WORK UNTIL YOU’RE HEALTHY OR WORK UNTIL YOU’RE DEAD

by Natasha Senior

This is the message that Iain Duncan Smith and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) have been espousing over the last five years as benefits sanctions become ever more stringent. And now we are starting to get closer to understanding just how far they’re willing to go. After mounting public pressure and many Freedom of Information requests, the DWP have been forced to publish statistics showing that over 2,300 people have died after losing their benefits following fit for work assessments.

The DWP have been stalling for a while now over the release of these figures, claiming that these statistics are likely to be misinterpreted without context.  Strictly speaking, this is correct; we generally would expect mortality amongst those claiming to be higher than the general public if they’re suffering from illnesses.  Then again, if they are suffering so much then why are they being declared fit for work?

(Anti austerity silent protest in Norwich, 08.07.2015)

(Anti-austerity silent protest in Norwich, 08.07.2015)

To get to the truth of the matter, we really need information on the circumstances surrounding their deaths, but this is information that Smith says hasn’t been collected.  That being said, we know he is prone to openly lying, a few weeks ago he was insisting that the statistics didn’t even exist.  And last week it emerged that the DWP were publishing fake stories on their leaflets about people who had been ‘helped’ by the new benefits system—Smith claimed he knew nothing about this, accepted no responsibility and sold out his department.

we are starting to get closer to understanding just how far they’re willing to go

These figures also come just days after Smith announced his new plans to shake up the ‘perverse’  sickness benefits system by suggesting that those who are disabled should work to the extent they are capable, this was accompanied by a claim that working is good for your health—extremely insulting to those who have died. Is this really what Smith’s nearly dogmatic commitment to the power of hard work has come to?  An unsubstantiated claim about the medicinal powers of work that will see those going through the most difficult struggles being ‘incentivised’?

(© The Telegraph; Geoff Pugh)

(© The Telegraph; Geoff Pugh)

It paints the picture of a man who knows nothing of hardship, a man who is negligent towards the people his department meant to protect, a man who knowingly deceives the public and a man who cowers away whenever he needs to accept responsibility. Yes, of course he should resign. But his resignation needs to come with addressing the wider problem that gave him the power to do this in the first place: society’s scathing attitude towards the so-called ‘benefits culture’ that makes us so indifferent to those who suffer.  As Robyn Banks put it in her incisive article for The Norwich Radical, “…what we’re left with is a system with no respect or understanding of unique circumstance and human difference. A system which gladly sacrifices individuals to the cult of the public purse…”

it is not just a persecution led by Iain Duncan Smith, or even the Conservatives more generally, but our society as a whole.

The feeling is channelled shamelessly through the subtext of the Tory manifesto—that hard work will be rewarded but those who don’t pull their weight will be punished. This is the cruel sentiment that resonated with the public when they endorsed a £12bn slash from the welfare budget and we’re now starting to learn how many people have paid the price. What’s more, it is not just a persecution led by Iain Duncan Smith, or even the Conservatives more generally, but our society as a whole.

We worship in the name of hard work and vilify those who don’t. We feel that they should be dealt with promptly and forced to fend for themselves, but if they can’t then we say that they only have themselves to blame. This is the message we have for the most vulnerable people in our society: work until you’re healthy or work until you’re dead.

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