Matthew Norman: Cameron is the David Brent of welfare reform

The Prime Minister seems to be happy to pat the disabled on the head and then leave them behind
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The Independent Online

Those who know him only as the ribald host of the Golden Globes in Hollywood will be unaware that Ricky Gervais was once Britain's most strikingly prescient socio-political satirist. Long before last year's outbreak of "mong" warfare on Twitter, Gervais produced an uncannily accurate predictive metaphor for the Tory attitude towards the disabled, on view this week as the Welfare Reform Bill wended its contentious way through the Lords.

It came in an episode of an obscure, long forgotten show, The Office, involving a fire drill. While the able-bodied of Wernham Hogg amble down to the ground floor, David Brent and his assistant Gareth Keenan display their caringness by patronisingly fussing over the wheelchair-bound Brenda as they ostentatiously push her to safety. But time is short and the chair heavy, and, when they realise that they'll have to carry it and its occupant down several flights, they leave her marooned on the stairwell with the imaginary flames licking around her wheels.

And so to David Brenteron, the Prime Minister who is first a friend, then a boss, next a chilled out entertainer, and finally a galaxy class hypocrite. The PM has often highlighted his special feeling for the disabled and their carers, and persuasively so for the saddest of personal reasons. He and Sam may have had the money to hire help for Ivan, and equip their home to make things easier on a purely practical level, in ways denied most parents of severely disabled children. But no one could question the passion of his love for his son or his hands-on commitment to caring for him. More to the point, this is not a man so emotionally dim that he lacks the power of empathy.

Or so you'd have thought until now, when, with the public finances aflame and even the agile struggling to find the exits, he is happy to pat the disabled on the head and leave them behind. This is a desperately crude précis of the relevant sections of the Welfare Reform Bill. But it's no good going all on the one hand, on the other, when the other hand isn't visible.

However the Lords voted yesterday, after the time of writing, and whatever amendments ensue, the Government's intent is as plain from its semantics as from its express aim to reduce the cost of assisting the most seriously disabled by 20 per cent (an astounding figure when fraud accounts for 0.5 per cent of this budget). Changing the benefit's name from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independent Payment – "PIP, PIP!" as they used to greet one another on bread roll-throwing nights up the Bullingdon – speaks weaselly for itself. Rather than find what's required to allow the disabled to live lives of dignity, the Government touts the very independence its meanness would impair. Even by the doublespeak standards of a debate in which the intent to deepen poverty is styled as the wish to liberate from dependency, this disgusts.

The only freedom the Government has in mind, in seeking to have this benefit reduced or removed by the decision of private firm employees under huge pressure to find reasons to do so, is the freedom from caring adequately for its most vulnerable. To save less than £1bn per annum (the cost of a few fighter jets) from an almost £2 trillion economy, the lives of some 600,000 disabled people and more still of those who look after them would become far bleaker.

If it is less repugnant than the bare fact, the symbolism is nauseating enough. Take David Freud (and don't bring him back). Four years ago, as an adviser to the Labour Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, this beauty revealed that welfare reform is much simpler than decades of tormented debate had implied. He knew absolutely nothing about the matter when he came to it, he boasted in an interview, and completed his initial report in precisely three weeks.

Befittingly for a more transcendent genius than his great grandpa Sigmund, the now Lord Freud is the Coalition's welfare reform minister in the Lords. He is an even richer man than his gaffer, having made a great fortune as – yup, yup, goes without saying – an investment banker.

What a metaphor for the Tory take on the austerity age it is, this vista of the wealthy targeting a trifling saving by depriving those who need it most of the sort of weekly sum Lord Freud can claim in allowances for attending the Lords for one day. Could there be a more scrumptious manifestation of what the classically Brentian mantra "We're all in this together" means than a banker devoting his ermine-clad retirement to purloining speech therapy from autistic children, and robbing frazzled parents of respite care?

Whatever damage peers inflict on this snarling Pitbull of a Bill, however many of its teeth they remove, its advancement has taught us something chilling about the Prime Minister. For all his personal experience, expressions of paternal goodwill towards the disabled and fraternal concern for their carers, at the first clanging of the alarm bells his instinct was to scarper, and leave them in the stairwell to burn.