A disabled government

March 10, 2008 at 10:58 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | Leave a comment
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Whilst it’s not one I’d agree with, there was a fairly compelling conservative case against the bail-out of Northern Rock. The argument goes that if our companies are to reap the benefits of deregulated financial markets, they can’t expect to be rescued if their recklessness with other people’s money goes disastrously wrong. Whilst it’d likely wipe out people’s life savings, allowing Northern Rock to implode would send a signal to the banking sector that they must behave more responsibly or face ruin, and thus the market would regulate itself more dilligently.

I doubt this argument was given much of a hearing in the heart of government: Northern Rock was saved in part because it was politically & economically necessary, and also because the ordinary people who had invested in it deserved the assurance that their savings would be safe. Whatever the motivation, it was the correct decision and one that reflects a core principle of the Labour movement – that the role of the state is to protect those who are vulnerable.

But for a government that’s never been particularly bound by principle, it seems this ideal has been applied rather selectively. It will certainly seem that way for the thousands of Remploy employees who woke up jobless this morning. The company was birthed by the post-war Atlee government, set up to provide jobs to to returning WWII veterans. In its 60 year history, it was one of the few places where disabled people could find work. Then last year it announced a ‘modernisation’ programme; its workforce was to be slashed in half and the government, indifferent to the anxious pleas of the employees & their trade union, sat on its hands and refused to help.

But whilst the government wasn’t keen to help some of the most vulnerable members of society, it’s far more enthusiastic at pandering to the tabloids’ lust to attack them. Last month an investment banker turned welfare advisor (apparently having a government of ‘all the talents’ means you can get away with putting people in roles they’re egregiously unqualified for) made the incendiary claim that less than a third of the 2.7 million on incapacity benefit are entitled to it and around 180,000 work illegally whilst receiving it. In fact, the most recent statistics suggests benefit fraud is at just 0.5%. This willingness to accept the right-wing meme of the brickie with the ‘dodgy back’ who claims benefits whilst working would not be so apalling were it not for the fact that a person with disabilities is twice as likely to be living in poverty as someone who is able-bodied. And yes, this poverty is, in part, due to the fact the disabled have greater difficulty in getting jobs. Why? Because they’re less likely to have the skills and experience and because there are fewer jobs they’re able to do.

You shouldn’t expect the hand-wringing and hysteria to subside any time soon; welfare has become the new battleground of British politics. Cameron’s Conservatives are on the attack and Labour is on the retreat, trying to out-tough each other on how harshly they’ll treat the vulnerable. As has already been noted, this government has actually been very successful at getting benefit claimants into work, but instead of proudly defending their record, they creep cowardly back to their drawing boards to produce a raft of new measures that merely stoke the right’s welfare panic.

Having refused to take steps to safeguard jobs the Remploy workers did have, the government is effectively forcing these working disabled people back onto incapacity benefit. Whilst there, they will join the millions of other benefit claimants in being chastised and bullied by a government that will take any steps necessary to ensure they talk tough, their statistics are down and the right wing is satisfied.

The Guardian reports that the union rep involved in the Remploy case tore up his Labour membership card in disgust. Is there any wonder?

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