Benefits

I’ve made my position clear about ‘benefits’ over the year. ‘Benefits’ are not really benefits at all.

I decided to look at the meaning of the word ‘benefit’ and found (according to dictionary.com)

ben·e·fit

[ben-uh-fit]  noun, verb,ben·e·fit·ed or ben·e·fit·ted, ben·e·fit·ing or ben·e·fit·ting.

1.something that is advantageous or good; an advantage:

2.a payment or gift, as one made to help someone or given by a benefit society, insurance company, or public agency:

3.a theatrical performance or other public entertainment toraise money for a charitable organization or cause.

4.Archaic . an act of kindness; good deed;

Perhaps our national failing is that we still mentally see ‘benefits’ as a gift and not a right.  The payments given to those who have some form of need should not be considered as an ‘act of charity’ by government. It is money necessary to live not money in the gift of the government.

Sometimes language is and can be important.

By Cameron and his Conservative-led coalition like spreading the rhetoric that ‘benefits’ as well as ‘public housing’ should somehow be related to ‘good behaviour’.

This article for example as a case in point which explains

David Cameron wrote in a Sunday newspaper that he wanted to look at going further in welfare reforms, calling for the child benefit payments of parents who play truant from school to be withdrawn.

He suggested a more ambitious welfare reform programme when he posed the question of whether the government should be “asking much more of people on benefits who should be looking for work – or imposing even stricter penalties on those who refuse job offers?”

Cameron moves in a no-doubt electorally pleasing but morally questionable path.

Calling for the removal of child benefit payments to the parents of children who play truant is morally repulsive. It further impedes those who rely more heavily on those child benefit payments. Lets not forget that child benefit will be means tested soon (in a pathetically haphazard way but no matter). Where is the proposal for penalties for those parents who don’t receive child benefit and whose children play truant? Or do they really think truancy only affects ‘poor children’.

It insults our intelligence to make these proposals but they play very well to a public crowd that has been increasingly weaned to divide our own population into an ‘us/them’ dichotomy between those who work and those who do not work.

The government (and the previous government too) persist with a ‘divide and rule’ policy of presenting those who are not able to work against those who do work – well, we should never forget that for those us who aren’t party to the millions in trust funds that most of our government members grew up with – there is a extremely tenuous link between being a have and being a have-not.

The Guardian article goes on to quote Cameron saying

“What about welfare? The old something-for-nothing system we had under Labour had a poisonous effect on responsibility in our society. Again, we’ve already taken bold action – we’re in the process of moving hundreds of thousands of people who are fit to work off incapacity benefit and are imposing sensible limits on the amount of benefit people can take. But again, given the scale of the problem, can’t we go further? Say by asking much more of people on benefits who should be looking for work – or imposing even stricter penalties on those who refuse job offers?”

Something-for-nothing? Really? Personally I believe that people are entitled to a level of support from the state in order to live and that Cameron is playing games with words and assumptions when he appeals to the ‘Daily Mail’ reading crowd. He makes much reference to ‘benefit cheats’ as talks about ‘taking away benefits’ as if it is a reward that we had to well-behaved dogs and it is insulting in the extreme.

I those doubt that reforms are needed but the language in itself in invidious and pushes our thoughts to regard ‘benefits’ and ‘benefit claimants’ in a particularly unfavourable light.

And as an aside, as was pointed out to me, the photo in the Guardian article – well it has a picture of Charles and Camilla. Now THERE’S a family existing on benefits with absolutely no public gain and I think their social housing should be taken away for the genuine good of the nation. But that’s another question for another day..

The Welfare Cap

The announcement that Child Benefit would no longer be payable to higher rate tax payers came about five minutes after I pressed ‘publish’ on my post yesterday. For the record, I have no problems with reducing or means-testing child benefit although the method the government have chosen to limit Child Benefit is somewhat curious and I have no doubt that many questions will be asked about its equity in the next few months. The oft-quoted anomalies don’t need to be discussed here but the announcement fits in very well with my own concerns about the spending cuts – namely everything seems to be in panic mode at the moment without wider thoughts about the implications of the cuts.

I have graver concerns about the other parts of the millionaire Osborne’s speech yesterday. He drew wide roars of approval for his idea of capping benefit payments so that no-one would be better off on benefits than they would be in employment which sounds perfectly reasonable, especially as he specifically mentioned the proviso that this might not be the case for a household which has a disabled member.

All sounds very fair but he reverted to the benefits as lifestyle choice rhetoric again. I see this as a specific aim and sound bite to further stigmatise and discriminate against people on the basis of their employment status.

The ‘welfare cap’ is no doubt buying faithful party members but the universal ‘credit’ is going to not only include Jobseekers Allowance, Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit (now that’s scary for people who live in high rent areas) but also Employment and Support Allowance or the old ‘Invalidity Benefit’ – There is no reason to believe that Carer’s Allowance won’t also be included. It is a means-tested benefit and although it is a despicably small amount for what it is, it looks likely it will be a part of this capped, universal credit.

We know there are stories of people with many children living in large houses on hundreds of thousands of pounds of ‘welfare’ payments but that is not the majority experience.

Capping welfare to a specific level raises many concerns, specifically if there is no regional variation. Paying rent in London is going to take up the majority of the capped payment in any circumstances.

I can’t help but see a fundamental change in the fabric of this city when these reforms are ironed out. There will be entire towns that will be out of bounds to people who are claiming benefits because the mere cost of housing benefit will lead to a reduction in the other benefit incomes.

I know there is the argument that those who work have to choose where to live on the basis of cost, of course but we have to remember that not everyone is unemployed as a ‘lifestyle choice’ or is unemployed over the long term. What happens with someone who is made redundant in an ‘expensive’ city and needs some assistance for a few months until they find work in that same ‘expensive’ city? Would they be forced to move away from attachments, social support and familial links? It will be easier for some people than others and shifting unemployment north (because make no mistake, the cheaper moves will be northwards)  – out of the traditional ‘Tory’ areas and into the more traditional Labour strongholds, carries a hint of potential gerrymandering.

I suppose the proof will be in the details but the more I hear, the more the rhetoric of the right sickens me to my stomach.

The announcement of the ‘welfare cap’ seems to be entirely ideologically based. It was specifically to pander to the hard done by middle classes who baulked at the thought of losing their child benefit payments. This is not about cuts, make no mistake there. This is about ideology and forcing people into jobs that don’t exist.

There needs to be a move against the ‘benefits lifestyle choice’ rhetoric because it is untrue and it is unfair. Most anecdotal evidence provided has been either paraded on the front page of the right wing press – and remember, it only makes the front page BECAUSE it is rare. If we all knew real people like that, it wouldn’t actually hit the headlines.

But it feeds into an increasingly fearful societal agenda and narrative that is forming.

I know these posts are somewhat repetitive but I can’t shake the thoughts from my head at the moment and my personal politics drift merrily leftwards. I’m just glad I’ll be on another continent when the Spending Review is announced, it wouldn’t be good for my blood pressure!

Initial Budget Thoughts

Osborne delivered the so-called ‘Austerity Budget’ yesterday. Cuts we were expecting and cuts is what we got although, and there is nothing original in me saying this, the ‘We’re all in the together’ mantra does ring a little hollow when it’s delivered by a multi-millionaire.

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I’d recommend Aethelread’s thoughts on the Budget as well. He has a well-considered piece (and I agree with a lot of what he wrote as well!).

I’ll run over my first thoughts on a few of the areas announced.

VAT Increase to 20%. Both unsurprising and disappointing. VAT is recognised as being the most regressive tax – yes, there are exempted items but that’s hardly an argument in favour of the increase. It is impossible to argue anything other than the fact that those with the lowest incomes will suffer the most from this increase. Yes, it will bring the money in for the government but it hardly rings of the ‘fairness’ that the so-called ‘new’ politics has lauded.

Capital Gains Tax increase I think this could and should have gone further and it demonstrates the lack of influence of the Lib Dems in the so-called ‘coalition’. The increase only affects those who have earnings and income over the higher threshold of £37,400. There is no doubt that the growth in the buy-to-let sector and people wanting to ‘make a killing’ in property led in part to the housing boom that saw prices skyrocket. It seems that those who pay CGT have somehow been subjected to less ‘pain’ than those who generally pay income taxes. Again, it has a vaguely regressive feel to it.

Personal allowance raised This is one of the few pieces of good news that I have seen emerge from the Budget.  It will directly help low earners and bring more people on low incomes out of the taxation regime.

Council Tax frozen This seems like good news but actually it worries me profoundly. My council froze taxes last year and local government is increasingly having more pressures places on it for funding. We are going to see a LOT of pain in local services as a result of this as the money just isn’t there. Savings can be made. Savings will continue to be made. Lets just hope they are made on cutting down on consultancy posts and biscuits in meetings rather than actual services and withdrawing posts in front line teams.

DLA medical assessments Currently DLA forms are horrific. They require a ‘professional’ as a ‘reference’ – GP, Consultant, Social Worker, CPN, OT. I’m not sure what will be achieved by demanding independent medicals apart from a further stigmatising of people who have disabilities and a creation of a great new trade for independent assessors. There seems to be a wish to appeal to the ‘Daily Mail’ contingent who directly relate ‘receiving benefits’ to ‘scroungers’ which provides an oppressive and discriminatory narrative to discussions about assistance for those who have disabilities. DLA in particular is a benefit to recognise the increased costs related directly to having a disability. I truly can’t see a purpose for these assessments except to plant a seed in the ‘general public’s’ collective mind that a lot of people who shouldn’t be receiving the benefit are. My experience is far more in Attendance Allowance (which is a similar benefit at a lower level provided to those over 65)  and to be honest, it is FAR more likely that people who are eligible do not claim than vice versa.

Child Benefit This has been frozen for three years. I can’t understand why it is not means-tested. Anyone who complains that it would be ‘too difficult’ to means-test, I’d argue that the government seems to find ways and means to introduce potentially costly measures such as ‘independent assessors’ for DLA then it can work out a way to means-test child benefit and direct it to those who have the greatest need.

Child Tax Credits Households with incomes over £40,000 will see eligibility for child tax credits fall. I haven’t really paid a great deal of attention to tax credits as, honestly, they seem incredibly complicated to me but I think that £40,000 bar sounds reasonable if cuts have to be made.

Housing Benefits Upper limits introduced to Housing Benefits paid. As someone who lives in London where the housing costs are the highest in the country, I can see these limits leading to an increased ghettoisation of families away from certain parts of the city. One of the joys for me about living in London is the way that there is a juxtaposition of rich and poor in many areas and that may well be a thing of the past. Of course receiving £104,000 in housing benefits in a year seems ridiculous but I suspect that is the exception that turns up on the front page of the The Sun or The Mail rather than the rule. The problem is that in some parts of the country, housing is very expensive. The answer in my very simplistic mind is that more social housing be built and maintained in the public sector as I am not sure I feel comfortable about the buy-to-let landlords growing rich on the back of LHA but no matter, there’s no way that’s going to happen.

All benefits to be cut Linking all benefits to the Consumer Price Index as opposed to the Retail Price Index will see an effective cut across the board to all welfare payments. We’re all in this together, right?

Public Sector Pay Frozen This is one of the ones that hits me directly. I can’t say I’m surprised. I am glad that the lower paid public sector employees have been exempted. To be honest, I can absorb a pay freeze adequately. It doesn’t fill me with joy but it’s better than tying my pay to the Consumer Price Index.

In general, I am left with an uncomfortable feeling that some of those least able to pay might be suffering the most  (VAT) and the way that DLA has been targeted seems to show very little understanding of the needs of those with disabilities other than a wish to appeal to a rabble-rousing press fixated on ‘benefits scrounging’.

But to roll out a well-used cliche, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We’ll see. I have no doubt whatsoever there will be more cuts coming soon.

and I’ll raise a glass of cider to that!

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