Sunak’s Assault on the Sick: Blaming the Victims of Capitalism’s Failures

Prime Minister Sunak's latest welfare proposals, argues Dave Kellaway, scapegoat the sick and disabled for the failures of capitalism, continuing a disturbing trend of demonising society's most vulnerable while ignoring the systemic causes of ill health and poverty.

 

First of all they make you sick. You get stressed or depressed from not finding work or having to work for poverty pay in an unrewarding job. You or your family may have physical impairments you are born with or have incurred from traffic or work accidents outside your control or from long-term or permanent health conditions. Poor housing, lack of child care and deprived, polluted neighbourhoods contribute to ill health. Everything is stacked against those who are not able to be useful to making a profit for those in control of the capitalist system.

If you are young you feel you have no future, particularly if the school system has failed you and there is little skills training. Buying a house is out of reach and rents are sky high. Temporary accommodation or insalubrious housing makes you ill. The Covid pandemic has knocked your health for six and remains a threat.

Then you have to wait weeks or months to see a doctor. Support for stress or depression is paltry and slow and often takes the form of CBT which is not able to address the underlying conditions that cause you to be ill and refuses to take on board past experiences such as emotional and physical abuse. You are offered pills and little else. Mental health services are at breaking point and are even worse for young people. Local authority support systems you might have used in the past have been cut to the bone by austerity. Welfare benefits do not cover your real expenses, you have to beg, borrow and use the food banks and baby banks. Working a normal job is just not possible.

If you are already in receipt of benefits you are subject to regular interview by DWP assessors who often have no real understanding of your situation, acting on a series of guidelines that are already set in stone. Even sympathetic assessors are limited in the difference they can make, and others buy into the “scroungers” rhetoric. If you are unable to jump through the hoops you may get sanctioned and lose benefits altogether. Many have already died as a result of DWP sanctions including through suicide.

If you are nearing retirement age the risks are even greater. If for whatever reason you are unable to get Personal Independence Payments at retirement age you will not be able to claim it later no matter how seriously impaired you may be or may become. Your only option will be to apply for Attendance Allowance, a difficult process which requires you to have a much greater need for personal care. Currently over half of those who apply will be turned down. Even if it is awarded you will get significantly less than you would have with PIP and would still have to fund all the extra costs that go along with being disabled.

You switch on your TV or read a newspaper and see that Sunak and most of the press say the costs of your meagre support is too high, that society can no longer pay to help you. The real problem is that too many of you are swinging the lead, you are not really ill. Too many people are too sensitive about their problems these days. The ‘British’ virtue of grinning and bearing it are no longer working because of all this woke culture that blames everyone else but yourself. You are responsible for all the suffering of others.

You need to take responsibility. The government is going to make it harder for you to claim support. They are going to stop doctors saying you are too ill to work. If you do not accept these new conditions your benefits will be stopped or reduced. Accepting any sort of work decided by the authorities will sort out your health problems, you should be grateful.
Sunak has today called for a new welfare settlement. He has promised to end Britain’s ‘sick note culture’. He laid out plans to cut Britain’s ‘unsustainable’ welfare budget by making it harder to get fit notes from doctors. ‘Specialist work and health professionals’ will trump the current role of the doctor signing you off as sick. The details are unclear but these new judges of your health (will they even have any medical training?) will sit alongside the doctor to provide ‘work solutions’. They will also have access to all the private confidential information you have shared with medical professionals.

A particular group Sunak wants to get back to work are the more than 50% of the 2.8 million people officially signed off who have mental health conditions. He also wants to cut the numbers on Personal Independence Payments which provide a slightly higher level of welfare payment (although still not adequate) by redefining levels of impairment so people can be forced back into the workforce. Most companies make little effort to provide decent jobs for people with impairments, but Sunak makes no criticism of business. The reasonable adjustments required for disabled people under the Equality Act 2010 will continue to be ignored by many employers.

According to ‘doctor’ Sunak, the GPs are ‘over medicalising’ the everyday challenges and worries of life’. For somebody who went to a top private school, then to the elite universities and later into lucrative financial posts, it is hard to see how he ever had to face many of the challenges and worries of life for most people.

Capitalist society systematically produces oppressive conditions in which people get physically or mentally ill. Workplace culture is about cutting costs and maximising profits so people’s welfare does not get onto the balance sheet. It is profitable for the bosses to make workers insecure.

“Capitalist society systematically produces oppressive conditions in which people get physically or mentally ill. Workplace culture is about cutting costs and maximising profits so people’s welfare does not get onto the balance sheet.”

They impose zero hour contracts and hire and fire. Poverty wages mean it is more difficult to eat healthily or to get a house that does not harm your health. The advertisers are paid millions to sell unhealthy food and drink. Working people are constantly enticed every time they switch on TV or go to a football match to get a gambling habit that can ruin their mental health.

The same corporate bosses and their media acolytes campaign permanently for governments to lower taxes on them and their businesses so that health and social spending – that could support unwell people – is cut.

So instead of even providing palliative support for the ill health capitalists produce, the bosses blame the victims. Working people who are signed off must snap out of it and get back to work. For the bosses investing in adequate health services, reducing waiting lists, making reasonable adjustments, providing education for all and financing local community support systems is seen as too much of a burden on their economy. They have no interest in reducing the extreme inequality that makes Britain one of the unhealthiest of the developed nations. Their health needs are mostly taken care of by private medicine, they have no experience of the long waiting lists that mean people get worse while they are signed off work.

For many years the media and politicians have created a false narrative of the welfare recipient as a weight pulling Britain down – holding back the forward march of the economy. Both Labour and the Tories are for the ‘strivers rather than the shirkers’. It assumes people enjoy living on the very low welfare benefits or that they prefer faking illness to working.
No creditable research has ever proved this to be true. Poverty porn programmes such as Benefits Street can always find the odd individual or two who will make provocative statements about gaming the system but they are unrepresentative and often distorted examples.

For those of us who remember our history there are chilling parallels here: Hitler’s T4 project, designed to exterminate disabled people including by means of gas chambers, described disabled people as unaffordable, “useless eaters”, “lives unworthy of life”. The gates of Auschwitz contain the words “Arbeit macht frei”. “Work makes free”, a parallel too chilling and too close for comfort.

“For those of us who remember our history there are chilling parallels here: Hitler’s T4 project, designed to exterminate disabled people including by means of gas chambers, described disabled people as unaffordable, ‘useless eaters’, ‘lives unworthy of life’.”

‘Experts’ are wheeled out by the mainstream media to proclaim too much money is spent on welfare, which means taxes are too high. They claim people on benefits could fill some of the labour shortages in the economy that have worsened since Brexit. The billions lost to government resources by tax avoidance or evasion is never examined with the same intensity. Spending 2.5% of GDP on defence is declared by Starmer to be a necessity whereas he agrees with Sunak about the need not to increase welfare spending.

A number of real specialists in the fields of impairment and mental health have spoken out strongly against Sunak’s announcement today:
● Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said decisions over fit notes should be about patient health “not meeting government targets for keeping people in work”
● The Disability Poverty Campaign Group (in a post shared by Disability Rights UK) said “The fact is the system blames and fails us in equal measure. Recently the UN gathered evidence thatUK government policy has “undermined the human dignity” of Disabled people, noting Disabled people are “demonised” by the government in many areas, especially benefits. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is also facing cover-up allegations after suggestions that it has destroyed reports showing why it weakened guidance on when to investigate suicides of benefit claimants.You cannot scare or threaten people into good health, you cannot terrorise people into jobs that are often unsuitable. This is what the system constantly fails to understand, and the system constantly fails to want to understand the lives of Disabled people on benefits. The PMs wording today just continues a trend that is stigmatising, harmful, and inaccurate. The problem is not Disabled people on benefits, it is not the fault of those left Disabled by the governments appalling handling of Covid, it is not the fault of those broken by mental illness because of failed economic policy and the cost-of-living crisis, the problem is the system itself and its long-term prejudices, a system able to blame anyone but itself.”
● Dr Sarah Hughes, the chief executive of Mind, said the mental health charity was “deeply disappointed that the prime minister’s speech today continues a trend in recent rhetoric which conjures up the image of a ‘mental health culture’ that has ‘gone too far’ (…) the Care Quality Commission’s latest figures on community mental health services show that nearly half of people (44%) waiting for treatment found their mental health deteriorated in this time.”
● The British Medical Association said the prime minister should focus on getting people access to the medical help they needed to get back to work rather than “pushing a hostile rhetoric on ‘sicknote culture”
● Disability activist Gail Ward points out that the Human Rights Act article 4 states “No government or organisation can force people to work under the threat of punishment”

The shadow housing minister, Matthew Pennycook, criticised Sunak for looking for cheap headlines and condemned the NHS cuts and lack of support. He did not offer an overall alternative. Other frontbench spokespeople have used a similar framing of the issue as the prime minister. Liz Kendall, shadow work and pensions secretary, was recently quoted in the Guardian as she:

“took aim at what she described as ‘Tory claims about being tough on benefits’, and said that over the next five years there would be 600,000 more people on incapacity and disability benefits, costing an extra £33bn.”

For her, ‘life on benefits is not an option’. Kendall swallows the myth the tabloids peddle about people choosing to be on benefits and she actually implies she will be tougher on the benefits issue and accepts the idea of the excessive burden of welfare spending.

Labour says jobless cannot ‘live a life on benefits’ as it pledges to be ‘party of work’ Liz Kendall appealed to life-long Conservative voters to take a good look at Labour, which has ‘changed’

Starmer, yesterday, said he expected to have scars on his back because he was going to ‘reform’ the public sector. Rhetoric about AI efficiency savings and sticking to strict fiscal rules mean the next Labour government will not be able to provide the support that the millions of long term sick need to get back to work. His economic strategy rests on the willingness of capitalists to act more responsibly, to help build a ‘fairer Britain’.

These are the same people who have helped produce the ill health and have campaigned against higher welfare and social spending. He expects capitalist growth to create the jobs and conditions that will get the long term sick back to work.

The cycle of ill health and marginalisation of millions of workers can only be resolved by thoroughgoing measures of public investment and control that challenge the power of capital to decide on how resources are distributed. Economic and social policy has to be decided in favour of the many not the few.

“The cycle of ill health and marginalisation of millions of workers can only be resolved by thoroughgoing measures of public investment and control that challenge the power of capital to decide on how resources are distributed. Economic and social policy has to be decided in favour of the many not the few.”


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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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