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Hands Off Our Public Services

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There is a war on. It's going on right under our noses. It's a war on democracy, on community, on health, on happiness. And it's a war waged by a coalition of government and big business. We no longer have an elected body that represents the people. Whatever their political leanings, people surely will agree that a country's government should represent its citizens, and its policies should be founded on the interests of everyone. Instead we are confronted with the sinister reality that the business elite dictate policy and that our vital public services are being handed over to the private sector to be run as profit-making businesses. These services impact hugely on the lives of everybody, yet they are steadily being hijacked as a source of profit for the chosen few. We are facing the prospect of a society in which our own health will depend on how much money we have. This is no longer a democracy but a corporate-led takeover of our basic human rights with the Tories, Lib Dems, and Labour pursuing the same agenda with equal vigour.

Whether it be the attacks on welfare or the NHS, the government's sole motive is to promote corporate interests by increasing the channels through which public money is effortlessly transferred to the private sector. Take welfare: the government claims that it wants to reduce the annual £12billion Disability Living Allowance bill by 20%, roughly £2.24billion. Given that the government itself cites a fraud rate of 0.5% (£60million) [1], this cut means that half a million genuine claimants are set to lose essential support. With one third of disabled people already in poverty, the cuts will have devastating consequences for many more [2]. The continual shrill retort from Whitehall is "if money has to be saved, then tough decisions have to be taken". Yet, when you look into the figures, it turns out that all is not what it is painted to be.

These DLA 'reforms' (a dexterously truth-cloaking synonym for benefit cuts) are costing £710million to implement, with the 'benefit' now to be known as the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) [3]. Furthermore, the government is paying private company Atos, along with two other companies, up to £1billion to carry out these new PIP assessments [4]. What's the logic behind this? If money-saving is truly the aim, why isn't the government allowing NHS doctors to continue to carry out these medical assessments at no extra cost to the taxpayer? This would save the government £1billion at a time of extreme financial uncertainty, so why the decision to contract out to businesses, who have far less medical expertise than claimants' own doctors?

Firstly, doctors are far less likely to be willing to work to pre-set targets than a private company hired by the government to do so. In order to get half a million disabled people off DLA, the new PIP criteria have been created so that many genuine disabilities no longer qualify for the benefit [5]. Make no mistake, this is not about reassessment: this is about redefining disability so that millions can be pushed off benefit.

Secondly, it ensures that business can create more wealth for itself by acquiring large tranches of public money with no financial risk. Until now, people with a life-long disability (like me) were awarded DLA for life. Under new guidelines, everyone will be re-assessed every few years, including those with permanent disabilities, and the taxpayer will pay the billions this will cost. Billions wasted paying private companies to interrogate disabled people to find out whether they're still blind, still missing a leg or an arm, or still brain-damaged.

The NHS has been systematically attacked by every government since Thatcher's while big business has waited in the wings salivating at the prospect of making money out of illness. And it's not just the Tories who have brought things to this pass. Current privatisation plans could not have happened without key legislation passed by New Labour. Those who think it can't happen are wrong. It is happening, right now, and - according to NHS academic, Lucy Reynolds - we are 80% of the way to replacing the NHS with an American-style private health-care system [6]. Surveys show that most people in the country don't want this and studies prove that the NHS functions far better than the American system [7].

So, once again, who will this serve? It won't be the public, many of whom won't be able to afford medical care. Those who can afford it can expect to face long hard battles to convince insurance companies to pay out in cases of treatment of 'expensive' conditions such as cancer. The insurance companies and the health providers stand to make a fortune, and these are the groups that have helped push through the legislation which is paving the way for privatisation [8]. In fact, business leaders have been shaping government policy concerning public services for years, making sure that their narrow self-interests are looked after, while the interests of the public at large remain ignored. (See George Monbiot's 'A Captive State' for detailed evidence of just how far back the merging of power and big business goes.)

Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) are another ingenious way to hand over major chunks of public dosh to the private sector. Imported by the Tories from Australia, these neo-liberal constructs have been enthusiastically adopted by Labour and Conservative governments. Under these schemes, taxpayers owed an estimated £229 billion for assets worth £56bn in 2012 [9]. Then there are the eighteen main 'work providers' hired by the government to get the long-term unemployed back into work. A4E, for example, has been awarded contracts worth £438 million [10]. The total value of these work programme contracts has been estimated at £2 billion, which is a sixth of the annual benefit bill for the long term unemployed [11]. When you add these figures to the £850 billion (some estimate £1 trillion) bank bailout and the billions spent farming out other public services to private companies through PFIs, what's being paid out to 'save the country money' is staggering [12]. When the government says there is not enough money to go around, it really means there's little left after the private sector has creamed off the lion's share of it. And as we have recently seen, many private companies routinely pay little or no tax, so that public money ends up making a few wealthy people wealthier while driving the poor into even greater poverty [13].

Be sure of this: the one thing these policies are not about is saving money. If the government really wanted to save money, it would introduce much more stringent banking reforms. It would heavily regulate the financial sector that steered the country into this recession. It would close the tax gap, which is currently estimated to be over £100 billion a year [14]. Addressing these issues would save far more money than selling off the health service or cutting welfare for those who genuinely depend on it. But none of these solutions will be introduced because the government represents those in the banking world, the corporate tax dodgers, and the billionaire executives. In 2012, Britain's rich got much richer: the wealthiest 1,000 people are now worth a record £414 billion [15]. The elite are clearly benefiting from a government that has their interests at heart.

When politicians gravely announce the need for cuts in tones perfectly pitched with regret, they are lying to us. Many of the world's leading economists, including Nobel Prize-winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (as opposed to history graduate George Osborne) argue that austerity measures will only worsen the economic situation [16, 17]. They have been proved correct [18]. But the beauty of this global crisis is that it has given our leaders the perfect opportunity to flex their neo-liberal muscles. Under the mantras of thrift and fairness [19], it's full steam ahead with their corporate agenda, as they pave the way for their business buddies to siphon off public money without limit. It is no longer a question of Labour versus Conservative versus Lib Dem. Thanks to years of deregulation, the business elite effectively control all areas of government no matter who the incumbent is.

The profit motive drives all but very few have benefited: Britain has become one of the most unequal countries in the world and the gap between rich and poor continues to rise [20, 21]. The unquestioning worship of the profit motive is destroying our environment, our support networks, and our public services. The pursuit of profit allows for no consideration of morality or ethics, which is why so many of us are so unrepresented. Left to its own devices, this insatiable insane greed for more-more-more will ultimately destroy the environment that nourishes us, and all the humane ideals that so many have fought and died for to create.

We do not live in a democracy. We are unrepresented. We live in a country where our taxes are chosen to fund illegal wars and WMDs. Where corporations routinely exploit people yet receive huge tax breaks. Where 24,000 people died last winter because they couldn't afford heating [22]. Where City bankers responsible for this financial crisis are still luxuriating in bonuses worth £14 billion a year [23]. Where disabled people have to beg for their basic human rights. Where people with mental health problems commit suicide because their benefits were taken away [24]. Where thousands die after being declared fit for work [25]. Where the quality of healthcare and education you receive depends on how rich you are.

The hypocrisy behind the scrounger rhetoric is appalling. Two-thirds of our cabinet ministers are millionaires (with a combined wealth of more than £70 million) [26]. Their experience of life is one almost exclusively of privilege. They don't know what it's like to struggle to pay your bills, to have to choose between sending your child to university or losing your house. Yet these are the people quick to label the impoverished as 'work-shy', who administer 'tough-love' to the masses, who demonise the sick and disabled as burdens on the state while propping up the same institutions that have plummeted the nation into crippling debt. We have a system in which the privileged pass laws that affect them not a jot, and make judgement on lives they have no understanding of. The place to look for corruption and abuse is among their number. Welfare has been turned into a dirty word in a state unwilling to protect vital benefits from attack while at the same time fighting furiously to protect bonuses and tax breaks for the wealthy [27].

We must fight back and demand a government that represents the majority. We must have the discipline to come together with anyone who is willing to take up this fight, no matter what labels they may use or what ideologies they may subscribe to. The principle of a government that puts its citizens first must be our common goal. There are many growing movements you can get involved with, such as The Peoples' Assembly Against Austerity, which seeks to voice the concerns of the majority. As Lotte Scharfman said, 'Democracy is not a spectator sport'. In these dark times, it is easy to feel powerless and disenfranchised, but that's what the powerful want us to believe: that nothing can be changed. That there is no alternative. It can be inspiring to remember that every social change for the better was fought for and won by ordinary people who had the courage to believe that a more just society was possible. Those who rule do not give away power voluntarily. They have to be forced by us, the people that they claim to serve. Cynicism just preserves the status quo.

The corporatisation of society has worrying implications for the future health of us and our environment. Business has no business encroaching on human rights. Human beings should not be treated as economic pawns in an ideological chess-game. Not everything in the world should be exploited as a source of profit. We need to keep hoping and believing that a more equal and sustainable society is possible, to remember what it is to be human, to share, to cooperate, to care for each other. We need to stop a tiny minority driven by crazy greed to turn every aspect of our precious lives into dollar signs. We are all worth more than that.

The Peoples' Assembly Against Austerity provides a national forum for anti-austerity views which, while increasingly popular, are barely represented in parliament. To get involved, please visit here.

To sign my War On Welfare petition, please click here.

References

[1] http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd2/fem/fem_1112.pdf

[2] http://www.poverty.org.uk/summary/key%20facts.shtml#disability

[3] http://www.update.org.uk/news-detail.php?page=242

[4] http://www.update.org.uk/news-detail.php?page=364

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/braindamaged-amputee-fit-for-work-says-atos-8547539.html

[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6k5ZisRV8Y

[7] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/6505773/NHS-better-than-American-health-care.html

[8] http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/nov/23/david-cameron-privatisation-adviser-health-lobbyist

[9] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/29/deborah-orr-pfi-disaster-lesson

[10] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmpubacc/1814/181406.htm

[11] http://www.cesi.org.uk/keypolicy/work-programme

[12] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/163850bn-official-cost-of-the-bank-bailout-1833830.html

[13] http://news.sky.com/story/890619/all-but-two-ftse-100-firms-avoid-paying-tax

[14] http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/campaigns/national-campaigns/tax-justice/why-are-they-increasing-the-tax-gap.cfm

[15] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/rich-list-2012-where-do-the-celebs-chart-811206

[16] http://www.social-europe.eu/2012/10/paul-krugman-and-joseph-stiglitz-on-the-economy-and-inequality/

[17] http://www.coalitionofresistance.org.uk/2013/03/63-economists-pledge-support-for-peoples-assembly/

[18] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/jan/25/uk-triple-dip-recession-gdp

[19] http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/4578229/george-osborne-one-nation-ed-miliband.html

[20] http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/may/22/social-mobility-data-charts

[21] http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/

[22] http://www.standard.co.uk/news/health/24000-died-from-cold-last-winter--highest-death-rate-in-london-8367789.html

[23] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/jul/19/city-bonuses-totalled-fourteen-billion

[24] http://news.stv.tv/politics/97594-poets-suicide-note-held-up-as-warning-over-impact-of-welfare-reforms/

[25] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/atos-told-incontinent-woman-to-wear-nappy-firm-condemned-by-mps-for-pressuring-sick-and-disabled-into-returning-to-work-8456447.html

[26] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/millionaire-ministers-combined-wealth-of-cabinet-851909

[27] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21661089