Stephen Unwin: Chilling view of the value of lives

A national paper that evaluated people by their cost to the state shows a failure to understand the complexities of human life – and reminds us of some of the most repulsive policies in 20th century history, says Stephen Unwin

Joey Unwin

The British mainstream press has hit a new low in relation to stories about disability.

In a move eerily reminiscent of Nazi attempts to evaluate vulnerable people according to cost, in June The Daily Telegraph provided an online calculator to help its readers work out how much of their taxed salary went on “bankrolling the welfare state”.

Neues Volk - Nazi eugenics poster
This poster makes a value judgment on the 60,000RM cost looking after people who cannot work, saying: “Fellow citizen, that is your money too.” It was advertising Neues Volk (New People) Nazi magazine in 1937

As the article accompanying the calculator insisted, “millions are claiming benefits without ever having to look for work, helping to push the tax burden to the highest point since the Second World War”.

Tax cuts were presented as the only answer, and welfare where the axe should fall.

Just after the Telegraph published its piece, Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “Disability hate speech is totally abhorrent and must stop. We urge The Telegraph to cease their campaign against disabled people unable to work.

“We are part of society, we are parents, brothers, sisters and friends. When we can’t work, it’s due to our impairments or health conditions.

“Anyone can become disabled and it can happen anytime in our lives – that’s why we as a decent society support each other.

“We have the right to live fulfilling lives, as part of the wider community, free of ableism and hate speech.”

Along with Disability Rights UK, more than 600 people have so far complained to press watchdog the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which is still assessing these complaints.

Out of interest, I entered an (entirely fictional) income of £150,000 a year into the calculator.

The calculator told me that I would pay a total of £60,222 in tax. Of this: 31.4% (£18,888) would be spent on welfare (not, note, schools or hospitals); 13.5% (£8,126) would support people in old age; 6.4% would go on sickness or disability benefits; 2.8% would support families and children; 1.9% would go on housing; and a tiny 0.2% would be spent on bereavement support and unemployment benefits. Finally, 6.7% would go on unidentified “social protection”, including the cost of administering benefits and enforcing the legislation.

None of this came as much of a shock (and I gather from reactions to the article that many of its assumptions are wrong), although readers may be surprised to read how much we spend on the elderly.

The Telegraph’s editor will no doubt defend his calculator on the grounds that transparency and accountability are essential for good government.

But this is deeply disingenuous: not only are the totals spent on all aspects of government expenditure readily available, but there is no good reason why welfare spending should merit this attention more than other expenditure.

Attacks on disabled people have all too often been dressed up in the clothes of good housekeeping

After all, with a simple change of the algorithm, we could have discovered what percentage of our taxes are spent on the vast sums wasted by Dido Harding who led the UK Health Security Agency and NHS Test and Trace during the pandemic, the ballooning costs of the Conservatives’ hard Brexit and Liz Truss’s catastrophic mini budget, let alone Boris Johnson’s enormous legal fees.

But the Telegraph’s agenda is all too clear: we’re too heavily taxed because of all that money spent on the welfare state, and this fiendish little calculator will show you all too clearly who is to blame.

The prejudice that lies behind this innovation fails to understand the complexities of human life – like many of this government’s policy.

Not only will most of the Telegraph’s readers eventually retire (if they’re not already retired), some will claim a state pension and many will have children and receive child benefit.

Finally, like the rest of Britain, one in four readers will belong to families with a disabled member, and many others will become disabled or go on to parent a child with disabilities.

It is almost as if the editor thinks that his readers are somehow immune to what Hamlet calls “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”; frailty, disability and
old age are fundamental to the human condition.

What’s more, no doubt many Telegraph readers work in the public sector and all benefit from public expenditure in countless other ways.

It is not this, however, which has shocked so many of us.

The real reason is the way that The Telegraph’s calculator reminds us of some of the most repulsive policies in 20th century history, especially attitudes to the public cost of supporting disabled people.

For, unlike the irrational hatred that shapes racism and sexism, attacks on disabled people have all too often been dressed up in the clothes of good housekeeping.

We can see this in the early arguments in favour of eugenics where social scientists were eager to reduce the cost of care.

Indeed, this was one of the chief goals of the “colony movement”, where disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities, were packed off to remote colonies whose farms, workshops and unpaid labour were designed to make them cost neutral.

Radicals argued for the sterilisation of so-called feeble-minded people to reduce future expenditure; large, poorly funded hospitals were favoured right up to the 1980s, above all because they offered an economy of scale.

Nazi Germany went even further and justified its murder of as many as 250,000 “useless eaters” on the grounds of cost, with a poster claiming that a man “suffering from a hereditary defect” cost “the people’s community 60,000 reichsmarks during his lifetime”.

School textbooks asked children to calculate the money to be saved if support was withdrawn: “An idiot in an institution costs around four reichsmarks a day. How much would it cost if he has to be cared for there for 40 years?”

One particularly vile Nazi statistician later “worked out that 70,273 ‘disinfections’ had saved the Reich 885,439,980 marks over a period of 10 years and that Germany had been saved 13,492,440kg of meat and wurst”.

It’s an attempt to rip up the social contract, the understanding that makes for a decent society. Without it, as history shows, the jaws of Hell open wide.

Sausages, eh?

For many of us, it’s personal.

Disabled people, such as my profoundly disabled 27-year-old son Joey, the Telegraph suggests, are simply too expensive for the country to support and the money should go on tax cuts instead.

This is yet another attempt to rip up the social contract – the unspoken understanding that makes for a decent society. Without it, as history shows, the jaws of Hell open wide.

The Telegraph did not go quite as far as asking how much food could have been bought with the money spent on disabled people, but it was an utterly disgraceful line of enquiry designed to stir up hatred and division.

I did not expect the editor to apologise, but the paper showed it knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

This article was originally published by Byline Times

Stephen Unwin is a theatre and opera director, writer and teacher