Benefits rant: is cracking down on the “scroungers” really worth this?

So, apparently, a man who was suffering from depression was found “fit for work” in a Work Capability Assessment, and then killed himself. The enquiry into his death identifies the fitness for work verdict as the thing that pushed him over the edge.

As someone who’s suffered a lot from depression myself, this obviously makes me very upset and angry. The welfare system in this country is failing vulnerable people badly, and yet hardly anyone seems to care. This wasn’t the only case that’s resulted in a death that was directly attributable to the system: the case of David Clapson, a diabetic ex-soldier who died after his benefits were stopped, leaving him unable to pay for food or for electricity to keep his insulin refrigerated, has become quite well known. There are many other cases documented online as well, although shamefully very few of them seem to get reported in the mainstream media.

Of course, it would be virtually impossible to run something as large and complex as a whole country without sometimes causing problems for some of your citizens. Any big change, even if it’s clearly for the best overall, will still have adverse consequences for a few people. For example, if the government opens a big new hospital out of town and closes several old ones, some people who lived closer to the old hospitals might die because they can’t get to the new one in time in an emergency situation, even if the superior facilities of the new hospital save more lives overall. Although that would be a tragedy for the individuals and their families concerned, most people would understand that the decision made sense in the bigger picture.

I don’t believe the same thing can be said of the benefit-related deaths, though. These events weren’t random tragedies, or one-in-a-million corner cases that nobody could possibly have predicted. Those deaths were direct consequences of two current welfare policies: firstly, “sanctioning” people on Jobseekers’ Allowance for trivial (and sometimes even non-existent) infractions, leaving them with no income whatsoever; and secondly, forcing people who aren’t in a fit state to work into a system they can’t cope with. If you’re going to take away support from people who don’t have any other support, or bully them into doing things they’re not at all ready for, of course it’s going to end badly. It was obvious to any intelligent person who bothered to think about it what was likely to happen.

But apparently I’m on the wrong side of public opinion here; we’re endlessly told that the welfare cuts are popular and long overdue. It’s true that a lot of people do want the benefit system tightened up to make things harder for “scroungers”, but when you talk to them about it, most of them also want truly vulnerable people to be protected. It’s just a shame that they’re cheering on, and voting for, “reforms” that are hugely damaging to those same vulnerable people they supposedly want to help.

The trouble is, outside of articles in the tabloid press and anecdotes in the pub, there really aren’t that many scroungers and frauds. When you actually look at the statistics of the welfare system (which are by no means perfect, but still the best tool for understanding that we have), they consistently tell the same story: the fraud rate is very low (generally around 0-2%); unemployment benefits don’t cost account for very much of the welfare budget (compared to, for example, old age pensions and housing benefit); most people on Jobseekers’s Allowance are on it for a relatively short time between jobs, rather than living off it for years on end as the Sun and the Mail would have you believe.

So all of the “toughening up” of the benefits system is actually solving a problem that, for the most part, didn’t actually exist in the first place. But in the process, it’s creating much worse problems, like the deaths mentioned above. Of course there will be a few scroungers and cheats claiming benefits. No system is perfect, so it’s never going to be possible to eliminate them entirely. The statistics show that the number of them is already very low, which is probably about the best we can hope for.

But even if you’re determined that even so much as one undeserving scrounger living off the state is an unacceptable travesty, it’s doubtful that making claimants jump through ever more hoops is going to help much. Who do you think is really going to be more inconvenienced by having to pass ever-more stringent checks… someone who’s perfectly capable of working but instead chooses to game the system, or someone who’s genuinely struggling with a mental or physical illness? Who is going to be better able to deal with negotiating the increasingly harrowing system… someone who’s already adept at getting as much money out of it as possible, or someone who’s been pushed close to the edge by events beyond their control and is stressed, exhausted and confused? Making the system even tougher is only going to hurt those who need it the most.

“What would you do different, then?” you might reasonably ask. “At least the government is trying to reform the system. What’s your answer, just keep giving out free money to anyone who wants it?”.

Here’s what I would do differently:

  • Scrap the Work Capability Assessment and have people signed off sick by their own doctor instead. Apparently GPs don’t want this additional workload, but they already manage to sign working people off sick, so I don’t see why passing a sick note to the DWP is so much harder than passing one to an employer. The GP is much more likely to have a full and accurate picture of an individual’s situation, so this would radically cut down on the number of spurious “fit for work” decisions.
  • JSA sanctions should be monitored much more robustly to make sure that they’re fair and reasonable. In addition, only a maximum of 25% of someone’s benefits should ever be removed. This would still be enough to give people an incentive not to get sanctioned, but wouldn’t leave anyone completely destitute. I’m aware that this would lead to people still getting paid benefits even if they refuse to look for work, but frankly I’d much rather have that than risk another David Clapson… and if you disagree, I think you need to have a good long think about it.
  • Publicise the statistics I mentioned above a lot more, and show people that there’s a good side to the welfare safety net. For far too long, the Tories and the tabloids have made out that it’s nothing but a burden, “stealing” money from hardworking people and giving it to the lazy. The facts simply don’t back up that point of view and it needs to be challenged.

I could rant a lot more about this, but that’ll do for the moment.

 

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