This year sees the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. And it will be hard to miss, with Dickens exhibitions and festivals to be held across the country (and the world), a host of new radio and TV adaptations, a major retrospective of Dickens on film and several new biographies of the writer, along with numerous books and articles assessing his contemporary significance.
It’s all good as far as I’m concerned. Dickens is one of my favourite writers and it often frustrates me how many people write off his work having barely read it, resentful at having been dragged, unwilling, through Great Expectations at school, or on the strength of those rather off-putting drawings they sometimes reproduce alongside the text, or a film adaptation, both of which date in a way the novels do not. Dickens’s writing feels astonishingly fresh – at his best you can still hear him chuckling as he pens some satirical observation – and the more that people can be encouraged to give it a go (or another go) the better.
But keen as I am to celebrate the bicentenary, it is possible to take a tribute too far. The coalition government appears to have embarked upon a wholesale reconstruction of Dickensian society. Housing, education, health, social welfare; everything we have put together since, in order to protect the most vulnerable, is in the process of being dismantled to be replaced by a system that seeks to protect the rich at the expense of … well, everyone else. One cannot fault the scale of the government’s ambition, but as a tribute it is somewhat misguided. It is hard to read the details of the welfare reform bill, for example, being debated in parliament, without picturing Dickens rolling his eyes in dismay.
I recently read an impact assessment compiled by the Department for Work and Pensions on the proposed “reform” of disability living allowance – in other words, getting rid of it. DLA is a benefit designed to help people with the additional costs of living with a severe disability. Applicants must fill in a 50-page form, spelling out the most intimate details of their care and mobility needs. Doctors’ details must be provided together with a statement from someone who knows you well, an occupational therapist or social worker, for example. There are different levels of benefit according to the degree of assistance required, and a large proportion of claims are rejected altogether.
DLA is far from perfect. In particular, it struggles to respond to fluctuating conditions and the assessment form is strongly geared towards physical rather than mental health problems. But because DLA is payable regardless of employment status, it is a highly enabling benefit. A great many people are able to work precisely because their DLA pays for the additional help they need in order to do so.
For a government committed to getting people working, abolishing DLA presents a PR challenge with which the impact assessment grapples heroically. Replacing DLA with a personal independence payment, and slicing 20% off the bill, will “provide an opportunity to … communicate that support is available both in and out of work” it states. A “more objective assessment” (designed to reduce the bill by 20%) will create “a more active and enabling benefit” and – get this – the fact that “those on low incomes have higher rates of ill health” does not mean that “a change in income has an effect on health”. What the dickens?
• Clare Allan is an author and writer on mental health issues.
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