Why is government held to account on money lost, but not lives?

By Bernadette Meaden
March 2, 2019

In recent days the media has positively revelled in Chris Grayling’s reputation for incompetence, and almost every report focused on what his failures have cost in financial terms.

These costs ranged from the relatively small - £72000 on legal costs to defend his ban on sending books to prisoners,  to the undeniably large - £2 billion on the collapse of the East Coast rail franchise. 

The criticism on financial grounds was certainly justified. Yet there is a far greater cost to Chris Grayling’s failures, but which seldom attracts such intense criticism – the cost in lives lost or ruined.

Grayling’s first government post was at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), from May 2010 to September 2012. In 2011 the DWP decided to reassess 1.5 million Incapacity Benefit claimants, using the now notorious Work Capability Assessment. Professor Malcolm Harrington, the government’s expert adviser says he told Chris Grayling that this was a bad idea because the assessment was ‘inhumane and mechanistic’, but his advice was ignored. He says "If they had changed the system to make it more humane I would suggest that some of the people who went through it would have had a less traumatic experience." 

Just how traumatic that experience was for some people cannot be overstated. In 2015 a team of academic researchers calculated that, over three years, the reassessment process was associated with an additional 590 suicides, 279,000 extra cases of self-reported mental health problems and the prescribing of an additional 725,000 antidepressants. By the time this research was published however, Grayling was long gone from the DWP. In September 2012 he was appointed Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, despite not having a qualification in law.

In this post he made a number of ‘reforms’. He determined that the cost of publicly-run prisons should be brought down to match that of privately-run prisons, despite the latter generally having a worse record on safety.   The number of prison officers fell from about 23,000 in 2012 to about 18,000 in 2015. Predictably, safety deteriorated for prisoners and staff, and in 2015 the Justice Select Committee reported  that “since 2012, there has been a 38 per cent rise in self-inflicted deaths, a nine per cent rise in self-harm, a seven per cent rise in assaults and a 100 per cent rise in incidents of concerted indiscipline.”  Since that report the situation has deteriorated further.

In 2013, Grayling embarked on major ‘reforms’ of probation services which involved part-privatisation. As has been revealed in a National Audit Office report, this went so badly wrong that “the Ministry will pay at least £467 million more than was required under the original contracts.”

But what has gained less attention and public discussion is the apparent cost in lives lost and ruined when criminals were not adequately supervised. As early as 2014, in an 18-page letter to Grayling, the probation officers union was linking murders to the changes.  Their concerns were dismissed, but we now know that in the four years after the reforms, high risk offenders supervised by the public service committed 142 murders, whilst those deemed low to medium risk but monitored by private contractors killed 225 people. Indeed, the number of rapes, murders and other serious crimes committed by offenders on parole has risen by more than 50 per cent since the Grayling reforms. The cost in human suffering is unquantifiable.

Of course Chris Grayling has been just one minister in governments that have overseen almost a decade of austerity, bringing a reduction in life expectancy in poor areas. Severe public spending cuts have been linked to 120,000 excess deaths between 2010 and 2017.  But the media seems to pay more attention to money lost than lives shortened.

As the Grayling story dominated the media and public discourse, I asked on social media why his terrible decision on disability assessments was so often overlooked when his numerous failures were discussed. Paul Treloar (@PaulieTandoori) replied, “Because it happened to the people who don't matter, who are second class citizens, who don't show up in public consciousness...”

@DoktorZhivago3 said, “This government, and increasingly the media and society in general, does not understand that morality is based on the UNCONDITIONAL worth of every human being. It actually thinks that you acquire worth by earning money. So claimants are worthless. Non-citizens.”

Sadly, I think they were both correct. Ill or disabled benefit claimants, homeless people, prisoners, elderly people in poorer areas – they have all paid the price for government policies, but their shortened lives never seemed to gain the kind of media coverage and general public disapproval that a farcical ferry contract has. Perhaps it would have been different if it had been happening to wealthy or influential people - perhaps not. But we need to start holding government to account on the basis of the health and wellbeing of people, all people - not on a purely financial basis.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.