One of the main planks of the ruling class austerity drive is the attack on the Welfare State, and nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the cuts in benefits - to unemployed, disabled and employed claimants alike. But there is more to it than just cuts. Under the ConDems, benefit provision is well on the way to being fully integrated with Workfare – working for benefits, and there is also the creeping privatisation of benefit delivery.
Although there have already been cuts in housing benefit, and intensified attempts to force people off disability and sickness benefits, the worst of these cuts are yet to come.
A decent benefits system underpins much of what else is decent in society. When it is attacked, the outcomes are always more child poverty, poorer health, homelessness or inadequate housing, more crime and lower educational attainment.
This offensive is accompanied by the most appalling demonisation of benefit claimants, aided and abetted by the tabloids, most especially on sick and disabled people. A recent ComRes poll has found that 46% of disabled people think that public attitudes to them have worsened over the past years.
Scope chief executive Richard Hawkes says
‘It is absolutely shocking that in 2012 almost half of disabled people feel attitudes have got worse and many have experienced aggression, hostility or name-calling from other people,’ he said. ‘Disabled people keep coming back to the same concern – benefit scroungers. They single out fraudsters. They are concerned about [news] coverage. They tell us strangers challenge them in the street about the support they claim.’
Organisations working with claimants place the blame for these attitudes on the Government, which talks up fraud (even though benefit fraud is actually at an all-time low), and portrays a life on benefits as a life of idle luxury. We have had Clegg’s invidious attempt to divide “hardworking alarm clock Britain” from people on benefit, conveniently overlooking the fact that millions of working people are claiming benefits just to make ends meet.
The government’s flagship reform is Universal Credit – a benefit which will replace the six main means-tested benefits and tax credits. It is already clear that one of the key elements of this will be “conditionality” – a requirement to do any work or work-related activity, paid or unpaid, in return for benefits.
Housing Benefit cuts = social cleansing and homelessness
But the ConDems have not waited for the introduction of UC to start cutting. Their prime target is housing benefit (HB). It was the Tories who invented HB, at the same time as they repealed private sector rent controls in the late ‘80s. They must have known that, in a free market, spending on HB would spiral. Indeed, in 1991 the then Housing Minister, George Young, declared that –
“Housing benefit will underpin market rents—we have made that absolutely clear. If people cannot afford to pay…housing benefit will take the strain.”
But now they wring their hands at the costs! They have responded by blaming the victims, cutting HB across the board, as well as raising the minimum age at which single people can claim for anything other than a single room from 25 to 35. Next year, they intend to cut HB by up to 25% for council and other social tenants who are deemed to be “underoccupying” their homes, regardless of how long they have lived in their communities and regardless of whether alternative accommodation is available to them
They are also introducing a benefit “cap” of £500pw for families. They moralise about people receiving that much in benefit without mentioning the sky-high rents which cause it. They claim that cutting HB will drive down rents, when all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.
The effect of the cap will be to drive the poorest people out of much of London. It represents a form of social cleansing and electoral gerrymandering that Lady Porter of Westminster could only have dreamt of.
Return of the poll tax?
The Con Dems are also planning major cuts in the support available to people on low incomes to pay their council tax. They are abolishing council tax benefit and leaving local councils to run support schemes with 10% less funding. This essentially means the poorest paying more council tax, in some cases having to find several pounds a week from benefits already at subsistence level. In Brighton and Hove, for example, the Green Council is proposing to make everyone, no matter how badly off, pay at least 10% of the tax, where they would previously receive a full rebate. This has echoes of the poll tax.
Privatisation and the role of New Labour
It is said (about many issues) that New Labour built the bridges over which the ConDems now cross. This is very clear with regard to way in which private companies have been brought into the benefits system. For example, ATOS, the French company which carries out medical assessments for Employment and Support Allowance claimants. Despite the high numbers of fit-for-work decisions which get overturned on appeal, and way the assessments are carried out, the Government has now rewarded ATOS with more contracts to work on the new Personal Independence Payment, which will replace Disability Living Allowance.
It was Labour who first brought in the discredited “welfare to work” contractors A4Eto harass claimants and force them onto workfare schemes. Lately the ConDems have given contracts to New Labour favourites Capita to run parts of Jobseekers Allowance.
Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary has been largely silent on the issues of benefit cuts, privatisation and workfare – for the simple reason that he finds little to disagree with.
What should the Left’s response be?
• Demand rent controls – the rise in housing benefit costs is directly linked to the deregulation of private sector rents. We should make the point that HB is ultimately paid to landlords, not tenants.
• No to council housing selloffs and stock transfers – we should oppose asset-stripping of the one part of the housing sector which still offers affordable rents.
• Campaign against Workfare – groups such as Boycott Workfare have organised direct action against employers who use workfare. They have had some success in embarrassing companies into withdrawing. Trade union members should be getting their unions to campaign on this issue. There is already evidence that some employers are substituting workfare participants for permanent employees.
• Defend those who cannot pay – people who find themselves facing eviction and legal action because of rent and council tax arrears need to be defended. We need community campaigns like the anti-poll tax unions of the 1990’s
• An end to Government-incited demonization and hate crime against disabled people.
• For a Citizens Income – a guaranteed income for people who for whatever reason are unwaged and have no other income.
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