Atos and anti-welfarism

I want to believe that Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics is proving to be a huge PR disaster for them. I want to believe that it has thrown the spotlight on Atos’ cruel, cynical and profit-driven treatment of those on incapacity benefit (not least due to the sterling efforts of Disabled People Against Cuts and UK Uncut). Certainly there have been sympathetic pieces in the places you might expect to see them. Looking at Twitter, it’s tempting to forget that it’s largely an echo-chamber for your own views and believe that there is widespread fury.

And yet, and yet. There are two barriers to raising awareness which campaigners against Atos face. The first is something I have written about many times this Summer – the tendency for Olympic/Paralympic support to be apolitical, placing the events as outside the boundaries of critical thought. As I argued here, this apolitical jingoism which reduces the Games to ‘get behind Team GB!’ is an inherently reactionary position. It is a defence of the whims of those in power. This is clearer than ever when looking at responses to Atos’ critics, with Seb Coe pulling them under the umbrella of sponsors whom ‘we can’t do this without’. The intention is clear – shut up, whingers, these sponsors allow us to put on these magnificent Games! Similar responses have been wheeled out in defence of Adidas’ sweatshops, or Dow’s ‘handling’ of the Bhopal disaster. Never mind the fact that even by conservative estimates, over £9 billion of the funding for the Games comes from the public while less than £2 billion comes from private companies. The sponsors (and other advertisers) have spent the whole Summer telling us that we couldn’t do it without them, that they’re behind ‘our’ boys and girls (patriotism curiously always uses juvenile terms), that positivity is the thing. Facing this barrage, it’s difficult for any political (read: human) message to get through. There are a hefty number of people out there who regard any ‘bad feeling’ encroaching on their Olympic hysteria as a personal attack.

The second barrier is a much greater, far more damaging one. This is the fact that the Atos issue concerns benefits. Last week I found myself having a discussion about benefits with a guy I’d only just met. Without wishing to be uncharitable, I think it’s fair to say that his views on benefits were lifted straight from the pages of the Daily Mail: the UK can’t afford its benefits bill and must reduce it; too many people choose an easy life on benefits; people should be forced into jobs by penury; unemployed people were being given houses beyond the reach of most families, and so on and so forth. Sadly, I think these views are common – certainly opinion polls routinely find that majorities think benefits are ‘too high’, ‘too widespread’, ‘too open to abuse’. It’s remarkable to think that, as late as 1991, a majority of people believed benefits to be ‘too low’, perhaps a combination of remnants of social democratic attitudes not yet stamped on by Thatcherism and a recession. It’s very clear, however, that over 30 years of posturing and drip-feed poison from both Labour and Conservative governments has drastically undermined public support for our welfare system. The idea of the ‘undeserving’ benefits claimant is one that has taken strong hold in our society, perpetuated and propagated by an overwhelmingly right-wing media.

The role of said media became clear in the discussion I had, as it became clear that cold hard facts played little role in the anti-welfare attitudes held. He simply did not believe that over a third of welfare spending goes on the state pension. You can see a similar graph from a different source here. If you have strongly held anti-welfare beliefs, the urge to simply ignore the fact that the biggest chunk of welfare spending goes on your gran must be enormous – it blows quite a hole in your value system. 

The next largest chunk of the welfare bill is tax credits. These divide into Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits. The former are for those on low-incomes who support a child, the latter are for those on low-incomes who are employed. Approx. 76% of families which receive these are in work. We are a long way from the idea of feckless scroungers watching ‘Jeremy Kyle’. Similarly, almost 60% of children in poverty come from working families and a small minority of housing benefit claimants claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Far from supporting scroungers, our welfare system subsidises the poverty pay of employers and the extortionate rents of private landlords.

On the subject of unemployment, I asked the man if he believed that it had risen in recent years simply because benefits looked more attractive to more people. To my astonishment, he said ‘yes’. Yet unemployment was at its lowest in the UK in 1973, when ‘welfarism’ was far more entrenched and supported than it is now (and as you can see in the graph on page 12 here, unemployment benefit almost exactly matched personal consumption rates.) The value of what is now called Jobseeker’s Allowance hasn’t changed in 30 years and amounts to only 50% of the income you need to be classified as below the poverty line. That’s without going into the uniquely disheartening experience that is signing on at your local job centre. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has experienced that could ever believe that people choose it over employment. Of course, with reports suggesting between 4 and 6 jobseekers for every vacancy in the country, most have no choice.

I’m pleased to say that I remembered a lot of this during the discussion. Yet each and every fact was dismissed – not with a counter-claim, but with personal anecdotes and tabloid stories. The government’s own figures suggest that benefit fraud costs approx. £1 billion per year, a figure which is dwarved not only by the £16 billion in benefits which go unclaimed, but by the approx. £15 billion which is lost due to tax evasion. Yet the man I was discussing this with wheeled out the usual arguments about how the wealthy have worked to get what they have and would just ‘leave the country’ if they were taxed fairly. His anger was entirely aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

This is the massive problem which Atos campaigners face. The dripfeed of lies from government and the media mean that the public massively over-estimate disability benefit fraud, just as they over-estimate all benefit fraud. It’s this widespread hatred of those on benefits – the belief that they are at best lazy, at worst thieves – that has allowed the government to viciously attack the poorest in society without any real hit to their poll ratings. And it’s this same hatred which makes many turn a blind eye to Atos. Sadly it doesn’t look like Ed Miliband is going to change the record, which means it’s up to us. All of us. We need to challenge the lazy myths and prejudices which surround benefits every time we encounter them, in whatever way we can. This is the larger battle against Atos, against the government, against billionaire media barons who rant about benefit cheats while pumping money into their offshore accounts. I want to believe we can do this, because to believe otherwise is to believe in humanity at its worst.

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