Philippa Day was a young single mother with a history of poor mental health, who had been unable to work outside the home in recent years. Her family argued that a major reason for her despair was her exhausting struggle to recover the state benefits on which she depended, after they were stopped by the Department for Work and Pensions. Capita, which carries out benefit assessments for the DWP, has acknowledged it made mistakes in the handling of her case.
“Capita’s wall of bureaucracy,” says her sister, “exacerbated her despair at her debt and poverty. She was met with cold, uncaring call operators, who would not listen to her cries for help.”
It’s a story familiar to hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – who have sought help from Britain’s benefits system, particularly over the last decade of austerity.
Rules applied without flexibility or mercy to some of the nation’s most vulnerable people, terminally ill patients harassed as to why they are not applying for jobs, benefits abruptly terminated when claimants are slightly late for appointments through no fault of their own – all of these have been standard features of a cruel and hopelessly inadequate benefits system, that of course attracts little attention from the nation’s opinion-formers, because they have little or no personal experience of it.
And how different this is – how very different – from the attitudes shown this week in the case of Owen Paterson MP, the former Conservative minister who has now resigned from what he calls “the cruel world of politics”.
Owen Paterson’s misconduct in office, clearly identified by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and unanimously confirmed by the cross-party House of Commons Standards Committee, was on Wednesday deemed by a majority of his fellow MPs to be too severely punished by a penalty of 30 days’ suspension from parliament, on full pay.
And even by the standards of Boris Johnson’s administration, its decision to give government support to the overturning of the committee’s report, to attempt to dismantle and review the current standards system (an attempt now abandoned), and to suggest that the Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone should “consider her position”, seems to have provoked unusual levels of anger and contempt.
Even the right-wing Daily Mail issued a front-page denunciation of a parliament “sliding back into sleaze”. Labour leader Keir Starmer repeatedly used the word “corruption”, usually taboo at Westminster; and the government – whose majority of 80 was reduced to 18 in the crucial vote – has now succeeded in creating a group of 60 Tory MPs sceptical enough about its conduct to defy an unprecedented three-line whip on the matter.
Very little of this, though, gets to the core of the question when it comes to corruption at Westminster; for the truth is that the whole edifice is built on a false presumption that so long as MPs and Lords declare their interests and sources of income in the relevant register, that somehow represents a sufficient amount of light and transparency to disinfect the whole business.
Of course some MPs, regularly mixing with wealthy influence-peddlers at Westminster, may rapidly form the opinion that their MP’s salary of £80,000 is “peanuts”, and requires to be supplemented with all manner of fees and retainers.
Yet the briefest reality check on the average income of their constituents should be enough to disabuse them of that view. The truth is that neither the elected representatives of the people, nor peers in the House of Lords, should be receiving any such payments at all; and while it is always difficult to draw lines in such matters, I suspect most UK citizens would be shocked to learn just how many MPs and Lords are effectively in the pay of groups such as arms manufacturers, major pharmaceutical companies, and the ubiquitous private healthcare lobby.
That the current government baulked at the prospect of mild punishment for even one MP blatantly guilty of acting as a paid lobbyist for those interests only betrays the scale of the problem; and the extent of disruption that would ensue at Westminster, if any serious attempt were made to tackle it.
All of which is sad enough, as a measure of decline in a country which once – rightly or wrongly – prided itself on the relatively high quality of its democratic institutions; but it is downright catastrophic when it comes to combating climate change, the topic now under intense global discussion at COP26 in Glasgow.
If we are to have any hope of avoiding devastating climate change, the world now desperately need governments which are prepared not only to set ambitious plans to meet climate goals, but to impose them, with strength, clarity and integrity, above all on the major corporations which are the planet’s greatest carbon polluters.
Yet instead, we face this crisis with a UK government that knows all too well how to be rigid in its adherence to rules, bullying the weakest, denying asylum to desperate people, and driving a vulnerable benefit claimants to despair; yet when it comes to fulfilling the true mission of democratic government – to provide a stout framework of law to protect the people’s interests, and a countervailing power to the might of commerce and wealth – seems to have all but thrown in the towel.
As this week’s events have shown, in other words, there is one area in which Boris Johnson’s UK government can truly claim to be “world leading”; and that is in the extent of its shameless and ultimately tragic capitulation to the power of wealth, and to the very forces it should be restraining and regulating, in the interests of us all.