Dutch social care shift hits disabled people’s rights

By Savi Hensman
October 6, 2013

The Netherlands government plans to slash social care funding and put pressure on frail elderly and other disabled people to do ‘voluntary’ work in return for any help they get, the newspaper Volkskrant reported. Austerity measures have already taken a heavy toll, and are hugely unpopular.

Under austerity measures demanded by the European Union, the national budget for home care for 750,000 people is being cut by £1.7 billion (€2 billion) to £9.4 billion (€11.2 billion). Under the new system, it would be up to local authorities to decide what support disabled people get, how much they pay and whether family, friends and neighbours are required to help provide care.

"The government is of the opinion that it is quite normal for people to try to improve their own situations or to help their partners or family members who cannot participate fully in society by themselves," the proposal reportedly states. "The government will no longer automatically take on this role."

Those who still get social care would be "urgently requested" to do ‘voluntary’ work to repay society for any support they receive. Supposedly "Loneliness could perhaps be overcome if the elderly helped pre-school children with language impairments improve their reading” and “a retired accountant in a wheelchair could help out at the local council’s debt advice service."

It is ethically desirable for everyone, as far as they are able, to contribute to their communities beyond the narrow requirements of the law. However it is generally left to individuals and families to decide, in line with their capacities and beliefs, how to do so. The notion that disabled people should not have this freedom in the same way as others is unjust.

For instance, most of us are not expected to feel hugely grateful, and undertake ‘voluntary’ labour in return, if we want to be able to go to the toilet or have an occasional hot drink. Nor is it necessarily practical for people with conditions like end-stage cancer or dementia to be put back to work. It is also intrusive to demand that personal care be given by relatives or neighbours so that, for example, an older woman who wants to bathe must be willing to let her grandson or the man next door undress her.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has “the right to social security” and “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Most other European states have also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which includes “the equal right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others” including “access to a range of in-home, residential and other community support services, including personal assistance necessary to support living and inclusion in the community, and to prevent isolation or segregation from the community”.

But such rights are under attack in the Netherlands where, in September, a King’s speech written by the coalition government declared the end of the “classic welfare state”, to be replaced by a “participation society" in which people “arrange their own lives, and take care of each other."

Some people might believe that, for instance, a ninety-year-old who fought in the resistance, worked and paid taxes for half a century and brought up children had made some contribution already. But, in the ideology of those opposed to the concept of social security, ordinary people are entitled to nothing.

The harsh impact of austerity has led to a surge of popularity for far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Undermining social stability by attacking the living standards of ordinary people brings risks for the ruling elite, as well as suffering for those hardest hit by cuts.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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