More than 72 hours on from the shock exit polls, and the even more shocking election result, I am still living with a feeling of unreality.
Many media commentators have remarked on how the consistency of the numerous polls in the weeks leading up to the election made the impact of the actual result all the more difficult to digest – even for the victorious Tories. The sense of hopes dashed, possibilities for change snuffed out, is genuinely devastating. The knowledge that barring quite exceptional circumstances we have to accept a Conservative government for the next five years is difficult enough to accept, but this is only the beginning.
Over the course of the weekend and today David Cameron has announced the key members of his government. The appointment that has made me actually feel sick, sick with dread to the pit of my stomach, is that of Iain Duncan Smith, who remains in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions. This man is tasked with cutting a further £12bn from the welfare budget. Bearing in mind that the largest chunk of the welfare budget is allocated to state pensions and is untouchable, this in practice means about a 10% cut from the remaining budget.
Data are already being collected about deaths directly attributable to the pre-election changes to the welfare system. Like the rising use of foodbanks, much hardship for benefit recipients is caused less by the small benefit paid, and more by the system. Inefficiencies in payment, delays, and benefit sanctions applied without any consideration of the circumstances of the individual can result in people having no money whatsoever for several days – often over a weekend. I don’t believe that the politicians responsible for welfare can begin to imagine a situation in which they had no money, no food, no access to money and no friends or relatives from whom to seek emergency assistance. I hope that they have no concept of what this might be like, because if they do, and yet still persist with their actions, they must be devoid of even a scrap of compassion.
It is strongly rumoured that incapacity and disability benefits are going to be further targeted. This is likely to discriminate heavily against those who receive these benefits because of mental illness. The rigid assessment procedures used to determine fitness to work are predicated largely on physical illness and do not take account of the fluctuating nature of chronic illness, particularly mental illness. The vast majority of people unable to work because of mental illness would love to work. They know that working benefits their mood, and obviously an improved income makes many of the self-help measures recommended more feasible. Unfortunately many people with mental illness have lost their job because of their sickness record, and find it very difficult to get re-employed for the same reason. As I know myself, even stable, well controlled bipolar disorder can relapse. I have been in situations where I have increased my medication, seen my psychiatrist regularly, taken physical exercise, and yet still slid into incapacitating depression. Equally I have taken myself out of work because I know that my mood is becoming too high. These situations don’t happen to order, to fit in with other staff absences, or at quieter times of year. When I have gone off sick I have been unable to predict when I will be fit to return to work. There have been times when I have been in hospital but back at work in four weeks, and others when I have been off for twelve weeks. I have been lucky enough to work in a senior position in the public sector, and to eventually retire many years before I had expected on grounds of ill health. Thousands of others are not nearly so lucky. If I was assessed by ATOS (or their successors) today I have no doubt that I would be found fit for work. My mood stability is maintained (most of the time) by regular physical exercise, sensible eating, sensible sleeping, and the ability to have a ‘crash’ day or days when I need them. If I was working, having to get to work at a set time, work fixed hours, be subject to all the stresses of the workplace, I would rapidly relapse. There is a wilful failure to understand the long term and widespread impact of mental illness on every single aspect of one’s life. Senior psychiatrists have had discussions at senior government level and not been listened to.
I have no doubt whatsoever that if there are further cuts to benefit for mentally ill people the suicide rate will rise. Iain Duncan Smith is said to be a practising Roman Catholic. Pope Francis has spoken out strongly about our duty to help the vulnerable in society:
“We are called to reach out to those who find themselves in the existential peripheries of our societies and to show particular solidarity with the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters: the poor, the disabled, the unborn and the sick, migrants and refugees, the elderly and the young who lack employment.” (Pope Francis addressing General Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Oct 2013)
“Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 187)
These strictures apply surely to all of us regardless of whether we have religious affiliation. Iain Duncan Smith has an obligation of obedience to his Pope that he seems to be neglecting.