It’s another day with a ‘Y’ in its name, so the government must be attacking benefits scroungers again. The routine pieties of the modern political age are to talk about ‘helping people’ out of ‘the benefits trap’ and ‘back into work’ – joining the perennial political duties like cutting red tape and reducing government spending. The reason why these problems never go away is because they are problems caused by the very system which puts the politicians in power, and which they cannot resolve without destroying themselves and their own elevated statuses.
David Blunkett – now returned to the cabinet after resigning last year for abusing his office for personal gain in helping his lover’s nanny get a visa quicker – has been making loud noises about the ‘crackers’ Incapacity Benefit system. It is Blunkett’s role to sound like a bruiser, to talk tough and act tough, seen by many as appealing to Labour’s core constituency – former Tory voters on council estates. He bemoaned the continuing rise of people on incapacity benefits (many driven there by previous efforts to try and cut benefits claimants, helped by staff driven by targets to reduce certain types of benefits).
There are currently 2.7 million people on incapacity benefit in the UK, with something like 29 million people in
employment (possibly the highest UK figure ever). According to the BBC, that is four times the number of IB recipients compared to 30 years ago. Of course, many things have changed since then, not least the structure of the benefits system as a whole.
Blunkett, however, still wants to drastically reduce the numbers on incapacity. Revealing his new status as a medical doctor, Blunkett pronounced that getting out to work is a better cure for depression than staying at home watching daytime telly. This startling revelation must have shockedhis fellow healthcare professionals who had been labouring under the impression that depression is a medical ailment of the brain as much as a break is a medical condition of the leg. Perhaps
Blunkett will now advise a brisk walk as a cure for that. Behind the tough rhetoric, though, as ever with the modern Machiavellian Labour Party, is some old-fashioned Old Labourstyle reforms: plans to make the benefits system ‘a ladder to self-reliance’ and to give assistance with training and finding jobs to people who are on IB. Simplification of the system may actually help people who are supposed to be too ill to work but have to be well enough to run from pillar to post to fill in their 2,000 page benefits claim form signed in triplicate in blood. Or something like that.
This is cut from the same cloth as the New Deal and all their previous schemes to ‘help’ the unemployed back to work by badgering them and managing them into being full-time professional job seekers. Of course, this runs counter to any notion that they can quickly cut costs. This month also saw the National Audit Office reveal that only 5% of people on IB were able to access back to work schemes. To assist more people through such structures will actually increase the cost of managing the benefits, not decrease it, as massive expansion would be required.
This is the central conundrum for governments: caught between a real problem beyond their control, trapped by their own eternal propaganda of cost cutting, they cannot pursue their eternal propaganda of getting people off benefits. Instead, all we have is a Groundhog Day of pronouncements and denouncements as the Ministers try to be seen doing something, usually by trying to portray the people who are dependent on benefits as somehow culpable and at fault for the whole of the costs of the benefits system.
Politicians are struggling to define the typical benefits recipient, to legitimise the idea of welfare so they can attack it and reduce costs and also increase downwards pressures on wages and the labour market.
Most people in the UK are probably only two pay cheques away from needing to call on benefits, but rather than portray it as a system to help people and prevent catastrophe it is universally presented as a location of cheats, frauds and scroungers, riddled with layabouts and other undeserving poor types. Benefits and being on benefits is to be despised and feared.
Despite this, though, people are compelled to claim them because of the wages system, because they are too ill to work or because work is not available. The benefits system actually benefits employers who otherwise would face the costs and disruption of having to keep on people whose illness makes them turn up to work irregularly, who would lie in desperation to gets jobs about their illnesses, and push much of the cost currently borne generally through taxes directly onto capitalists who employ many workers.
Herein is the rub of the £3 billion lost from the system by fraud and ‘error’ – much of it will have been small sums given to people which will have made their lives easier. Some of it will have contributed to the real living needs of claimants. The real tragedy is not the fraud or the overspend, but that much of the £109 billion budget is wasted assessing people, categorising people and cheeseparing their entitlements.
There is enough food, clothing and housing to go round. The world today is not short of wealth. In order, though, to maintain labour discipline, to keep the labour market in existence, a massive welfare budget must be expended to deny access to the things people need.
The simple fact is that we live in a society overripe for socialism. The material possibility has been around the corner for years. When we remove the barriers to the access of wealth, we also remove the barriers that make some people unemployable, that make socialising and community a cost that has to be scraped out of local authority and social services budgets. We would remove the binds, the need to support a restrictive welfare system but simultaneously to attack it and try to reduce its budget, by the principle of producing freely together.
Socialists, unlike leftists, do not support the welfare state, do not see it as a way to socialism, but as an inevitable part of capitalism, of administering poverty. The abolition of poverty – not in far-flung imagined foreign fields where poverty is vividly drawn by the masters of propaganda, but on the very streets where we walk and it is painted out by those same illusionists – will mean an end to the welfare ideology. With luck, it will also mean seeing less of David Blunkett’s face revelling in his own ‘stern compassion’.