This weekend the scale of the government’s attack on benefits recipients has become all too frighteningly clear. Announcements before the summer recess had already brought an alarming raft of announcements, including cuts to housing benefit, a freeze on child benefit, tightening up access to disability living allowance, the removal of the health in pregnancy grant, the abolition of the child trust fund, and linking benefits uprating to the less generous consumer price index rather than RPI. Last Friday, the news got even worse, as we learned that the chancellor intends to cut billions of pounds from the welfare bill over and above the cuts already announced in the emergency budget, and it was suggested that benefits for sick and disabled people will be slashed by a further £2.5 billion. All this even before we’ve had the spending review: fears for universal benefits such as the winter fuel payment and free bus travel are now running very high.
Let’s be clear: the government’s plans are shocking, amounting to a reduction in income of hundreds of pounds a year for some of the most vulnerable families – a substantial dent in their household budgets for those struggling on low incomes. And they’ve rightly been strongly criticised. Analysis by the IFS, the TUC, the House of Commons library, all tell the same story: far from being ‘all in it together’, the ConDem government’s cuts are highly regressive in effect.
Ministers’ constant refrain that we can’t afford the benefits bill, that the workshy must be forced off benefits, stories of families on housing benefit living in luxury mansions are part of a systematic, discriminatory and divisive attack on the poor, lacking the evidential basis to back up the claims that are being made. Instead, the speed, savageness and scale of the cuts are based on an ideologically driven hostility to the welfare state.
Of course it’s right that people should be in work wherever it’s possible, of course it’s right that work should pay, and of course high housing and welfare costs put strain on the public purse. But slashing those benefits totally fails to address the underlying reasons for worklessness, housing need and social deprivation, and will make the position worse.
Communities and families with high levels of worklessness face substantial barriers to employment. I look around the most deprived parts of my constituency. The jobs aren’t there. People lack the skills they need. They have caring responsibilities that are difficult to manage alongside paid work. Long-term and fluctuating health conditions make them unattractive to employers. Transport to work isn’t available. High levels of personal indebtedness as people struggle to meet the bills on inadequate incomes deter them from moving into employment – bringing the creditors knocking at the door.
It’s true that means in some cases people with prolonged periods out of work, and successive generations in the same family experiencing unemployment, though contrary to ministerial pronouncements, the evidence simply isn’t there to demonstrate a phenomenon of intergenerational worklessness where no-one in a family’s ever worked. Even in areas of longstanding unemployment, most people will do some work at some time. Yet that stop-go pattern of employment itself does little to lift people out of poverty, and by destabilising family incomes as benefits are withdrawn and then, often painfully slowly, reinstated, may leave people worse off. Cutting benefits for the out-of-work meantime saps capacity to look for work as the poverty that results drains energy and self-confidence, and is of no help in dismantling the barriers to employment that people face, or in creating suitable, sustainable jobs.
Then there’s the impact of housing. In Trafford, where my constituency’s located, we already have a housing waiting list numbering over 12,000. Cutting housing benefit doesn’t find those families a home, it simply increases the risk of homelessness, exacerbates overcrowding, puts more pressure on the local authority to find temporary (and frequently more costly) accommodation, and reduces the rental income received by social landlords, in turn cutting the funds they have available for wider social and employment programmes, including for those with mental health problems, a history substance misuse or patterns of offending behaviour.
These are all the problems Iain Duncan Smith rightly identified as the driver for his welfare reforms. Yet what a perverse set of measures we’ve got from a government that says it wants to increase employment, strengthen family life and support strong communities. It is truly a disgrace that the policy response is so utterly hostile to the progress ministers claim they want to make – and no surprise to see signs of disquiet emerging on the government side of the House. This week, Lib Dem MP Bob Russell tabled an urgent question to ministers on the impact of the budget on low income households, expressing his concern. Rumours abound meantime of an almighty row about spending cuts between DWP and the Treasury.
In the TV debates before the election, David Cameron told us every family would have to tighten its belt – but where’s the evidence that the richest are sharing the pain when the burden falls so disproportionately on those who have least? Perhaps IDS really gave the game away when he said he wasn’t interested in salami slicing the welfare budget – for it’s a meat cleaver that ministers are wielding now. This isn’t a government that’s interested in fairness – its vicious, cruel and dangerous policies starkly reveal the truth. The myth that these policies promote fairness is one Labour must demolish: they will have precisely the opposite effect.
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