Zoe Williams: It’s true – Conservative governments really do kill people

Zoe Williams writes in the Guardian: “There was a splenetic exchange on BBC Question Time last week, between an audience member and my colleague, Aditya Chakrabortty, who had pointed out that disabled people had died as a result of cuts to social security. You’re like ‘Donald Trump’, said a guy in the audience: the parallel was, Aditya had made a statement that was stirring, powerful, emotive and trenchant – so I guess, if we leave aside the fact that it was also true, it was pretty Trumpian.

“Just as it’s verboten to call someone a liar in parliament, so there is a curious and ancient disapproval around pointing out that a state has been the direct cause of any deaths, whether of its own citizens or abroad. It is taken as hysterical overstatement (something that should only be levelled at an authoritarian regime, which takes its people out and shoots them) and pitiful naivety (a wilful misunderstanding of the business of government, to trace its policies crudely back to the lives of those who are affected by them).

“The [Tory] government – which will casually spend hundreds of thousands of pounds fighting a freedom of information request to release these peer reviews, and yet cannot afford to support a terminally ill cancer patient – has upended priorities when it comes to discussing the deaths of its citizens. It ploughs all its energy into denying a link between destitution and desperation, and apparently no energy at all into asking why these suicides occurred.

“A much more striking example of that came in 2015, when there were 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales, the greatest rise in mortality for 50 years, according to a study published this year. The researchers – from Oxford University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and two borough councils – examined possible explanations and, having rejected environmental collapse, natural disaster and war, concluded that ‘the evidence points to a major failure of the health system, possibly exacerbated by failings in social care’, adding for clarity: ‘The impact of cuts resulting from the imposition of austerity on the NHS has been profound.’

“An unnamed Department of Health spokesman rejected the claim, citing “personal bias” of the authors (the truth has a liberal bias, as the saying goes), but strikingly, took no further interest in the matter. You would think that, even if someone vigorously denied responsibility for 30,000 excess deaths, they would at least ask where, then, responsibility lay.

“Last year, meanwhile, the suicide rate within prisons in England and Wales reached an all-time high: 119 deaths, or one every three days. The background is a 40% drop in the number of prison officers, which had an obvious practical impact, pinpointed by Prof Pamela Taylor of the Royal College of Psychiatrists: there simply weren’t enough staff to accompany mentally ill patients to clinics and appointments.

“But understaffing in prisons has much more profound atmospheric affects: it erodes officers’ capability to observe prisoners closely; to support those suffering a decline; to control bullies and legal highs; and to perform the subtle, invaluable, life-changing business of jail craft. Only a government with no insight at all into the prison estate would think you could shred its staff by nearly half and suffer no catastrophic effects.

“Decisions are made as if the consequences belonged to someone else. Judicial process is treated like long-grass. Ernest Ryder, senior president of tribunals, said last week that the DWP habitually provided evidence whose quality was so poor it would be ‘wholly inadmissible’ in any other court. People die having had their support system ripped from them and the response is a shrugging ‘whatever’, plus maybe a blast of noise about bias and the last Labour government, like ducks flapping pointlessly on a pond. Every tactic is diversionary; the overarching strategy is, break it and see what happens.

“Long before it gambled with our future prosperity and place in the world, the Conservative party was shooting craps with the lives of its own people.”

[Read full column on Guardian website…]