Have you seen a television programme called Total Wipeout?
It is essentially a game whereby people have to race across a series of obstacle courses and end up falling into the water a lot. Contestants are eliminated or drowned and, at the end, the remaining three compete around a giant water park of doom.
The obstacle course is in Argentina. In light of the recent suggestion that people should be assessed by an independent committee, instead of GPs, to determine whether they should be signed off work, I wonder if we could campaign to get a Total Wipeout obstacle course erected in this country. We could use it to determine whether people are fit to work and it would save some money. Not to mention the fact that we could all have a go.
Now, I know you can see a flaw in my plan. If they are not fit to work, they would not be fit to attempt jumping over the big red balls.
In fact some liberal types might suggest it is a tad insensitive. But, maybe, once the competitive juices of the man with the bad back, the intractable depression or cancer kick in, he simply won’t be able to help himself. Buoyed by the jibes of presenter Richard Hammond and the government official standing behind him with a cattle prod, he will throw himself at the course with a vigour that will make us all proud to be British.
Hell, once we’ve built the obstacle courses, we could use them for all sorts of things. We could put a tiger on the spinning platform and send benefit claimants over there. We could make old people do it to see if they should be allowed to keep their heating allowance. Given our nation’s penchant for humiliation, surely a television programme showing people with needs falling over is bound to be a ratings winner? Because all these people are a drain on resources, aren’t they? And some of them, rumour has it, really don’t deserve our help.
It is a simple formula: recession plus Conservative government equals focus on the undeserving poor. There is the creeping notion that there are vast swathes of people taking without giving. It highlights an interesting incongruence because, as a nation, we can become preoccupied with the anonymous undeserving poor yet give willingly above and beyond our taxes to Children in Need, Remembrance Day or famine relief.
At heart we remain compassionate and engaged, I think. I’d happily pay more tax to support the NHS, or kids’ hospices or older persons’ care and I think many others would too. So where does the concept of the undeserving poor come from? And the idea that we need special committees to review the long-term sickness of claimants as GPs cannot do it? And why, at a time when the richest people are getting richer by the billion, are these the people we are looking at taking money from?
Perhaps it’s because it isn’t about the money. It is about trust and creeping misanthropy and instilling in the population the ongoing sense that we are being stolen from by the underclasses. And maybe we are. Maybe there are thousands of people claiming money they aren’t entitled to, missing work and taking the mickey out of us all. If there are I don’t like them and I think they should be stopped. But I do not think they are a model for everyone who has a need. They do not represent people on sick benefit - those people who are ill do that.
When we wage war on the fraudsters, we need to be very clear, both in policy and in our own minds, about what we risk doing to everyone else.
Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel.