Let us now target the waste, not the weak
Published on 31 May 2011
HOW are we to judge our society?
By how it treats the weak and vulnerable, or how it inadvertently indulges chancers and spivs? This is not a false antithesis. There are many folk in Britain who are cynically defrauding the benefits system. Of course these people should be exposed and prevented from making fools of the millions of hard-working taxpayers who in effect support them.
But this process must be undertaken with care and thoroughness, and never at the expense of people who are genuinely ill (sometimes terminally so) or chronically disabled.
A few weeks ago, in Leith, I was accosted by a Coalition Against Poverty activist who was handing out leaflets. We had a brief chat. He was perfectly polite, even when I told him that I was in favour of the UK government’s cuts. I said they were based not on ideology but on sheer necessity, and there was even a case that they should be deeper than they are. I added that they are lower than the European average and even with them there will be a larger public debt in 2014 than there was last year.
The activist, to my surprise, was not interested in challenging any of this. He was more concerned with messy human detail, the unfashionable narrative about what actually goes on at the bottom of the heap. I was taken aback by his anger against those he called “poverty pimp doctors” working for the company ATOS Healthcare.
This firm, which incidentally is French, was hired by the UK Government to reduce the number of Employment Support Allowance claimants. It does not seem to be doing this work very efficiently, given that around 40 per cent of ATOS assessments that claimants are fit for work turn out, on appeal, to be erroneous. These appeals cost the British state a lot of money.
As so often, the Coalition Government has the right idea, but botches the execution. When you are dealing with those who are often very inarticulate and very vulnerable – not cunning street- savvy fraudsters – you have a duty to be both careful and efficient. Unfortunately, it appears that many powerless and helpless people are not being assessed accurately or fairly.
This does our society serious damage twice over. Many of the real fraudsters continue to get away with their cheating, while many who are genuinely ill are condemned to suffer unnecessary stress and possible stigmatisation.
I would place myself politically on the soft right and I agree with David Cameron when he says that people don’t work hard to pay for benefit cheats. But equally people don’t work hard to pay for French companies to make mistake after mistake, and they certainly don’t work hard to pay for what can be tantamount to the bullying of the powerless.
So what should the Coalition Government do? First, I’m not sure that the Welfare Reform Minister should be someone who used to be a senior investment banker, advising on mega deals, in the City – but this is precisely the background of the minister concerned, Lord Freud. I have nothing against him but surely it is basic political common sense to point out that his “back story” hardly seems appropriate for this most sensitive of jobs.
Secondly, and more importantly, I think the LibDems in the Coalition have every chance to become the conscience of the Government, and indeed act as the opposition from within (particularly when the official Labour Opposition is so woefully weak).
Nick Clegg is in a far stronger position than he might realise. Let’s have the cuts (and no-one seems more enthusiastic about them than his LibDem colleague Danny Alexander) but let’s implement them fairly and efficiently. Above all let’s target where there is real waste and real mismanagement and real slack. It is not glib to say that backline bureaucracy must always be cut before frontline service.
And let’s not hit those who, far from milking the system, are rather still searching to find a system that genuinely helps them and makes their life better.
Black Triangle Comment:
“When you are dealing with those who are often very inarticulate and very vulnerable – not cunning street- savvy fraudsters – you have a duty to be both careful and efficient.”
Very “inarticulate”? Very “vulnerable”?
How VERY patronising and how VERY untrue!
Who is weak? Only those who permit themselves to be overpowered by the so-called “strong” of society!
We who endure are among those who are truly strong! We who fight fearlessly for our human rights to be respected each and every morning!
We’ll see who is weak and who is strong.
Between us and this coalition and its apologists, it is they who will be found wanting!
Let us now empower each other. Together, we are an immovable force for good in our society. We will prevail!