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19th March 2012

Society under siege

Reforms to healthcare, education and the welfare state are an attack on the fabric of our society, writes Joe Earle

My instinctive response to David Cameron’s parroted claim that “we’re all in this together” is one of disbelief. Has he been made redundant lately? Have his salary or working conditions been affected by the recession? Perhaps if our Prime Minister was not one of the ‘1 percent’, he could justifiably claim some affinity with the rest of us; in fact, David and Samantha Cameron’s combined wealth is estimated at £4 million, and they will inherit another £30 million from their parents – an extraordinary financial safety net.

Of the 29 ministers in Cameron’s cabinet, 23 have assets and investments worth well over a million pounds, so it would seem that the majority of his government are equally alienated from the electorate’s experience. Cameron claims to sympathise, even if he cannot empathise – yet if he and his government truly and honestly feel the pain of the broke, the hopeless, the destitute and the unemployed, why are they systematically and remorselessly dismantling our society?

Here in Britain, we have the building blocks of a society to be proud of; one that is built upon the principle of state provision of integral services such as health, education and social security. Our public services are funded through a progressive tax system, and in return everyone is afforded a minimum quality of life, or so the theory goes. But in 2012, Britain is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world as measured by the gap between the richest and poorest 20 percent. These societal provisions act as a constraint on that inequality. They are at the heart of what is good about our country. These provisions ensure that no one has to sell everything they own to pay for a their parent’s illness or their child’s education, and mean that people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own can still afford to feed their family.

But this arrangement is being stealthily undermined, as somewhere along the way the values and principles that underpinned state provision of these key services have been discarded. Behind the painful rhetoric of the ‘Big Society’ and ‘Making Work Pay’ lies an almost compulsive desire to extend privatisation and further roll back of the state. Cameron promised “no more top-down reorganisations of the NHS”, whilst Nick Clegg swore that he would not raise tuition fees. And yet, and yet.

The Health and Social Care Bill has been the most widely publicised attack on our society in recent times and is currently the subject of a heated debate that is forcing the government to amend its original plans – although to what extent is difficult to tell through the fog of war. A key element of the original Bill was the removal of the Secretary of State’s “duty to provide” or secure the provision of health services. By removing this vital responsibility and handing it over to unelected officials, GPs and private companies, the NHS becomes entirely unaccountable to the public, despite it ostensibly existing for the benefit of everyone in society.

A further major issue is that the Bill contains a number of measures that will encourage competition and almost inevitably open the NHS up to European Competition Law. This gives the health service watchdog Monitor the power to eliminate ‘anti-competitive’ behaviour which could result in services currently provided by the NHS being contracted out to private companies.

This Bill amounts to privatisation through the back door. Already we are seeing private healthcare firms cherry picking the most profitable services such as knee and hip replacements, which can be bundled neatly into commercial packages, whilst leaving costly and complex operations to an increasingly impoverished NHS. If and when the Bill is passed, the disparity will only be exacerbated.

The government attack on state education is equally terrifying, though far less publicised. There are now 1,529 academy schools, operating outside of local government control, compared to just 200 when the coalition came to power. There are also 24 so-called ‘free schools’ set up by parents, charities and other unelected groups. In January, the for-profit Swedish company IES UK was awarded a £21 million ten-year contract to manage a free school in Suffolk, the boldest step yet in the on-going stealth privatisation of the British state education system. Meanwhile, bodies such as the General Teaching Council have been scrapped as part of the plan to make England’s school workforce more manageable and cheaper for future private providers. The education services sector in the UK is worth close to £2 billion – a figure that is set to soar once the coalition’s changes to school structures have fully kicked in.

Arguably the most distasteful dimension of this offensive on all fronts has been the vilification of the out of work to pave the way for a series of major changes to the functioning of the welfare state. I don’t defend the services that our society entrusts the government to provide as perfect; I understand that the benefits system can trap people in poverty and that there are serious problems with our health and education systems too. However, it is absolutely indefensible to use these defects as a pretext to withdraw our hand from the most vulnerable in society. The rate of unemployment currently stands at 8.4 percent – that’s 2.67 million people out of work – and combined with a very high number of long term claimants we find ourselves in a situation that the welfare state was never designed to cope with. The government’s proposed solution? A Welfare Reform Bill that will squeeze benefit claimants even more and which will surely increase poverty in the UK. Furthermore, changes have been made to disability benefits with the express intention of reducing the disability budget by 20 percent; it is widely recognised that disabled people will be hardest hit by the Bill.

I am not making a party political attack; this is a critique of our political establishment as a whole. Though the Conservatives seem to hold a fervent ideological commitment to destroying the fabric of our society, New Labour hardly fared any better. The Blair government set the wheels in motion by creating internal markets within the NHS – a necessary first step on the journey towards the privatisation that is being implemented as you read this very article.

Society is under siege. The NHS is in the most perilous situation since its establishment in 1948, whilst the instruments of the welfare state are in grave danger. When were we consulted about these changes – changes to the very essence of our society that were decided for us, not by us? This is a war on many fronts but we must defend ourselves against further assault if we wish to preserve our future. Principles of trust, equality, community and mutual cooperation are at risk of extinction. Individuality, distrust, competition, profit, poverty and isolation will replace them. We have to see that we really are all in this together, though not according to David Cameron’s edict. Society is easier to break than it is to mend – we must see through the deceptive words of government and take action before it is too late.

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