Friday, 27 November 2015

'We' and 'People like you": collective responsibility and the common good

I didn’t watch last night’s BBC Question Time (it’s a programme that’s bad for my blood pressure) but Twitter is awash this morning (27th November) with an exchange between an audience member and Matthew Hancock, a Conservative Minister.  

Having described the impact of cuts on her son (who has learning disabilities), she received the following response from Matthew Hancock:

Hold on, if we don't have a country that can live within its means then we can't fund those sorts of public services that people like you rely on.

There’s a revealing use of the words ‘we’ and ‘you’ in this response.  The phrases ‘we can’t fund’ and ‘people like you’ separate the population into two distinct groups - those who pay for and those who use public services. 

The point about public services is that they are (should be) services universally available to those that need them, made possible through the principle of collective responsibility and a progressive taxation system.  Matthew Hancock and his family may have no need at present for the type of services that the audience member was describing, but if that need should arise then the service would be (should be) available to him.

But the phrase ‘if we don’t have a country that can live within its means’ signifies a position adopted by those who have decision-making powers - justified by meaningless rhetoric and which has no room for the notion of the common good. Those who relegate public services for groups like people with learning disabilities to a low political priority do not see themselves as potential beneficiaries of a service, collectively funded, for those who need it.  If they think about it at all, they are likely to assume that they will be able to pay for the support they or their family might need - the idea of a common good is of no relevance to them (unless it’s an NHS emergency service of course, because that’s a service that is not, currently, provided by the private sector).

A separation of ‘we’ from ‘you’ inevitably follows. Those who need specific types of support are separated out from the mainstream by the language used about them, with Ministers (falsely) claiming to be ‘protecting’ the ‘most vulnerable’.  The ‘you’ who are not part of ‘we’.  

Five years ago, the word ‘austerity’ was used to justify a need to cut back on public expenditure because of the fall out from the banking crisis. The common good was sacrificed to the ‘need’ to bail out the banks.  Five years followed of undermining the social security system, the education, health and social care systems on which the majority of us rely at some point in our lives.  We are now in a new phase of an all-out assault on collective responsibility for the common good - now a political aim in its own right. This is illustrated, as I pointed out in a previous blogpost (here), by the decision to reduce the sickness benefit payable to disabled and ill people.  This is part of a long-term aim to replace collectively funded sickness benefit with privately funded insurance.  

Social care has never been properly funded through a progressive taxation system. Previous governments hoped, in vain, that ‘the market’ would develop insurance products to cover the cost of long-term care.  At the same time, the delivery of services have been increasingly privatised over the last 30 years and public funding to pay for these services has fallen further and further behind increasing demand.   Private providers are rapidly reaching the stage where they can only make a profit out of the most well-off self-funders and the insurance industry shows no signs of developing a financially sustainable product which would provide an alternative to public funding - not even to cover the reduced responsibility that individuals would have if ever this government introduces the proposed lifetime cap on care costs.  

The privatisation of sickness benefit is likely to lead to a similar situation as that in social care where there is increasingly unequal and inadequate provision to meet needs which no-one can predict but which can have a disastrous impact on people’s lives.  

This situation will only change if we as a society are prepared to step in to meet such needs on the grounds that it is in all our interests to do so.  But this current government, and the interests it represents, cannot see this because they, as Matthew Hancock so graphically illustrated, separate the ‘we’ of themselves from ‘people like you’, namely ‘us’.