People are left with no option but to beg or steal – isn’t this what Dickens wrote about?
Opinion: Austerity demands compassion to be drained from the public services
‘How do you implement an austerity programme which does not spare the most vulnerable? You have to drain all compassion from the public services. And how do you drain all compassion from the public services? By removing the decision-making as far as possible from the client, so that the hardship and tears which result will not influence the decision making process.’ Photograph: Getty Images
When the troika left town, in December last year, the words used by the Government to describe this occasion were “success” and “achievement”.
If the focus is on economic data, divorced from the reality of people’s lives, then “success” and “achievement” might seem appropriate. However, for many middle-income families the past six years have been a soul-destroying and life-changing experience: hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, 25,000 families are at risk of losing their homes, many have seen their children forced to emigrate, the sale of anti-depressants has soared, and up to 560 suicides since 2008 are attributed directly to the recession.
Alongside that, Ireland’s public debt remains dangerously high at 123.7 per cent of GDP; in 2015, more than 50 per cent of all income tax collected will be required just to pay the interest on our debt. I would certainly not use the words “success” or “achievement” to describe the past six years.
Was there another way? I don’t know. The success of neo-liberalism has been its ability to persuade most of us that there is no economic alternative. But no one can persuade me that the failure of the Government to protect the most vulnerable was unavoidable.
Celtic TigerDuring the Celtic Tiger years, the word “solidarity” was never mentioned by government. When the recession came, “solidarity” became the rallying cry, but meaning now that the poor and those on middle-income must accept their share of the pain. In fact, they were the only ones to feel the pain. For some others, recession remains just a word in the dictionary.
How do you implement an austerity programme that does not spare the most vulnerable? You have to drain all compassion from the public services.
And how do you drain all compassion from the public services? By removing the decision-making as far as possible from the client so the hardship and tears that result will not influence the decision-making process. Compassion cannot be allowed to interfere with the budgetary arithmetic. Nobody (I hope) could look a parent, of modest income, with a seriously ill child, in the eye and tell them that their medical card has been withdrawn. So you get people to fill out forms and send them to an anonymous person who informs them of the bad news by letter. To add to the pain, the Department of Health then announces that the same budgetary arithmetic is able to give medical cards to healthy children in wealthy families.
The Department of Social Protection has also been drained of all compassion. The department may argue there has been no change in policy, but there has certainly been a major change in culture. It has become heartless, even ruthless. The department often seems preoccupied, not with paying people their entitlements, but with finding reasons not to pay people their entitlements.
People are left weeks, or even months, without any payment. Form-filling, bureaucracy and inefficiency all serve to delay payments to people dependent on social welfare, and thereby help to meet the department’s budget target.
Welfare paymentPeople regularly approach me to say their welfare payment has been discontinued without warning: when they inquire why, they are given forms to fill out and bring back the following week. If they ask what will they live on this week, they are told that is not the department’s problem. One person returned the following week with his forms, filled in as requested, only to be told that he had been mistakenly given the wrong forms, and he was to return the following week again with the correct forms filled in.
Others tell me that they were informed that their payment had been discontinued because a letter had been sent requiring them to attend an interview, which they had failed to attend. In some cases with which I am personally familiar, no letter was received. In one case, the letter arrived the day after the interview. They are then given another appointment for the following week, but are now left penniless and with no money to pay their landlord. If people, in such situations, have no family or friends to support them financially, they have no option but to beg or steal. Isn’t this what Dickens wrote about?
FrustratedMany public servants are also frustrated; they wish to provide a service, they too have families and homes, but instructions from on high insist that they confine themselves to ticking boxes on forms and passing them up to someone else to make the decision. It is called “light touch” interaction with the client. The enemy of austerity is compassion and cannot be tolerated.
The economy is for people, not people for the economy. For the past six years, vulnerable people have been sacrificed on the altar of the economy.
An economic policy that is devoid of compassion, that sees compassion as an obstacle to the achievement of its policies, is in need of urgent reform.
Peter McVerry is a Jesuit priest working with homeless people