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First Tuesday current affairs - Tuesday 7 November 7:00pm start
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News Reviews from 2013

The Budget: Death of Welfare?

Where’s the benefit?

by Denis Joe

 

This week sees the next stage of welfare reform, to be known as the Universal Credit Scheme, that are going to leave claimants financially worse off. Reading the headlines and listening to announcers on TV news, one would have thought that the day of the Apocalypse was seriously upon us. Church leaders met with Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland stating that the reforms have created an 'absolute fear' amongst congregations. A £1m Foodbank appeal has been launched by the Trussell Trust with claims that nearly 5 million people already live 'in food poverty in the UK'. Whilst exaggeration has been a major feature of welfare reform in the past there does seem to be something different.

 

Some of these reforms have already been introduced. Reassessment of eligibility to the new benefit, Employment Support Allowance (brought in to replace Incapacity Benefit), drew reaction and protest from many charities, and newspaper columnists, saying that this was an attack on the living standards of a million and a half disabled people. One of the major changes means that a GP assessment of a person’s health is no longer valid. The healthcare group ATOS were contracted to carry out Work Capability Assessments, introduced by the Labour government in 2008.

 

Of course there have been many horror stories, and ATOS have not proved altogether competent in their assessments. There may be some justification in thinking that they saw their role as getting people off sick benefits rather than assessing them. Yet criticism of the tests miss a very important point. Shaun Williams, director of corporate affairs at Leonard Cheshire Disability, said: "The new test for employment support allowance is much tougher than the previous test for incapacity benefit, so it is no surprise that more people are being found eligible for work". But it makes sense that a person should be gauged on their ability to work and not on whether they are sick or not. Many people in wheelchairs, amputees, are able to and capable of holding down a job. There are currently 1.3 million disabled people in the UK who are available for and want to work (Office for National Statistics - Labour Force Survey, Jan - March 2009). Yet, as the chart shows, the top ten reasons for claiming benefits are mental illness. Over the past decade or so diagnose of depression has undergone a transformation, with headlines reaching hysterical proportion. There seemed to be an ecstatic reporting of stories such as research which revealed that 38 per cent of Europeans are suffering from a mental disorder – that’s about 165million people (see ’Blaming Big Pharma for society’s ills’). And why should people be deemed to be incapable of work because of a lifestyle such as alcoholism or drug addiction?

 

Most Common Illnesses Cited in Benefit Claims

Today (Tuesday) saw the start of the next stage in the governments drive to cut the welfare bill and the latest issue for campaigners to get hot under the collar about: the Bedroom Tax. There is something rather mean-spirited about penalising someone on the basis that their home is considered to be too big. The plans, which the government say will affect around 600,000 claimants, are aimed at those renting council housing or housing association properties and not those in private properties.

 

Many opponents are suggesting that this is the issue that will halt the government’s plans and making comparisons with the campaign against the Poll Tax. Ellie Mae O'Hagan, in the Guardian (1st April), says, “[t]he poll tax was defeated with mass non-payment and protest on the streets, not with rational arguments or pleas for compassion. I get the impression that campaigners against the bedroom tax will be responding with similar inflexibility to the government.” Whilst engaging in further wishful thinking: “UK Uncut's forthcoming day of action on 13 April is the obvious starting point for a sustained campaign of direct action against the bedroom tax.”’ Whilst she may be right about pleas for compassion there is a rational argument to be had: Instead of holding claimants responsible for the housing shortage, as this infers, why not have a plan to tackle the housing crisis by freeing up greenbelt land and building homes, as argued by Rob Lyons. This would have the benefit of tackling the ridiculous situation of high priced property as well as creating more jobs in the building sector. After all, the people who ultimately profit from the Housing Benefits are landlords.

 

At the start of 1982 unemployment stood at a staggeringly high rate of over 11% yet spending of social security has continued to rise as a percentage of GDP even though unemployment today stands at 7%. In a Guardian blog earlier this year Simon Rogers was in no doubt who is to blame: in a breakdown of which departments gets the largest chunk of benefit spending it is the pensioners who take up the biggest proportion.

 

Different Kinds of FraudThe view of unemployment, and being dependant, has gone through a massive transformation. Throughout history unemployment was seen as a temporary period. Socialists saw the unemployed as ‘The Reserve Army of Labour’. People identified themselves through the work that they did, and being a recipient of the Poor Laws or the welfare state was seen as shameful. ‘The Right To Work’ may have been a silly slogan, when it was used in the campaigns against unemployment in the late 1970s, but it did speak of the mood of the time. Today, as the chart suggests, the slogan would appear to be ‘The Right To Be Unemployed’.

 

That benefit fraud may be less than tax fraud should not be seen as justification for not tackling the cost of state dependency and because benefits are going unclaimed does not mean that there is an automatic right to them. The cost of dependency is not simply a financial one, it is people who create, not money. The government’s arguments do have a rationale to them. Large sections of young people are growing up not knowing what it is to work for a living. There is more to working and being productive than earning a salary. There is a human cost which condemns million to a restricted life. One of the most repugnant aspects of this campaign has been the manner in which those who would see themselves as progressives or liberals, are quite content to condemn a generation to a life of dependency; or as Daniel J. Mitchell would have it: to become wards of the state.

 
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