficially attractive to those who have not had the chance to study it in depth - is not 'fair', as the Prime Minister claims when he seeks to pit working people on low incomes against those who cannot work. And as the PM spins, the government is pursuing a raft of other policies that cut jobs, reduce economic opportunity, remove investment, stunt sustainable growth, abandon small businesses, reinforce low pay and make moving into decent employment more difficult for many who desperately want to.

Bob Holman, who gave up a distinguished academic career to live on a tough estate, and who has tried to influence IDS and his curiously titled Centre for Social Justice, gave his own verdict from Glasgow the other day:

"Our project in Easterhouse, Glasgow, gave out 650 Christmas parcels, which mainly consist of food. We have started planning the summer camps, which are needed more than ever. Yet some parents will have to cut down expenditure on essentials if they are to pay the already subsidised camp fees. I recall being with Iain Duncan Smith when he criticised New Labour for not reducing the gap between rich and poor. This year his children will enjoy an affluent lifestyle and more than enough food, in contrast to the needy children at the other end of the social scale.

With its arithmetic majority and compliance mechanisms, the government was almost certain to win the votes in the Commons on 1 February and will now force its reforms (all too many of them disfiguring cuts) through. But victory in the lobby cannot disguise the ethical bankruptcy of what is being done, the slanders committed against disabled people and other claimants, the terrible lack of human empathy, the flawed policy agenda, and the disturbing overall disconnect between rulers and ruled.

In my country, Scotland, the Westminster government is imposing policies that the great majority of us voted against. Liberal Democrat MPs who obediently trooped in to the lobbies yesterday to slash welfare ('sheep with uzis", one disability campaigner put it in disgust) did so in defiance of much of their own party's policy.

Meanwhile, Parliamentary procedure is being misused to quash dissent and quell rebellion. Those living with disability and other vulnerable groups (millions of people) are being ignored or pushed aside. Financial and practical questions (which mean, incidentally, that the government may end up paying £8 billion on implementation) are being massaged away. Abuses and anomalies, which need tackling specifically, are being used as a reason to dismember whole chunks of vital provision. And the public continues to be fed a diet of misinformation and half-truth which is then used by the government to claim that "the public backs us."

This does not amount to meaningful democratic decision-making. It is more like autocracy and "elected dictatorship". Because, as Ekklesia has pointed out before, the claims democracy has to legitimacy must finally rest on morality rather than managed consent. Majorities have no 'right' to overturn human decency, dignity and social justice and must be challenged vigorously when they do.

So the votes have been cast and the die has been set on the Welfare Reform Bill. The political, legal and - above all - moral and spiritual struggle is very far from over, however.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and a backer of the Spartacus campaign (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/spartacusreport).

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