(Author's note - as ever, I am not 'The Devil's Kitchen')
On 10th December, David Freud, an ex-journalist banker and member of the Freud dynasty who for some reason had been put in charge of reviewing the welfare state, wrote in 'The Times' that,
"Like Hotel California in the haunting Eagles song, incapacity benefit is a trap: “You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave.” While it has become tougher in recent years, in earlier decades it was easy enough to enter (“Plenty of room in the Hotel California”). In practice many would like to find a job - and are explicit in survey after survey in confirming this ambition - but are inhibited by the risk of failure and of undermining their entitlement to their benefit. Steps to mitigate this risk have worked only at the margin."
On 11th December, Jeff Randall wrote in 'The Daily Telegraph' that a consequence of Incapacity Benefit had been that,
"...taxpayers are being defrauded by a disgraceful conspiracy of shameless layabouts and gutless politicians, while the virtue of self-help is destroyed by the vice of a something-for-nothing culture."
It is perhaps time for a perspective on this matter which is rarely heard in any debate into the merits and morality of Incapacity Benefit - that of the claimant.
Within the last six months, I have successfully claimed Incapacity Benefit. These are my experiences of having done so.
At the start, I should say I'm probably not a 'typical' Incap claimant, if such a beast exists. A solicitor by training and writer by inclination, I once wrote something that Naomi Klein saw fit to quote in 'The Shock Doctrine'. However, as readers of my own blog will by now be only too tediously aware, I also suffer from a limiting medical condition in one of its more extreme forms. To all intents and purposes, my condition has now ended my professional career, such as it ever was. As the Sicilians say, it wasn't great spinach to begin with, then the cat took a leak on it.
Upon leaving practice for the last time on 31st March this year, I spent three weeks looking for work, without claiming benefit, before landing a four week admin contract in the NHS which finished on 19th May. Before my departure from practice, my wife had bought and paid for the first two week foreign holiday either of us had ever had; and the knowledge that nobody really wants to hire someone who's heading off to Tenerife for a fortnight as soon as they're in the door put the brakes on jobhunting until we got back. At this point, we were still not claiming any kind of state support, relying instead on my resources and my wife's iron financial discipline.
Between 15th July and 2nd August, I must have submitted at least 150 online job applications; however, by that time my mobility had also become so impaired that I thought it necessary to speak to the DSS to determine whether or not I might qualify for Incapacity Benefit.
I duly attended ny local Benefits Office and was given a number to call. Thank God it was freephone, because I was on it for 45 minutes. They processed the claim, and suggested I speak to my GP as a matter of urgency.
My usual GP and I have quite a good professional relationship - I harbour a sneaking suspicion that I'm one of his more interesting cases. He took one look at me and signed me off for eight weeks, saying that many others would not have waited so long to contact him.
(But I'm a right of centre blogger with heavy ideological commitments, I thought to myself. )
That perfectly routine doctor's appointment later generated a rather startling thought - OK, some GP's might be sicknote-happy, slapping the perfectly able onto Incap without a second thought; but what safeguards, if any, exist within the system to prevent GP's being bullied into signing claimants off?
The next step was to make a claim for Disability Living Allowance. Being able to cook, clean and dress and wash myself in the absence of a care plan seemed to kybosh that prospect in seconds; yet I was later told that I had not made the application properly. Apparently, the best way to get DLA is to state that your worst symptoms are your normal ones, and your worst days your norm. In my case, this would be called lying, something I do sometimes make an effort not to do. One wonders how many others have no such effete scruples.
Then there was the interview at the Jobcentre about helping you get back to work. I can't remember if I asked for it or not. In fact, I probably didn't; having also been a recruitment consultant for three years, I know quite a bit about how to get work, and it's the one aspect of the situation in which state assistance was not required. Although I don't look a day over 50, I'm 38; the training to work interviewer looked about 23. Politically correct platitudes abounded.
Then, mirabile dictu, I got a job, and had to sign myself off.
The GP that I saw on this occasion was not my usual. It probably wasn't his fault, more likely a consequence of the British practice of treating medicine like a production line; he didn't seem to know anything about my most recent consultations with his partner. As soon as I indicated why I was there, he started off into a spiel about how being at work gives your life dignity and structure. That was one lecture to which I was not prepared to listen, and firmly and politely cut him off by advising him of my background. In that second, I realised how this tableau, and our respective parts in it, mirrored words once spoken by a very wise man almost exactly - we were both just puppets in the same sick play.
However, having been signed off by his partner as unfit to work three weeks before, the most startling aspect of this interview was that there was absolutely no discussion of whether or not I was actually fit to work now. Again, I don't blame that doctor, they didn't do anything wrong or what I am professionally qualified to assess as having been negligent; but the combination of the ideological 'dignity and structure' spiel, and the despatch with which they signed me off, made me think that perhaps our doctors, who after our wives and our pastors are the people in our lives we should be most able to trust, are being pressurised to get people off Incapacity Benefit; and if someone comes in looking to sign off, they're under orders to sign off, no questions asked.
Most people who claim Incapacity Benefit don't have the connections of a David Freud, and are incapable of being the type of disabled working Briton he lauds; Churchill, Nelson and Hawking. Were his examples not so patronising to the poor and sick as to be cruel, they are so extreme as to render his argument de minimis.
The fact that I checked out of The Hotel California disproves the whole thrust of his argument. Maybe he should Take It Easy.
Jeff Randall writes that,
"On my way to work, during rush hour, I often see a blind woman commuting into the City with her guide dog. The effort she makes to hold down a 9-to-5 job in London's hurly burly is little short of heroic. No reasonable person could blame her for staying at home on benefits. Instead, she battles on. "
Indeed she does, as do many others; and if I ever see Jeff Randall write a word complaining about the cost to Big British Business of the laws and regulations that enable that woman to work without being discriminated against, I'll be on his case like a shot.
Incapacity Benefit is one of those subjects that always produces more heat than light. It is not the existence of the benefit that seems to rile many, but the people who claim it. Any writer who substituted the word 'Jew' for 'Incapacity Benefit claimant' in much of the opinion published on the matter would soon find themselves on the wrong side of a whole lot of laws; yet this anathemisation by caste of a group which contains many of society's most vulnerable members seems to be politically acceptable. This is disturbing; yet another sign that our civic democracy is now unhealthy, perhaps in need of making a claim for Incap itself.
If having claimed Incapacity Benefit makes me what Jeff Randall calls a 'shameless layabout' and a 'morally bankrupt parasite', then I must claim the titles with pride, and stand foursquare with my fellow layabouts and parasites. We can suffer such taunts from journalists; for the most part, they are of a kind with us.
Incapacity Benefit was a confection created by the Tories to cook the unemployment stats. Such is the Through the Looking Glass character of modern British socialism that socialists seek to oppress the poor by depriving them of benefits which they did not lobby to be given, nor legislate into existence. It suits many on the British Left to have their very own pet alienated proletariat to feel sorry for and patronise so that they can feel morally superior to everyone else, and it suits many on the British Right to have a group of unfortunates they can kick around - something the British Right has always been good at.
What is completely forgotten is the welfare of the claimants; something of an anomaly in a country that claims to be a welfare state.
The moral of this story is that when you read a word about Incapacity Benefit, whether it's by a journalist, a banker or anyone else, make sure that the author knows what they're talking about.