Amidst all of this week’s Tory Party Conference nastiness, one thing I didn’t pick up on in George Osborne’s hardworking people / help to work ramblings was the specific impact his proposals would have on those with long-term mental illness. It’s easy not to notice these things. Personally I spend so much time trying to figure out how a Workfare job isn’t a job and why, by extension, all jobs don’t just become Workfare jobs that I’ve little time to focus on anything else. So until today (when @stfumisogynists alerted me) I wasn’t aware of proposed Mandatory Intensive Regimes “to address underlying problems including illiteracy, alcoholism or mental health troubles” — you know, those problems that are usually no big deal, but are really bloody annoying when they stop you from bringing in the profits for society’s self-appointed wealth creators.
Apparently you’d only end up on one such regime as a last resort, if you’d failed to find employment after completing the Work Programme and were deemed to have one of the problems listed. I can’t help feeling it’s a curious way of going about things – isn’t it possible to diagnose and treat mental illness before a person’s been put through the Work Programme wringer? Or does it just not matter until then? Do we honestly not give a shit unless the mentally ill are getting on our nerves with their scrounging ways? It would appear to be the case. I have to say, this both angers and frightens me. It seems, frankly, inhumane, not to mention utterly ignorant of the complexities and difficulties behind that two-faced phrase “helping people to work”.
Let’s take one example, a real-life one. One of my closest relatives has never worked. Any attempts to do so have merely precipitated extreme relapses in his mental state. What a shirker, eh, George? I bet you imagine him lying around in bed all day, curtains clothes, chuckling away at getting one over on hardworking baronets like yourself. And then you have people like me, his softy, lefty relative, pandering to his every whim, feeding his delusions and lacking the strength to show the extra-special tough love that will set him free. It’s enough to make anyone, but especially a poor, put-upon Chancellor, despair.
The trouble is, I feel your pain, I do. The fact that my relative doesn’t work — and hasn’t done so for over twenty years — frustrates me as much as it makes me sad. I find myself thinking it would be much better for him to have the structure and self-realisation that a day’s work brings. I wish he worked and I wish I could make him work, assuming a job for him exists. I often wonder whether, if we’d done things differently years ago, he’d have found a foothold and we wouldn’t have witnessed the terminal decline of the past two decades. But all this is just idle speculation. It’s like wishing he was a different person.
It’s not that I have written him off, but I have realised it’s for me and other people to value him, regardless of whether he pays Income Tax or National Insurance. There has to be a place for people like him amongst us. He is a full, complete person, not a woefully underused economic unit. The priority of those who don’t suffer as he does should not be to force him to pay his way but to create a society that includes him on a much broader scale. You may think you’re convincing people that these are the self-same goals. “No one will be ignored or left without help,” you say. “But no one will get something for nothing.” But those suffering from long-term mental illness shouldn’t be expected to pay in the same currency as everyone else. That’s not inclusion or equality; on the contrary, it’s maintaining an uneven playing field by failing to create the necessary handicaps and adjustments which, as a politician, it’s in your power to create.
“Mandatory Intensive Regime” sounds pretty hardcore, all tough love and short, sharp shocks. Yet if such intensive programmes were effective in the treatment of mental illness, illiteracy or addiction, why wait to use them as a sanction? In what kind of healthy society would such things exist yet not be made available as and when they were needed, for the benefit of all who required them? And, let’s be honest, do they even exist? I’m not sure. Perhaps it would be worse if they did. Can you imagine having a cure for cancer yet only using it on people whose sickness was preventing them from bringing in enough money for the exchequer? Wouldn’t you think the priorities were all wrong?
Quite apart from this, forcing mental health treatment on individuals in order to make them work-ready shows a profound misunderstanding of mental health issues. For god’s sake, even those of us who’ve had such issues ourselves know what it’s like to look at mentally ill friends and relatives and think “well, he doesn’t look ill. Why can’t we just make him see things differently?” We know the frustration. However, it’s for us to hold ourselves in check. Believe me, most of us have tried the “sort it out, mate” routine every now and then. We’ve seen the results and we’ve learned that we owe it to those for whom we care to do better.
Human worth cannot be defined by a person’s ability to earn money. Those of us who do work should have the enough humility and empathy to recognise this. Self-designated “hardworking people” haven’t earned the right to judge other people’s lives and potential. In fact, I can think of few people more lazy than a politician who lacks the time and the will to recognise the immediate value in all people’s lives.