“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”.
So, famously, said President Barack Obama at his Inaugural Address.
I would like to take this sentiment and apply it to a particular social issue happening in Britain today but, first, here is the full context of what Obama said:
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
This was a direct message – a promise – ‘to the Muslim world’.
Have we helped Obama keep this promise to Gaddafi? Absolutely not.
Gaddafi ‘ruled’ Libya for decades. For his oil, we greased up to him during this period. We knew what he was like. Let’s not pretend we have the moral high-ground here. As I tweeted in February, and have posted since, I am convinced we could have done a face-saving deal if we had acted smartly and quickly. But we didn’t.
Another young, gung-ho British Prime Minister clenched his fist, leaving Gaddafi no option but to fight fire with fire – at the cost of thousands of lives.
Who knows where (or when) it will end. What a mess.
Now, as promised, I would like to apply Obama’s line ‘we will extend a hand if you unclench your fist’ to something that has been going in your town or borough, at home, today and for the last few months.
Once you have read this, you are no less guilty of turning a blind eye than the Germans to the holocaust under Hitler.
The Coalition Government is clamping down on benefit cheats. Fine, nothing wrong with that. Of course, in a civilised society, we want our taxes to be used to provide benefits and care to those who need it, not those who fiddle the system – and it is a Role of Government to manage this.
One of the benefits being ‘cut’ is Disability Living Allowance (DLA). This is provided to those who are disabled, sick or in chronic pain, mentally and/or physically. It is a higher level of benefit than the basic Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
I am sure that we agree that we should track down and stop the people who claim DLA fraudulently. We have all seen pictures of them playing golf, taking water-slides on foreign holidays, or engaged in other physical activities. In Wandsworth, a woman was fined heavily for using a Disabled Blue Badge for which her father qualified – except he had died three years earlier.
So, all around you – in this country, today – the Government is testing all the people who are claiming DLA to weed out those who are cheating the system.
I think we all agree with this objective. But what about the strategy that has been developed to deliver it?
In particular, what about the people who are genuinely claiming this benefit? The ones who deserve it, the sick and disabled who it is there for. Those who are not on the make, but in real need.
Have you any idea what they have to go through?
They are sent a letter by an outsourced private company (one is called ATOS) acting on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Recipients are ordered to present themselves at a stated place at a stated time for ‘a medical assessment in relation to your benefit claim’. The letter continues:
“it is important you attend. If you fail to attend, your benefit may be affected“. (That is not me being bold).
Well, of course, for those who are really sick and/or disabled this is not as easy as it sounds. You may have to take two or three buses and/or trains to get there. The journey itself, to said place at said time, may cause you anxiety or panic attacks or worsen your already chronic pain. Immobility is one reason you are on this benefit.
But no matter, our Coalition Government has its fist clenched. Be there. Or else.
Now is the time to get really scared. Because, when you get there, things get worse.
This is how it is:
In chronic pain, complete all-engaging agony, so much so that you are in tears and cannot focus on the paperwork you are required to produce, you have dragged yourself to a dark, dank, dreary building and are gestured through the doors by big, burly people in dark, dangerous suits branded ATOS (not, surprisingly, SS).
You approach the desk and your name is marked. You are told to take a seat with the other claimants, many of whom are in the same agony as you.
The chair is of a type in which you just cannot be comfortable, which is one of the reasons you cannot work. Your pain intensifies. You cannot move. You feel trapped.
You hear noises, you raise your head, wipe your eyes and look around the room. There are people squirming, groaning, moaning, crying, painfully waiting their turn.
There is a young man frothing at the mouth, spitting screaming and banging his clenched fists against the walls. His mother, presumably his mother, is unkempt, frantic and distressed. She urges him to be quiet: don’t worry darling, it’ll soon be over, soon we’ll be home, please don’t disturb these other nice people. So British. He turns and hits her. Hard. Whack. Right in the jaw. She pretends it hasn’t happened.
Feeling it would be too painful to get up and knowing, because you are disabled and aware of your own physical and emotional limitations, that you cannot help this poor lady, you look up at one of the guards and gesture him over. You ask why he and his colleagues cannot help her restrain her frothing, foaming, furious, fighting boy.
“Not allowed to,” he says “against the rules. Like this everyday. Can’t do nothing”.
And so the groaning noises of deep physical pain all around the room underscore the louder, more frightening noise of this boy ranting and raving until your turn is called.
You enter a strange, cold room to meet a strange, cold, uniformed person who you have never seen before and never will again. You are required to answer the most personal, intimate questions about yourself, your health and your domestic life.
You are moved across to a cold, hard horizontal surface (you would not call it a bed) and you are physically examined. Apart from this strange uniformed person, you are alone in the room.
After, you dress yourself, slowly and painfully because there is no one there to help you, you collect your papers and walk back out through Reception.
The young man is still there, louder now, fists still clenched, banging at the walls, still shouting and screaming, frothing and foaming, flailing and fighting as his mother desperately tries to calm him down. The guards look on. Everyone else turns away.
You leave. You struggle home. You crawl into bed. The pain of your experience overwhelms you. You cry like a baby.
You have been to bedlam. No you haven’t. You are in Britain. Great Britain. Not Libya or even some dreadful historic time warp. You are here. Now.
You have been hit by the clenched fist of a British Government.
You have helped fulfil their objective of nailing the DLA cheats and, in doing so, you have suffered from their cold, cruel, heartless failure to develop a strategy for the genuinely sick and disabled.
For them, and their outsourced supplier, you are a number on a list – another box ticked. There has been no humanity in this process.
Yet again, the Government have not thought things through. As I have identified countless times before, they just don’t care. Are you surprised their clenched fist approach results in outbursts of protest and rebellion?
And you, how do you feel, reading this on your computer, tablet or smartphone?
How would you feel if you were struck down by serious illness or accident?
How would you feel if you were suddenly helpless?
Would you like to be treated this way?
Are you proud to be British?
Is this why you pay your taxes?
Is this the society you want to live in?
Is your fist clenched or are you extending a hand?
Will you reveal your disgust in the box below?
Will you forward this shameful story to your contacts?
Or would you rather turn a blind eye and sit at home watching Celebrity Big Brother?