Welfare – A Review of Cameron’s Speech

Prime Minister David Cameron
Cameron announced a raft of changes to the welfare system yesterday in a speech in Kent.  His plan to cut back on ‘welfare’ made me angry for a number of reasons but I thought I’d look through the text of the speech itself to comment. So here is the text – with some coments.

On my first night as Prime Minister, I said we would build a more responsible society.Where we back those who work hard and do the right thing.

See that – linking work with ‘the right thing’. What about those who cannot work or are not able to work? Is ‘work’ inherently more valuable that other activities that we might to which would otherwise further the society we live in.

Where we look after the elderly and frail.

Well, he isn’t doing very well at that, is he? The Social Care White Paper has been delayed and there have been excessive cuts in social care services locally as LA budgets have been slashed. And no proposals to tackle the funding gap in social care.

Where – as I put it – those who can, should; and those who can’t, we will always help.

Who is the ‘we’ here? If it’s social care and falls to local government you can forget it because of the slashing in local government.

Building that society is simply not possible without radically reforming welfare.Today, almost one pound in every three spent by the Government goes on welfare.

I think it’s deceptive to lump ‘welfare’ into one pot and criticise. Welfare is the net that holds up some of the most vulnerable in society. Criticising welfare en masse is an explanation of his lack of understanding of what it actually is.

In a world of fierce competitiveness – a world where no-one is owed a living – we need to have a welfare system that the country can properly afford.The system we inherited was not only unaffordable.It also trapped people in poverty and encouraged irresponsibility. So we set to work.

By all means change the system, but play the policy not the people. We deserve more.

In two years, Iain Duncan Smith has driven forward welfare reform on a scale and with a determination not seen since World War Two.He is a great, reforming Minister, with a passion and commitment that shine through.And he is delivering remarkable results:Over 400,000 more people in work than in 2010.

Bleurgh. Duncan Smith is anything but a ‘great minister’.

Tens of thousands of claimants of incapacity benefits re-assessed, and found ready for work.

At what cost? Is this a success when the process of assessment is so poor? Appeals are frequently won. The assessments can’t actually be that good. Why privatise the reassessments rather than relying on consultants/GPs/health professionals? In order to achieve desired results.

We’ve established the biggest-ever Work Programme – and we’re well on our way to getting 100,000 people into jobs.We’ve helped tens of thousands of young people find real work experience

For free – replacing otherwise paid jobs?

Reformed and reduced the extent of tax credits. Tightened up housing allowances.

So people are pushed out of their local areas.

Capped benefits so that in general, no one can claim more than the average family earns.

Without consideration of family size.

And we’ve laid the foundation for Universal Credit.This has the potential to be one of the most significant reforms for a generation.Ending the nonsense of paying people more to stay at home than to get a job – and finally making sure that work really pays.

The logic is there but diminished by the actual lack of jobs and disconnect between size of family and average income.

What Iain Duncan Smith has achieved over the past two years.Refusing to accept the status quo, turning around huge numbers of lives is truly remarkable.But the job we have set ourselves, of building a welfare system that truly works – that supports the responsible society – that job is not yet complete.So today I want to talk not just about what we’ve done, but where we go from here.

I’m going to skip the next part of his speech for reasons of time and space – it also contains the only part of the speech I actually agree with. I prefer non-means tested pensions which are £140 per week – however if you think about needing to save money – some of the winter fuel allowances seem to be obvious targets. Funny how Cameron here remembers his election promise while conveniently forgetting his ‘no top down reorganisation of the NHS promise’.

I’m baffled by his claim that DLA claimants do not need to provide medical evidence because that doesn’t link in with my own experience of DLA forms. You have to give details of your GP/Consultant – if the DWP doesn’t actually CHECK up on those then surely that’s not the fault of the claimant. Maybe, you know, it would actually be cheaper to check with involved medical professionals rather than engage a private company to ‘assess’ claims.

Interesting that by starting with an attack on ‘workshy’, Cameron tackles in the first part of his speech, pensions and DLA. DLA is not a non-working benefit. Sometimes that gets muddied but it is a benefit which pays/compensates for additional costs in someone’s life due to disabilities WHETHER THEY ARE WORKING OR NOT.

Then Cameron plays his favourite game of ‘divide and rule’ playing on the baser nature of jealousy of our compatriots.

Take a couple living outside London.He’s a hospital porter, she’s a care-worker.They’re both working full-time and together they take home £24,000 after tax.They’d love to start having children – and they know they’d get some help from the state if they did so.But with the mortgage and the bills to pay, they feel they should keep saving up for a few more years.

But the couple down the road, who have four children, haven’t worked for a number of years.Each week they get £112 in income support, £61 in child benefit, £217 in tax credits and £141 in housing benefit – more than £27,000 a year.Even after the £26,000 benefit cap is introduced, they’ll still take home more than their neighbours who go out to work every day.

Can we really say that’s fair?

Firstly, I  had to chuckle wryly at Cameron’s example. I wonder if he is tackling the issue of those ‘fat cat’ public sector pensions and pay freezes as he attacks the low paid public sector workers.

But as for his example? Firstly targeting the family ‘with four children’ to make his point leaves a bitter taste. Why should the income of a childless couple need to be equivalent to a family with four children who will obviously need more to survive? It is a game of jealousy and numbers. We can’t know the histories and lives of the ‘couple with four children’ to make rash judgements about their lives.  Is this ‘fair’? Well, maybe I’m alone in thinking that actually it might be but it isn’t my place to judge.

He shares some other examples about housing allowances and cost of housing in London – to which I say that destroying local communities in the south east due to housing costs will be equally damaging in the long run in terms of accessing familial support.  He goes on

What these examples show is that we have, in some ways, created a welfare gap in this country between those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it.

Those within it grow up with a series of expectations: you can have a home of your own, the state will support you whatever decisions you make, you will always be able to take out no matter what you put in.

What like..  trust fund kids? I despise a cabinet of millionaires who have never understood the need to exist on benefits and who imagine that somehow this is a great life to lead, attack ‘entitlement’ of those who need to claim them.

Then he goes on to some of the ‘problems’.

Why does the single mother get the council house straightaway when the hard-working couple have been waiting for years?

Because governments and local councils wanted to make sure children got a decent start in life, so mothers were given priority for council housing.

Well yes, exactly – and how is that a bad thing?

Why has it become acceptable for many people to choose a life on benefits?Because governments wanted to give people dignity while they are unemployed – and while this is clearly important, it led us to the wrong places

I don’t think it has ever been acceptable but it has become necessary. It makes me wonder if Cameron actually knows how much Job Seekers Allowance is. It doesn’t allow a great deal of dignity.

You can give a drug addict more money in benefits, but that’s unlikely to help them out of poverty; indeed it could perpetuate their addiction.

You can pump more cash into chaotic homes, but if the parents are still neglectful and the kids are still playing truant, they’re going to stay poor in the most important senses of the word.So this government is challenging the old narrow view that the key to beating poverty is simply income re-distribution.

Interesting that a government of the right is suddenly interested in how money is being spent. I despise the connection made between neglectful parenting and poverty. Poverty may be more than income redistribution but Poverty is NOT bad parenting. I could make a cheap jibe about leaving a kid in a pub but that would be a low blow. What is inherently damaging is the way Cameron makes these links without thought which will no doubt, increase stigma.

Then then he says

For example, the state spends almost £2billion a year on housing benefit for under-25s.There are currently 210,000 people aged 16-24 who are social housing tenants.Some of these young people will genuinely have nowhere else to live – but many will.And this is happening when there is a growing phenomenon of young people living with their parents into their 30s because they can’t afford their own place – almost 3 million between the ages of 20 and 34.

While for many others, it’s a trip to the council where they can get housing benefit at 18 or 19 – even if they’re not actively seeking work.Again, I want to stress that a lot of these young people will genuinely need a roof over their head.Like those leaving foster care, or those with a terrible, destructive home life and we must always be there for them.But there are many who will have a parental home and somewhere to stay – they just want more independence.

Cameron’s stated intention to cut access to housing benefit for under 25s is deeply retrograde. Yes, people can stay at home and honestly, a lot of people who have supportive parents in the same area where they work/study probably do  but this is a dangerous line to cross from his world of happy Chipping Norton families. Is there going to be an expectation on parents to support children to 25? How will this impact on poverty rates and access to jobs. How can a young person ‘get on their bike’ and get a job if they have no access to accommodation – because local housing allowance is an ‘in work’ benefit.

I’m skipping through the last part of the speech with one exception. This little nugget.

There are more than 150,000 people who have been claiming Income Support for over a year who have 3 or more children and 57,000 who have 4 or more children.

The bigger picture is that today, one in six children in Britain is living in a workless household – one of the highest rates in Europe.

Quite simply, we have been encouraging working-age people to have children and not work, when we should be enabling working-age people to work and have children.

Seriously if Cameron thinks people have children to have benefits, he might be reading the Sun too much. Why should we stigmatise larger families? They will be the people paying for our future?.

There’s more than I’ve been able to cover but I think we can see the way of movement of Cameron and his Conservative-led government.

We need to challenge the government and press narrative which stigmatises people who need to rely on welfare because actually, it does create a better society.

What damages is stigmatisation and expectation of support where none exist.

What grates is a speech about ‘entitlement’ from an Old Etonian.

No, he can’t help his background, of course not, but he plays easy games in attacking poverty while not showing any evidence of understanding it beyond anecdote and games of jealousy with what your neighbour might be getting.

But benefit reform in general is popular with the public. I see it as a genuine social work role to advocate and fight for those whom I work with who are stigmatised by the government narratives.

It damages and must be challenged.

Pic by Prime Minister’s Office – Flickr

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Benefit Caps and the Politics of Envy

Yesterday the House of Lords debated the government’s flagship policy about imposing a benefits cap of £26,ooo. Iain Duncan-Smith fanfared the populist agenda by rattling on about this being equivalent to a salary (after tax) of £35,ooo and the tired lines about why anyone who doesn’t work should get the equivalent of £35,ooo from ‘state handouts’. While the Lords passed one amendment, the Bill and policy as a whole is flawed.

It’s very easy politics. It appeals to human nature at its most selfish. The simple logical progression.

I work hard. I earn £25,000. Mr Smith next door doesn’t work. He gets £26,000. It’s not fair.

Tying the benefit cap into the national average wage is clever and is nothing to do about economics and everything to do with the psychological weight of envy.

Why should I work, it then follows, if I would get more on ‘benefits’?.

This turns the idea of the welfare state around and but the simplicity of the ‘envy equation’ means that few people look beyond it.

This is crude policy making by people who will never need to bat an eyelid in the direction of subsistence on ‘benefits’ playing their usual ‘divide and rule’ between those who are at the lower and average pay levels in order to distract attention from those at the top end of the ‘haves’ scale including themselves.

So why do I think a benefits cap is unfair? It looks, on the face of it, so obvious.

– It punishes children born into larger families.

Even with the Lords amendment excluding ‘child benefit’ from the capped amount, child benefit rate (£20.30 for first child + £13.40 for subsequent children) doesn’t cover the costs of the child and the particular problem raised is the cost of accommodation and larger families need larger houses.

-Housing

This is one of my chief objections to this policy.  Housing Benefit or Local Housing Allocation (LHA) as it is now known is built into the ‘capped amount’.  The escalation of property prices and the lack of affordable local authority and housing association stock pushes many people into the private sector. The government has already announced plans to increase subsidised rents. Some places (London, for example) cost more to live than other areas.  Houses with more bedrooms cost more to live in than houses with fewer bedrooms. Seems obvious of course but it means for some people the level of the ‘cap’ will be disproportionately spent on rent costs – forcing people and more likely than not, families – and the larger families at that – to poorer (and cheaper – and  more likely Labour..) areas of the country.

Regardless of the exemption of Child Benefit (if that amendment survives) it is the inclusion of LHA which is, in my mind, the really perfidious action of this policy.

I live in London. I work in London. It is expensive to live here. I don’t want my city to be housing only those either who have substantial amounts of money or those in social housing (especially as the stock of social housing is so low).

The obvious thing would be for the government to crack down on landlords who set rental as high as possible for low quality housing in order to benefit from LHA allocations. They are the real scroungers living off the state, in my view. Yes, I feel strongly because I’ve been priced out of many areas of London myself but I don’t play the game the government want me to by blaming the recipients of LHA – rather I blame a spiralling cost of rent and greedy buy-to-let landlords.

Imposing controls on rent would hurt the Tory party faithful. Divide and rule. Divide and rule. See how well the government play the blame game.

Deserving v Undeserving Poor

The game of playing the ‘deserving v undeserving poor’ is one enjoyed by those in politics.  How the politicians love referring to ‘scroungers’ and people who live on benefits in demeaning terms while absolving themselves of any responsibility for an economic malaise which has led to increased job losses and struggles to revive the economy.

It’s all very well imposing sanctions on those who don’t work (actually no it isn’t) but when there isn’t work to be had it’s hard to escape from the vicious cycle. Many people are losing their jobs in this recession and being unable to find other work would force people to claim benefits which they are wholly entitled to but the government wishes to stigmatise everyone who needs to claim a benefit whether due to unemployment, disability or sickness.

Unemployment isn’t a lifestyle choice. It isn’t easy to ‘choose’ employment as even if you desperately want to work, the jobs may not be there.

There are more jobs in the south-east where house prices are higher and fewer jobs in the north where house prices are lower. ‘Getting on your bike’ which is the eternal call of the right-wing is going to be more difficult and potentially create ghettoes of worklessness in the areas of the country with the cheaper housing.

Politics of envy is easy but it is ignoble. By encouraging the population to envy those who have less rather than those who have more (i.e. the class of politicians) they are diverting our attention from the real battles we should be fighting. This isn’t a Conservative (+ LD) v Labour battle as the Labour party has, unfortunately, jumped on the bandwagon to make similar points.

Being popular doesn’t make a policy right. Unfortunately, we get the politicians we elect. And we are seeing the measure of them now. All of them.