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THE government’s renewed assault on Britain’s poor and disabled is shameful — but it is entirely in line with the behaviour of a party whose disregard for the wellbeing of ordinary people and contempt for human rights, the law and our legal system have been growing, year on year, for more than a decade now.
Tony Benn once said that we should watch how governments treat refugees because it shows how they will treat us if they can get away with it. He was right — and the homogenisation of the political landscape, with the Tories and the “opposition” marching almost in lockstep on spending and human rights, has clearly convinced this government that it can get away with a lot.
Rishi Sunak’s determination to bypass the Supreme Court’s decision against his government’s deportation of refugees to Rwanda rightly made headlines last week, but Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt also turned their fire again on the sick and disabled.
After 13 years of policies that have caused untold misery for the poor and especially for disabled people — and for hundreds of thousands of excess deaths — the Tories are not just targeting refugees for dehumanisation and punitive measures.
In the same week that Sunak demonstrated such contempt for the rule of law and the integrity of judges, his Hunt’s department trailed measures for this week’s Budget that will penalise the chronically ill for failing to find work or for rejecting coercive measures to force them into work.
A University of Glasgow study a year ago found that more than 330,000 excess deaths were the “result” of austerity — and that austerity had not just halted the decades-long increase in British life expectancy, but had thrown it into reverse, especially among poorer people.
Rather than respond to this confirmation of the appalling effects of austerity by changing course, the government is now redoubling its assault on the poor, sick and disabled, scapegoating them for the government’s failure to grow the economy.
Sunak has even brought back Esther McVey, one of the main figures in the austerity regime, to battle “wokeness” — or as we would call it, empathy.
Hunt plans to cut benefit claimants off completely from state support if they fail to convince DWP representatives that they are doing enough to find work — an escalation of the already punitive sanctions regime for those judged not to be trying hard enough to find work, or even for missing an appointment because of illness.
To make matters even worse, he plans to remove access to free NHS medicines, dental care and help with energy bills — in the middle of an energy cost crisis — from those who fall foul of his proposed new system. And because Hunt knows that doctors will refuse to certify a sick person as fit for work, the government plans to usurp the role of medical professionals, taking away from doctors the judgement about who can work.
To compound the problems still further, instead of proper medical care and an honest recognition of a person’s ill health, the Tories plan to impose “life coaches for the long-term sick” and “talking therapies” on those it deems fit to work no matter what expert medical opinion says.
Anyone who either refuses this “help” or fails to respond with the required enthusiasm will be punished. The awful consequences of these moves are not hard to predict, especially for those with long-term, complex health conditions or disabilities, or for those suffering poor mental health.
Indeed, as long ago as 2014, NHS data showed that more than four in 10 people claiming out-of-work disability benefits had attempted suicide because of the punishing and attritional “fit to work” assessment regime. That percentage was double the rate found in the previous survey seven years earlier. The benefits regime has only become more severe since.
The Tories’ treatment of disabled people has been so horrific that in 2017 the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities condemned the British government for creating a “human catastrophe” for those with disabilities.
Since then, the number of poor people in the UK has rocketed to 14 million, well over four million of them children. Children from families with a disabled or long-term sick member are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as those in households with no disability — a figure that was measured before the impact of the pandemic and then the cost-of-living crisis.
The government claims that these sanctions will not be applied to those with children or to people with disabilities. But medical professionals and disability campaigners are surely right to point out that, based on the ever-worsening track record of successive Tory governments, the new regime will be used to legitimise discrimination against people with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Such discrimination is unequivocally against the Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) banning inhuman or degrading treatment and requiring states to protect human rights and the right to life.
It is also fundamentally counterproductive. As economist Stephen Koukoulas pointed out in 2015, it is “overwhelmingly” clear that if you want to grow the economy you need to put more money into the pockets of the poor, because they will spend it and increase economic activity. Instead, Hunt has failed to denounce that tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations will feature in his Autumn Statement.
By responding to this epidemic of poverty and despair by punishing the poor and giving yet more handouts to the rich, Hunt and Sunak are doing the opposite of what they claim to be trying to achieve.
And it must be said that in large part they feel emboldened to do this because the current Labour leadership has bought into the false narrative of austerity — the “magic money tree” deception — and announced its own intentions to restrict spending if Labour get into government.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour had won the argument on austerity — and it showed in the reaction of the Tories, who performed U-turn after U-turn under Theresa May and then Boris Johnson, suddenly finding the “magic” money for spending because someone was making the argument that the Conservatives’ obsession with cuts was a political choice and never an economic necessity.
That argument remains no less true now, but nobody on a Commons front bench is making it, instead allowing the Tories to return with gusto the “conscious cruelty” — and economic damage — of a system that for 13 years now has punished the poor for being poor while heaping rewards on those who are already grotesquely wealthy.
Britain desperately needs that argument to be heard — the poor and disabled that Sunak and Hunt are targeting need it most desperately of all. When it is not being even whispered by either Labour or the Tories, it is up to us to shout it all the louder and refuse to be silenced.
Claudia Webbe MP is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East.
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