Voices from the Occupation
The ConDemNation of the Vulnerable
Yesterday, a small group of unelected peers of the realm did more to protect to rights of the vulnerable in the United Kingdom than the politicians elected to do just this job. Today’s article takes a closer look at the issue of benefits capping, and asks why the coalition government is taking brickbats to the poor, sick, disabled and elderly.
What is The Welfare Reform Bill?
The Welfare Reform Bill is the pet project of UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan-Smith (IDS). It is a spider web of legislation spreading across the entire social security system of the country. It is 180 pages of legalese, which most people would be daunted by taking on.
This Bill aims to replace the wide ranging means tested welfare payments and tax credits available to people of age 18 and retirement available today with the so-called a single Universal Credit, to replace the Disability Living Allowance with the Personal Independence Payment (how very Orwellian), restrict Housing Benefit payments to disabled people living in social housing deemed ‘too large’ for their needs, attach local Housing Allowance to the Consumer Price Index, restrict the Employment and Support Allowance to 12 months, and put a cap on benefits.
Recent weeks have seen disabled people impacted by the report put together the Spartacus Report, condemning two key areas of the Bill which have caused outrage: Changes to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the Disability Living Allowance (DLA). These payments are designed not only to be paid to support those who cannot work due to sickness or disability, but to support those who can work on a full time, part time or voluntary basis. For example, in order for someone to work, they might need to washed, dressed and fed in the morning as they are unable to do this for themselves. Plans are for these payments to be cut and time-boxed.
Few would argue that the current system isn’t overly complex. Simplification is not in and of itself, objectionable. However, as IDS, his chief henchman Chris Grayling and head honcho David Cameron have stated themselves, this is a matter of principle, not simply costs.
This bill is about reducing payments, changing eligibility criteria (thereby putting people’s safety net at risk), and extending the waiting periods before benefits kick in (leaving families, the disabled and the vulnerable unprotected for longer). It is also about heaping additional pressure on the sick and disabled people and their families. In short, it is about making the vulnerable less secure, for the sake of 'austerity'. What's worse, is the appalling characterisation of the unemployed as lazy do-nothings which need such penalising in order to somehow get them 'doing the right thing'.
The UK government launched an expensive public consultation exercise on replacing the DLA with PIP last year to gather feedback and proposals for amendments and additions. On receiving an almost 100% negative feedback, the government proceeded to produce a report for the House of Commons which they stated proved that disabled people were broadly in support of the changes. They also used dangerously misleading figures for statistics on claimant counts to support their business case and try the vulnerable of Britain, in the court of public opinion, on a falsehood.
Why Cap Benefits?
Not happy with taking on the sick and disabled in one area – they decided to take on the unemployed (often the same group) and propose a cap on the total annual benefit a household can receive per year. This means that regardless of how many children, the extent of disability, and support the members of a family are cumulatively entitled to, they will get a maximum of £26,000 per year.
In stark contrast to the zero weight given to the views of sick and disabled people and their carers in their Consultation exercise on PIP, the Government has quite a different view of public feedback on benefits capping. Chris Grayling, appearing on this BBC’s The Daily Politics on 23rd January was quick to emphasise how popular the benefits cap was with the public.
These are the stock Soundbites put forward my interchangeable Tory, Lib Dem and Labour MPs, as their case for moving forward with the legislation:
1. Fairness -
It’s not fair that someone on benefits earns the equivalent of a £35k per annum working wage.
It’s not fair that working people have to make choices to live where they can afford to and people on benefits don’t.
It’s not fair that people on benefits get disincentivised from coming off benefit, by earning more on it than they would from work.
2. Austerity -
We can’t afford it.
It doesn’t matter what questions Grayling, IDS or Cameron are asked – they respond by saying one of the above sentences. Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats are supporting the Bill through the House of Commons and Labour have also announced that they aren’t going to oppose the bill either.
The Foolishness of the Benefits Cap
Firstly, the cap is cruel. The government’s own impact assessment (leaked yesterday) shows that over 100,000 children will likely be pushed into poverty, and 40,000 people made homeless on the implementation of this arbitrary cap on benefits. This is because it places the cap at the average annual wage of a single person, and makes no accomodation for other factors. It makes no difference how many children you have, if you are a couple or a single parent, or where in the country you live. The fact that it is average wage, not average income is problematic for other reasons. For instance, an average person may earn £26k per annum in the UK (after tax and NI are through); however they are also eligible for other income such as child benefit, tax credits and so on. These have not been taken into account in the government calculations. The impact? Larger families will be disproportionately hit by the cap. To make this impact real, it is important to remember that the sick and disabled people in our country are not a separate species. Any one of us, at any time, could succumb to a debilitating illness – cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc – or become disabled through accident or incident. When planning the size of one’s family, we all lack a crystal ball. A family with both parents working and four children, get a mortgage on a three bedroom house within their means. Ten years later, the mother has died of cancer and the father cannot find a job other than part time which works alongside his parental commitment to four children – the mortgage is now untenable. This policy would have us turf this family out into accomodation possibly miles away, distant from the families local support network - cousins, aunts, uncles, schools, the children's after school clubs.The point is, sad and bad things happen to people. The welfare state exists to soften the blow and keep adults, children and families together and safe when they do. This is not The State, this is us. This is what we do for each other, by paying our taxes.
In summary, the Bill is not balanced, it does not use average income, it does not include any weighting in consideration of wildly fluctuating rent and living costs across the UK, it penalises couples and larger families and it hurts people already in difficulty. This is cruel.
Secondly, the abysmal media and government lead up to the presentation of the Bill to the House of Commons should be a point of shame for everyone involved. The Government started to release the results of apparently unrelated research in the months, weeks and days preceding the report to ‘inform the public’ on the proportion of people on welfare claiming illegally, and the number of immigrants claiming housing benefit and other social security. This set off a media furore from the Daily Mail; headline: The foreigners being paid£2billion in benefits a year including 371,000 on the dole (and 5,000 claiming£42m in illegal handouts), to the Huffington Post; headline: More than 370,000 Immigrants on Benefits. Sky News have also weighed in with the kind of considered, informed coverage we have come to expect of Murdoch enterprises. Sky News presenter Colin Brazier suggested 'we' save 'gazillions' in tax payer money by shipping off 'troubled families' to the Sandwich Islands and leave them to fend for themselves.
In fact these headlines were everywhere; you merely had to glance at a newsstand to be left with the impression that you were being personally milked for every last one of your hard earned pennies by criminals, foreigners and degenerates. This was a blatant and stinging manipulation of public opinion, and an exploitation of a scared and pressurised population.
Thirdly, reports of public opinion being in favour of the benefits cap, after such a maniupation, count for nothing. The public might well be in favour of a cap, but would most people be in favour of plunging 100,000 children into poverty? Would most people would be in favour of socially cleansing whole cities? Would most people be in favour of evicting grieving, sick, disabled or otherwise infirm people from their homes? Most likely not. But that is exactly what this piece of legislation makes not only possible, but probable. Yet, unlike its disregard for the opinions of the sick, disabled and elderly, the government are quite happy to acknowledge public opinion when it accords with their carefully choreographed case. It would seem, from the government’s use of the term 'the public' in recent months, that you do not qualify as a member if you are sick, disabled, unemployed, an immigrant or on a pension.
For their lack of humanity, their victim blaming of the vulnerable and for their cynical manipulation of public opinion; the government (and the Labour Party, for their complicity) should hang their heads in collective shame.
The Bigger Picture
This argument of course does not even begin to touch on broader issues. Some families are claiming a lot, because the cost of living is so high. The government has scant plan to tackle the rising cost of living. According to the Mayor of London's own website, in London today, the average cost to rent a three bedroom house is £196-£279 per week in Tottenham and Peckham, £280-365 per week in Hackney and Clapham, £360-550 in Islington and £551-888 per week in Hampstead. This means, a family needs to pay a minimum of £10192 and a maximum of £14508 per year, on rent alone to live in a 3 bed in Tottenham or Peckham. This is compared with £7,320 a year in Bristol, £8628 in Leeds, £8724 in Cardiff and just £6900 a year in Corby.
This raises two important arguments against the government’s claims. Firstly, there is the clear issue of out of control rent inflation. Rent control is a real policy in the US, and 40 other countries around the world. Meanwhile, our government is not currently seeking to have rents regulated, to ensure that the cost of housing oneself or family does not become an unworkable burden. Under the proposed legislation, families could be spending more than half their income on rent.
Rent controls also mean you maintain a diversity of population in major cities. If all of the houses in London can only be afforded by people earning over £60k a year, then where will the nurses, care assistants, teachers, refuse collectors and other low-middle earners live? Let alone those on benefits.
What this rental pricing disparity also demonstrates is that the issue of sky high rents is not universally experienced in the UK, but centres mainly on London and some other major cities. Therefore, the true impact of a benefits cap at £26,000 to a family paying £7000 per year on their rent looks substantially different to a family paying £14,000. This undermines the apparently supportive public opinion on the cap. The thing about public opinion is it is just an opinion. If it is not informed, or if it has been manipulated, it is not something to base policy on.
But the policy is not about public opinion and it is not about austerity. It is about the continued reprioritisation of public spending from the vulnerable in our society to the most powerful. It is a siphon from public to private.
Could Not Be Further out of Touch
Just last week, Education Secretary Michael Gove suggested, with a straight face, that the UK taxpayer should afford the Queen a new yacht, at the cost of £60m, as a gift for her Diamond Jubilee. On the BBC's This Week show, defending the call for the yacht to be publicly rather than privately funded, Michael Portillo (former Conservative Defence Secretary) said “It’s pathetic. If you’re going to have a royal yacht, that tax payer should pay for it….what kind of self confident country is it that asks for a royal yacht and gets the private sector to pay for it?’
He claimed that it was a symbol of pride for Britain, i.e. that the worth and power of Britain could be measured by the size and scale of the Queen’s personal sea-faring vessel.
This argument has not been employed by Portillo alone. It has been used by Gove and others. Now, in the 21st Century, surely it is time for the worth of a country to be measured not by trinkets and treasure, but what it uses that treasure for. A country with the 7th largest economy in the world, which throws 100,000 of its most vulnerable children into poverty, by choice, seems to me to have little to be proud of. It seems to be ok for our NHS, trains, schools, local government services and even prisons to be bank rolled by the private sector at exorbitant interest rates, but hands off Betty’s boat.
Robin Hood in Reverse
Between the Welfare Reform Bill and the NHS Bill, together with rocketing energy, rent, train fares, food and other prices; the sick, disabled, elderly and unemployed of Britain might well consider themselves the victims of a modern day Robin Hood in reverse. To make the case for such cynical and cruel policies in the name of fairness is an affront to both the English language and common sense. Start with tax avoidance, start with rent controls, start with taxing financial transactions, start with anything but don’t start with taking from those with the least. There may well be the odd family with an unreasonably high income from benefits on occasion, but far more common are the thousands of families scrimping painfully to get by on their meagre wages or benefits. Policy should be made for the reality, not the anomaly.
We can and must, together, stop this Bill from passing.
Let the UK Government know you are opposed to the Bill by signing the e-petition.
But don't stop there - join your local Occupy movement, attend UKUncut demonstrations, make your voice heard. It is time to stop complaining, and start taking action. You are not alone.