Before you get on a bus or train you always check where it is going. If only we did the same thing with our politicians and politics. Unfortunately that didn’t seem to be the case with last May’s election, when a government was elected committed to taking us all in a direction few would actually seem to want to go – towards the dismantling of the welfare state. What cutting the welfare state means is not making life harder for a few ‘layabouts’ and ‘scroungers’ as we are told. It actually means things like getting rid of the NHS, undermining meaningful pensions for older people, support for our children, including disabled children, and social care for when we get older. And judging from what is now happening, this is the path our government is determinedly set upon.
We need to be clear about this. Just because the government denies it, we should be wary of believing it isn’t true. Just because we haven’t got there yet, doesn’t mean that this isn’t where we will all end up. Take housing for example. Now even a couple with middle class jobs and incomes can’t afford to own a home in London and instead are having to rent poor quality, over-priced, insecure accommodation. People who have worked all their lives are now being treated as if they are unwilling to work when they become disabled. Having completely undermined our pension system, successive governments have forced people to think of buying to rent as a helpful alternative to a proper pension system – and already many are discovering it isn’t. And so on. This is hardly the ‘home owning’ democracy that Mrs Thatcher promised and Mr Cameron pretends he is working towards. This is a world of increasing personal and social insecurity and uncertainty – a return to pre-war, pre-welfare state days.
But a very worrying truth is already apparent about the changes that have been made to the welfare state. It was created to ensure us all security over the course of our lives and to help equalise our opportunities – for ourselves and our children. And it did just that. The nation’s health, housing, education and well-being all improved after the second world war. Lately because of his untimely death, people have been remembering the culture change they associate with David Bowie from the 1970s. But this was really the work of a mood and movements that grew out of the post-war welfare state; to challenge the status quo and discrimination, to value people for who they are and to stop being forced into narrow conformity.
But already even though the welfare state is still here for us to some degree, its role has been significantly changed. If it was once there to help, it is now open to question whether that is how our politicians and policymakers want to see it. Instead their concern increasingly seems to be to disprove that they have to help you. More and more everything seems to be about you having to prove your case, when you need to turn to the welfare state – to nth degree.
You have to present yourself as having the most extreme problems or facing the most extreme situations. Otherwise you can expect to be told you ‘don’t meet the criteria’, ‘you aren’t eligible’, and given chapter and verse on why they don’t have to help you. This applies to accessing sickness and disability benefit, to getting housing support, mental health services, social care for adults or children, continuing care from the NHS, social work support and so on and so on. More and more the system is about ‘testing’, rationing and restricting access and entitlement. Enormous, costly structures have been developed to do this. In the case of social care, the whole system seems more dedicated to denying people support rather than offering it to them, however costly this ends up being in the long run, in terms of undermining preventive policies and pushing costs on to the NHS.
We have been seeing the cruel and arbitrary effects of this new welfare system geared up to not helping in the so-called welfare reform policies which all three major parties have embarked upon. The key element of such welfare reform has been arbitrary processes of ‘testing’ and ‘assessment’ which have been deliberately constructed to debar disabled people and people with long term conditions from the help they clearly need. And this has been documented in more and more research highlighting the large numbers of people who have died shortly after being found ‘fit for work’, as well as the growing numbers of people who have killed themselves when they have been forced off benefits.
Take another issue of increasing concern to more and more people, housing. What used to be a system to ensure decent housing for all, the old council housing system, can now be seen to have been reduced to a marginal policy for people treated as if they were marginal. Take Westminster, one of the richest areas in Britain, where it is now literally a lottery. One of the greatest areas of housing need is for two bedroom flats. In a recent week in Westminster there were no two bedroom flats available from the council in the whole of the borough, although there is a desperate shortage of accommodation. You have to bid to try and get a home. One person in temporary accommodation (placed far outside the borough) bidding for a two-bedroomed flat for them and their disabled child, for example, didn’t even come in the top 40 of nearly 150 people bidding. What chance of them getting rehoused? Virtually nil.
What kind of ‘welfare state’ is this? A badly damaged and excluding one, I would argue. And it is clear that things are only going to get worse as the government talks up ‘austerity’ and cuts social spending. There are terrible truths here which must be told to those with power, however reluctant they may be to hear them.