Voices from the Occupation
The Welfare Reform Bill – Tinmen, Search for your Hearts
This afternoon, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of rejecting the compassionate amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill, put forward by the House of Lords in recent weeks. Today’s article discusses the Bill, the vote, the reaction, and why the tin men and women in the House of Commons, and the streets of Britain, should expedite the search for a heart.
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.
Today, seven proposed amendments to the bill returned to the House of Commons to be voted upon by our elected representatives in parliament. Amendments were as follows:
a) To exclude Child Benefit from the benefits cap – this would mitigate some of the disproportionate impact of the cap on larger families
b) To not charge single parents Child Support Agency if they are attempting to reach a settlement
c) To exempt cancer patients from the means testing of the Employment Support Allowance
d) To means test other ESA claimants after two years, rather than the one year limit proposed by the Bill
e) To exempt those in social housing with more than one room from ‘under occupancy’ penalties – this to avoid the sick and disabled being penalised for having a spare room.
f) To maintain ‘disabled child element’ at lower rate of Child Tax Credits – in order to ensure disabled children continue to receive tax credits.
g) To allow young disabled people who haven’t worked to keep their ESA contribution to their benefits.
At time of writing, three of the amendments (c, d and g above) have been voted upon in the House of Commons today. After a woefully short debate (a mere HOUR was devoted to it), the MP’s started milling through their sheep pen system of voting. Each time, they came back in favour of rejecting the suggested amendments of the House of Lords. There were just a handful of Liberal Democrat rebels who refused to vote with their coalition government on the issue. They were:
Now, I do not often wish people ill. But in this case, I believe that perhaps if Chris Grayling MP were to lose a leg, he might gain a heart. In fact, I recommend a long night of soul searching for each and every person who voted for this Bill, or supported it outside the houses of parliament – in their homes, pubs and workplaces.
Busting the Economyths
There are a couple of Economyths around this hideous Bill which require refuting. Firstly, ‘it shouldn’t be right that people on benefits get more than the working poor’. Now, benefits in this country are already means tested. They are set to ensure (what we have agreed over the years is) a reasonable quality of life is sustained for any of us finding ourselves debilitated by physical or mental illness or disability. As wages have been frozen, and inflation has accelerated, there are now many people working full time jobs in Britain who are working simply to cover the basics – their wages completely consumed by sky high rents, energy, fuel and food costs – let alone childcare. This is a problem. It needs to be addressed, with intent and at a pace.
However, the solution is most definitely not to manipulate these people, by suggesting that the sick and disabled should suffer along with them in some sort of negative solidarity. 'Look working poor, these sick, disabled and jobless people live better than you, that’s not fair is it?’….’Noooo!’ the working poor cry back. That is not public opinion being in support of a benefits cap. That is a population struggling to make it by, creaking at the seams, having their fears manipulated to suit the policies of a government of the elite, for the elite. Rent control? Strengthening the terms and conditions of employees? Reassessing the minimum wage? Making work pay, means paying those who work. It means paying a fair and proper wage which they can live on – not penalising those who can’t work to ensure they are lower than the working poor in the hierarchy of human suffering.
Secondly, Chris Grayling and IDS have launched a synchronised attack on our understandingof ‘homelessness’ this week. During TV appearances through the week, and in the House today, they were keen to state that we misunderstood the departments own findings, that this Bill would make 100,000 children homeless. They claimed that their definition of homeless was different to ours. They didn’t mean sleeping on the streets, they just meant without a home - but that the families could find another one. In my world, when a family is without a home – they are homeless. If you make a decision to cut the lifeline for a family which keeps the roof over its head – you are responsible for making that family homeless. Affordable Housing is an oxymoron in London. While many of us outside the City, who rarely if ever go there, might not understand, it is never the less true. Rents in the capital are extortionately expensive. The problem, once again, is the cost of living, and not the people having to pay it.
Thirdly, I keep hearing MPs tell me over the TV and in the press, that my generation need to abandon our ‘something for nothing’ culture. In recent years, the institutions of Britain commit some egregious acts. Parliament: has launched illegal and horrific wars in other countries, in our name; it has used our taxes to save Banks which destroyed themselves for the personal wealth of their traders; it has refused to put in one single piece of legislation to regulate any single one of the financial instruments used by said Bankers to crash the global economy; it has overseen a rise in executive pay of 49% last year while freezing the wages and strangling the pensions of public sector workers, some of the lowest paid workers in Britain; it has done nothing to prevent the astonishing continuance of millionaire making bonuses in the City of London being paid to executives of failing Banks; it has been disgraced by the expenses scandal where MPs en masse used expenses to build moats for theirducks, pay for their partners pornography, and renovate their second homes…with our tax money (Chris Grayling!). The Media has completely failed to hold MPs to account in any real way. There is a breakthrough story here and there, but there is no consistency and pressure to challenge the warped rhetoric which leads to ‘public opinion’ supporting defunct legislation such as the Welfare Reform Bill. They are hacking into the voicemails of members of the public and celebrities for tittle tattle stories to fill pages and minds, while the real stories of the day are overlooked. Then there are the Police, spending more time suppressing freedom of assembly and the right to protest all this madness, than chasing down the white collar criminals responsible for it. Not to mention, overseeing injustices like Stephen Lawrence, Sean Rigg, Mark Duggan and the myriad others – while allegedly taking payments from journalists for information on victims of crime.
There is absolutely a ‘something for nothing’ culture in this country – and its home is the institutions meant to serve us: our government, our parliament, our media, our police force. Their pay is unrelated to their performance.
The Dignity in Caring
Finally, any one of us could fall ill, become disabled, struggle to find work or suffer mental illness at any point in our lives. Separating those who are able to work, from those who are not – as if one is by default morally superior to the other, is not only ignorant, but dangerous. This ‘I don’t want to pay for someone else’s fags and booze’ nonsense barely belongs in the mouth of a spotty, petulant teenager, let alone that of our parliamentary representatives. Being disabled is not a lifestyle choice. Becoming a quadriplegic is not a lifestyle choice. Dying slowly and painfully of cancer is not a lifestyle choice.
There is no dignity in dehumanising the vulnerable. There is dignity in compassion. There is dignity in sharing. There is dignity in each and every one of the ill and disabled activists who this week chained their wheelchairs together and blocked Oxford Circus, to make themselves visible to those who do not see them. There is dignity in all those they represented who could not leave their homes or their beds to be seen. It is a fact of life that people get physically and mentally ill, and people are born or become disabled. That is unavoidable. We can’t magic away the vulnerable in our society by making them out to be pickpockets. It is as much a gift to experience compassion, as it is to receive it. It pays real dividends, the dividends that count, to care for each other. I don’t want to live in a world where people happily pitch one group of poor people against the other, like pigeons scrapping in the dirt over breadcrumbs. I reject entirely the austerity arguments of this government. If we have money for wars, if we have money for bank bailouts, if we have money for Trident, then we have money to keep the ill and disabled out of poverty.
The Tinman in the Wizard of Oz looked all over for a heart, because to feel and to care are the centre of the human experience. To those who smile and cheer at the asset stripping of the welfare state, I sincerely hope you stumble upon your humanity, as you are truly missing out.