It is a word David Cameron used last December when discussing his plans to tackle “problem families”, describing the “Shameless” culture that some commentators believed was entrenched in British life. The Daily Mail inevitably branded these families the “Shameless generation”.
But the word also neatly sums up this week’s Conservative party conference, at least at senior ministerial levels.
In his speech to his party’s annual conference in Birmingham today, the prime minister declared that his favourite moment of the summer was placing a gold medal around the neck of Paralympian Ellie Simmonds. He then conjured up – and not for the first time in a major speech – memories of his now-deceased, disabled son Ivan.
He also spoke of how work was the only “real route out of poverty”, before moving on seamlessly to trying to justify the further savage cuts to working-age welfare that his chancellor is planning if his party is returned to power in 2015.
Then the prime minister returned to his family, this time to his father, who died two years ago. He painted a picture of a man who was proud to have worked hard all his life, despite his impairment. The message was clear: if he could do it, why couldn’t other disabled people?
What he didn’t mention, of course, was his father’s privileged upbringing. Educated at Eton. Fast-tracked into a partnership in his own father’s stockbroking firm. A family made rich through generations of wealth accumulation in banking, estate agency and stockbroking.
That kind of privilege and wealth means you don’t have to deal with inaccessible public transport, or compete against vast numbers of unemployed, non-disabled people for jobs, while facing 19th century buildings – and attitudes – workplace discrimination and shrinking social care budgets.
But the prime minister wished away these obstacles and instead tried to convince the country that his late father should be a role model for the tens of thousands of imaginary benefits-scrounging work-shirkers who he and his ministers insist – against all the evidence – are defrauding the country of billions of pounds in disability benefits every year. Shameless.
Two days earlier, George Osborne had pledged £10 billion of cuts to welfare spending in the first year of a new Tory government, if his party wins the next election. On top of the £18 billion cuts to welfare already made during this parliament.
Osborne spoke of the unfairness of a “shift-worker” leaving for work early in the morning who “looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.
Was it ignorance or recklessness that spurred Osborne on to justify his cuts in this way? Surely he was aware by now that his government’s work and pensions ministers have been warned time and time again that rhetoric like this leads inevitably to disabled people – whether working or not – being harassed, abused, even assaulted, by those who see a wheelchair, a cane, an assistance dog, and think only: “Scrounger.”
There are many good reasons why people might not open their blinds first thing in the morning. They might have a mental health condition, they might be waiting for a care worker who never turns up, they might, as @latent existence wrote on Twitter, be painfully light-sensitive. They might even be trying to hide from hostile neighbours, jealous of their supposed easy life on benefits.
Even one of the chancellor’s Tory colleagues, Adrian Berrill-Cox, a disabled barrister who fought the Islington North seat at the last general election, was concerned about the “collateral damage” that Osborne’s words might cause, and told me he was “a little bit worried” that people might be “incited” to abuse disabled benefits claimants because they had misunderstood what the chancellor was saying.
This, then, was a conference aimed at softening up the nation for a further attack on public spending, and particularly on welfare. It showed a government preparing for a fresh assault on working-age benefits, and possibly the introduction of means-tested disability living allowance, or at least its replacement, personal independence payment. Both Berrill-Cox and Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, floated this idea. Neither were speaking for the chancellor, or the government, but the coincidence was striking.
Perhaps it was not surprising that there was no sign of the Conservative Disability Group in Birmingham. Its usual stall was missing from the conference exhibition, and its website declares that its last event was in 2010, adding, rather pitifully: “Sorry we haven’t got any upcoming events.”
Understandable, perhaps. It must be difficult being a disabled Tory in a world of 20 per cent cuts to spending on disability living allowance. Perhaps members of the CDG discovered their own sense of shame.
But despite this conference bathed in darkness and despair, there was the merest hint of a bright spot. Esther McVey, the new minister for disabled people, suggested that her understanding of the words “listening” and “co-production” could be slightly more advanced than her predecessor, Maria Miller, who appeared to define co-production as “the art of convincing disabled people that you are listening to their ideas, while simultaneously ordering your civil servants to do the exact opposite”.
When I approached her after a fringe meeting – having been told a couple of weeks earlier by her office that she wasn’t available for a full interview – McVey wasn’t prepared to comment on Osborne’s words or on his gleeful announcement of £10 billion of new welfare cuts, and quickly switched off my recorder. It was too soon, she said, and took my card so she could arrange a future interview.
Maybe it wasn’t too soon, though. Maybe the explanation lay somewhere else.
Maybe she just wasn’t prepared to have to hold her nose and join the ranks of Osborne, Cameron, Miller, Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling, the government’s own shameless generation.
10 October 2012