The Daily Express yesterday informed its readers that there are 2,000,000 people claiming Incapacity Benefit who ought not be receiving it. The methodology by which they arrive at this outlandish figure seems to be more than a little dubious.
They begin by looking at people who were assessed for the new benefit which is replacing Incapacity Benefit, Employment Support Allowance, between October 2008 and December 2009. Of these people, 68% were rated fit for work, while another 22% were assessed as having health problems but still being capable of some work, making a total of 90% who ought, as the Express believes, be in employment. The paper then extrapolates from these figures, assuming that the same percentage of people who are in receipt of Incapacity Benefit would fail the assessment for ESA, and that consequently the overwhelming majority of people on IB are receiving their money under false pretences.
This ignores the fact that – contrary to what rabidly right-wing scandal sheets might have you believe – people under the old system weren’t just showered with cash from the Magical Money Tree the moment they uttered the words “I’m feeling a bit peaky”. In fact, to successfully claim IB you had to be repeatedly assessed as incapable of work by a doctor or nurse. As a result of this, a proportion of people applying for IB were turned down. I know this for a fact, since I was once amongst their number, until an appeal tribunal overturned the decision. This means that the percentage of IB recipients judged capable of work will necessarily be lower than people applying from scratch, because the bulk of the chancers will already have been screened out by the medical assessments for IB. All of this is common sense, and would be obvious to anyone who had thought about the issue.
It is a matter of some regret that the class of people who have thought about the issue does not seem to include, so far as I can tell, Alison Little, the journalist who wrote the piece in The Express. Her misunderstanding – assuming it was a misunderstanding – will have had the effect of once again unfairly whipping up public resentment against the genuinely sick and disabled, which does seem to be rather a shame. It’s a matter of further regret that Ms Little did not seek comments for her article from a broader cross-section of interested parties.
She reports the thoughts of Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayer’s Alliance, Theresa May of the Conservatives, and Jonathan Shaw of Labour, all of whom are in absolute agreement with each other that there is no doubt that many of the people on IB are capable of work. Had she reached out to some of the people affected, or the organisations that are trying to support them, she might have found that things are not as clear cut as they can appear to be, and that many of those capable of undertaking some work are unable to offer the at-my-desk-come-rain-or-shine reliability that employers prefer. Only in the weird alternative reality inhabited by politicians and journalists is the failure of employers to offer flexible working arrangements the fault of the people excluded from employment.
Mr Joseph Ratzinger (whose known aliases include ‘Cardinal Ratzinger’ and ‘His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’) has attacked the UK’s equality laws. Well, that’s what all the headline writers are saying. What he has in fact done is attack laws which seek to extend equality to gay people, while praising the UK for its commitment to equality with respect to every other minority. The homo-hate does not come as a surprise, but I do note that Mr Ratzinger seems to be rather confused, in all sorts of ways.
For example, the Vatican’s most famous resident would not appear to have heard of a little 16th Century event known as the Reformation. This was the process that culminated in the overthrow of papal authority, and means that the person who holds Mr Ratzinger’s office no longer has any say in the running of political affairs in the UK. He can stamp his foot as many times as he likes, but the truth is he is of zero significance. I am related to dutiful, regularly-worshipping catholics, and even they (grateful users of contraception that they are) ignore pretty much every word that comes out of the pope’s mouth. They certainly wouldn’t vote on the basis of what he told them, not least because he’s rabidly conservative and they aren’t. If Mr Ratzinger can’t even carry his own followers with him, what hope has he got of persuading the nation at large?
For another example, there’s Mr Ratzinger’s reference to the idea of ‘the natural law’, which is what’s apparently infringed by not letting good catholic folk trample the gays underfoot like the verminous scum we so obviously are. Well , I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the phrase ‘natural law’ is a tautology. The concept of the law is a wholly abstract one, invented by humans. Like other abstract concepts – god, for example – it has no existence outside the minds of human beings. The law isn’t ‘natural’, it’s a product of our culture and society, which is how it can change over time. I understand this idea – that things can change – is one that religious fundamentalists like Ratzinger struggle with, but the days when a pope could derail the cause of freedom are long gone. Even ultra-catholic Spain is giving rights to gay people now. Ratzinger has lost, he just hasn’t realised it yet.
Anyway, for the benefit of Mr Ratzinger, and other people who struggle to cope with the intellectual demands of the modern world, let me try to set out the situation as clearly as I can:
- You have an absolute right to believe whatever you want;
- You have a right to live your life in accordance with your beliefs, provided you don’t harm anyone else;
- You have an absolute right to talk and write publicly about your beliefs, and to try and persuade others to share them;
- You have a right to criticise those who do not share your beliefs, or who live their life in a manner with which you disagree, provided you do not do so in a way calculated to incite hatred.
On the other hand, there are rights that you do not have:
- You do not have the right to impose your beliefs on others;
- You do not have the right to force others to live their lives as though they shared your beliefs;
- You do not have the right to veto the granting of rights;
- You do not have the right to insist that your ideas are worthy of enhanced respect or extra deference simply because they are religious in nature, or because they were once deferred to.
The ‘aggressively secular society’ Mr Ratzinger complains about is not really aggressive, neither is it hostile to religion. It is keen to treat religious ideas, and religious people, with the same respect that it treats all ideas, and every person. All it seeks to do is roll back the special significance accorded to religious ideas, and to curtail religion’s efforts to control the lives of non-believers. Mr Ratzinger’s UK representatives have the right to tell homosexuals we are sick perverts damned to an eternity in hell, they just can’t insist that we shouldn’t have our human rights. In the same way, I can loudly announce my opinion that the pope is a nasty-minded, aggressive little bigot, but that doesn’t mean I can insist that his human rights should be withheld. There’s a name for this state of affairs – it’s called equality. Only in the weird alternative reality inhabited by religious fundamentalists does equality mean religious folk get to say what’s allowed, and everyone else gets to suffer in silence.
It would appear that rage can cut through my insomniac brain-fog, which is good to know. I guess John Lydon was right
Anger is an energy, anger is an energy, anger is an energy…