Political Promise

Tory Welfare Reforms: Tearing the Safety Net

In Aaron Frazer on November 8, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Aaron Frazer attempts to make sense of the welfare reforms that have polarised public opinion.

Despite all the controversy, the disagreement and the increasingly embittered discourse, one note of agreement has typified the response to George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review. It is that we all know who the losers are in this budget. The only difference  is whether such decisions, many of which were not the product of a democratic mandate, can now be deemed justifiable. The cumulative effect (I would retreat from saying aim) of one policy is hard to ascertain: what is clear is that many will be mutually reinforcing. Such reinforcement will, I consider, crush the weakest and entrench disadvantage and unfairness. Let us for one moment  remind ourselves that as far as the government is concerned, the central reason for these cuts is economic, not ideological. It is, in other words, a rational  response to Labour’s years of profligacy and their unremitting idealisation of state sponsored, state led policy. No one would enjoy making these “tough decisions”, Cameron insists; his decisiveness and conviction, particularity in enforcing the unpopular, is demanded by these difficult economic times. In terms of the symbolism of the discourse, I find it   strangely reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s historic speech six years before seizing power, in which he boldly claimed that “History will absolve me”. Of course, like Castro, Cameron will not apologise for anything that he will enforce, and neither will any of these decisions be reversed if the economy grows.

A particular striking part of this budget is the punitive targeting of disabled people, including the  stringent testing of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claimants aimed at causing huge reductions in its overall cost.  To add insult to injury (or impoverishment to insidious vilification if you will),  those in care homes will lose their DLA mobility component , which at its lowest is a measly £18.95 a week. Unlike the care component of DLA, which is aimed at reimbursing disabled people for the care the themselves must pay for, the mobility component is aimed to a some degree at ensuring that disabled people can derive a modest income. Its focused on those who have, in the long term, almost no capability of working, though this is not the stipulated objective.

To remind you, those on higher rate DLA must either be, according to the Department of Work and Pensions,  “severely mentally impaired with severe behavioural problems” or “unable or virtually unable to walk without severe discomfort, or at risk of endangering your life or causing deterioration in your health by making the effort to walk “.

http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/DisabledPeople/FinancialSupport/DisabilityLivingAllowance/DG_10011816

Those who have been targeted most severely are undoubtedly those on contribution based Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). They obviously made the hugely naïve assumption that regular National Insurance contributions through consistent paid employment would ensure that the state protects you  from impoverishment  if you became too unwell to continue work. How wrong they where. If you re not disabled enough  to ‘move up’ and pass the increasingly  punitive eligibility of DLA, and your condition does not improve, an individual will be nevertheless be forced to take Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) after one year, where there benefit is dependent on seeking work. In working with homeless people I have seen various people on ESA who have diseases as severe as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic kidney disease and anterior wedging of the spine. I look at their coercion to the world of paid work with a mixture of trepidation and deep-seated resentment.

For those deprived people, disabled or otherwise, who find themselves in considerable financial bother, the governments sweeping attack on Housing Benefit is likely to entrench financial turmoil and make homelessness increase. It is extremely common to see benefit claimants shifted from one benefit to another at the behest of the Jobcentre, an organisation dictated by a a government policy which coerces as many people as possible to be on Job Seekers Allowance. I’ve seen in my profession, many peoples benefits cut and watched, almost helplessly,  their council tax and housing benefit get automatically suspended and weekly charges spiral out of control. Being granted an eviction order by incurring rent arrears in this way counts in many boroughs as being “intentionally homeless”. If you are consequently subject to a successful eviction order, the council does not have a legal obligation to rehouse you. Well, in 2010, how hard is it to pay your rent? This year, according to LSL monthly index of buy-to-let rents, this year landlords in the South East pushed up rents by 2.8% in just one month–  outstripping wages considerably. London also saw a 2% rise during August, with the average charged now standing at £961 a month for a property. Over the year, the Yorkshire and Humberside region has suffered the biggest annual rise, up by 5.4% to an average of £528. In September arrears stood at 11.3% of all rent in the UK, compared to 9.7% in April.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010/sep/17/rents-rise-landlords-buy-to-let

With at present, 140,000 homeless people in the UK (Homelessness does not necessarily mean being out on the street), increases in the proportion of Britons in rent arrears will only worsen this problem.

Considering how often disadvantaged people need to challenge decisions made by the Revenues and Benefits Service (especially regarding decisions around eviction and house transfers) as well as situations surrounding immigration status, deportation and the denial of benefits, the inevitable cuts in legal aid will further dissuade people from challenging iniquitous  decisions by statutory authorities. It is hardly conjectural to suggest that this will make numerous statutory  authorities, and particularly private businesses like Ways Into Work which receive lucrative government contracts, less accountable and more prone to unfairness and negligence.

The governments idea that  ‘compassionate’ lawyers can or should work for free seems rooted in a Victorian paternalism which states that relief or assistance should only be at the discretion  of exceptionally conscientious and philanthropic individuals. People in other words deserve charitable relief rather than an entitlement to rights and the guarantee of institutional consistency and fairness. As Afua Hirsh, the guardians legal affairs correspondent, accurately described last week.

The demand for legal representation is unlikely to abate. This is in large part because of the poor quality of public decision-making. In asylum cases – politically one of the more expedient areas to cut – one third of people who are refused asylum are successful on appeal. As long as the Home Office continues making unjust decisions, then legal challenges will remain an essential check on their decision-making process.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/13/legal-aid-justice-lawyers-vulnerable

In terms of how you avoid such multiple sources of  disadvantage the best idea is to try and escape it. However, where  will the the dangling prospect of social mobility go when this government hastily pulls up the draw bridge? Educational Maintenance Allowance, a rare example of New Labour’s  more  benevolent pragmatism,  attempted to break the cultural and economic factors which dissuade many working class young people from continuing their education. This will be entirely scrapped, deemed a ‘bribe’ to get children to not play truant.  Extra investment through the Pupil Premium comes out of an existing education budget, which will be extremely stretched as pupil enrolment increases sharply in 2011.By 2012, those who have survived this ham-fisted government approach to education, face universities fees which are likely in many cases to increase some six times since I enrolled in university in 2005.

The shocking forcefulness of the governments approach has so far meant policy has been forced through despite a tidal wave of powerful refutation from senior academics, economists, pre-eminent think tanks, unions, public sector workers and ordinary voters. What should galvanise many, not just those a cynic may suggest would rally against them anyway, is the utter decimation of a meaningful and substantial safety net.

What we have to our discredit is a government which has shown that its desire for a systematic reconfiguration of the welfare state cannot not be abated. Of concern should not be whether such reforms are a  product of ideological dogma, but that they represent a callous indifference to human misfortune.

This government frequently appropriates the language of empowerment and progressiveness but has instigated a collection of reforms which shows no sympathy towards the most vulnerable and no appreciation for the extent to which such social dislocation may become intergenerational. For that reason, this budget can never claim to aspire to fairness and can never hope to make a positive impact on this country.

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