So, it's exactly one week since George Osborne presented his Comprehensive Spending Review in the House of Commons. He had prepared the ground thoroughly. We had spent so many months hearing leaks about this benefit being cut or that service being axed, that nothing could have been worse than we were expecting. It was as though the country had entered some strange kind of collective lobotomy, with robotic Tories up and down the country chanting "There is No Alternative, There is no Alternative" and dutifully the public - as witnessed by the opinion polls - chanted back "There is no Alternative, There is no alternative."
Obsessives like me were all too aware that there WERE alternatives and all around the world, leading economists were trying to snap their fingers to break the trance, but even Nobel Prize winners found the collective hypnosis too potent.
So, George stood up in the House, with his smarmy grin and privileged air and tore apart the fabric of our country in little over an hour. In those few minutes he announced the greatest ever assault on both our Welfare State and our Public Services that our country had ever seen. Cuts in some departments of 60%, effectively cutting them from the state completely. Redundancies in the Public Sector of 490,000 - enough to fill Wembley Stadium 5 and a half times over. Unprecedented cuts to our local councils of 27%. But it's OK, it had all been well trailed and, well, the numbers didn't really mean anything did they?
Well, yes they did, and over the coming two or three years we are going to see exactly what they meant. Fewer nurses, fewer hospital beds, fewer firemen, fewer police officers, fewer teachers, fewer schools, these are the "bloated public service" Gideon referred to and his reforms will wipe out all of the improvements of 13 years.
The truly sinister thing is the way he prepared the ground. He simply lied.
Yes, he lied. Plain and simple, no doubt, no hyperbole. He just lied, and nowhere more so than when he talked about sickness and disability benefits.
We heard from some Conservatives that "Labour had massaged the figures, pushing tens of thousands on to sickness benefit to keep them away from the dole queue." Well, no. In fact Maggie did that. Between 1979 and 1997 the number of people on sickness benefits went up from 70,000 to 250,000. From 97 to 2010 they went up from 250,000 to just 260,000.
We heard that "Too many people had been abandoned on sickness benefit without any help or intervention at all" (Chris Grayling) Well, no. Labour introduced ESA to replace Incapacity Benefit 2 years ago. All claimants had undergone a ferocious assessment and 40% were simply found capable of work. Those left on ESA were truly sick and in need of support and compassion.
We heard that "The system was overrun with cheats and scroungers "mugging the country"" Well, no. Somewhere close to 20 MILLION people suffer from long term illness or disability in this country - heart disease, cancer, MS, bowel disease, alzheimers, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, kidney failure, lung disease, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, deaf bind - the list goes on and on yet only 2.5 MILLION claim ESA.
So what did The Cloaked One announce to punish the sickest, the most vulnerable in society?
To understand his announcement, you need to understand the current benefits. Currently, of all those assessed for ESA, only 9% are found to be so disabled or unwell that they go into the "Support Group". Effectively, they are judged never to be able to do any work of any kind. As I already mentioned, 40% are simply turned down altogether, leaving a whopping 51% who are put into the "Work Capability Assessment Group". They are still sick or disabled but their illness or disability is not considered one that would stop them doing some kind of work.
Under George's announcement, that 51% of sick people now have just a year to find a job. The clock is ticking. If at the end of that year, they are still unemployed (and think for a moment here, who will employ them with the dole queue crammed with just redundant, experienced, healthy applicants?) then their benefits will stop. If they have a partner who is in work, then that partner will be expected to support them 100% despite the fact that they probably already face extra stress in caring for a sick partner and no matter how little they may earn. Single people will be means tested and will continue to get state support unless they have savings over £16,000. If you are reading this and thinking it sounds reasonable, go away and read through my entire blog, then realise that I will almost certainly be put in the Work Capability Assessment Group.
In an even more disgusting bit of detail, Osborne announced that adults in care would no longer qualify for the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance. Many adults in care get an allowance of just £20 per week to keep from their own benefits and DLA gave them one tiny bit of independence in an institutionalised life. This measure saves the treasury just 135 Million but means the difference between freedom and chains for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Even the new Universal Credit will exclude DLA claimants but not ESA claimants, re-enforcing the idea that those on ESA are second-rate and less in need. Effectively, this change means that the universal credit will take no account at all of the extra costs and burdens someone in the Support Group of ESA face.
There is some evidence that people have started to realise just what it is George did last Wednesday. The polls now universally show that people think the cuts were unfair, but only just. The government approval rating took a sharp fall after the CSR now standing at around -6 or -7.
And in deciding if you think this is fair, I'll leave you with this thought. If I'd told you a few months ago that 2.5 Million people claim sickness benefit, but 20 Million in the UK have some kind of chronic illness or disability, what proportion would you have thought were "scroungers" or "cheats" or "capable of work"? 5%? 10%? Maybe if you're a Daily Mail reader 25%, but would any of you, hand on heart have thought 91% were claiming benefits because they wanted to? That all they needed was a bit of support and encouragement and they'd be back to work before you could say Workhouse? Or if you have an ounce of compassion would you realise that for many of those 91%, giving up work, giving up their hopes and dreams and ambitions was the worst thing that they ever faced and that if they could, they'd be back to work like a shot?