On Welfare Reform

It’s easy to say that things need to be different as regards the welfare payment structure in the UK. Anyone could say it and to be honest, the system and the ways in which is it used and most of all the intricate complexities of the system beg for changes.

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So Cameron has got through the easy part there. Reform is overdue.

The details however remain forthcoming. A ‘universal benefit’ of overarching status that will encompass current Jobseekers Allowance, Council Tax Benefit, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Tax Credits of various types – but, quite rightly, not Disability Living Allowance which will remain separate – will be merged into one type of system which will, apparently reward additional work undertaken rather than penalise it.

Well, it’s hard to criticise the idea but to use a well-worn cliche’ the devil will be in the detail.

The one thing that is frightening me about this system – although to be fair – it isn’t this system in particular, is the reliance on a fantasy ‘new computer system’ that will ‘just be able to work everything out’. Hmm. Heard that one before.

As for changes in universal benefits such as child benefit, winter fuel allowance, free bus passes – I have no issue with those being more tightly controlled.

There are a couple of difficulties with the agenda that is being presented though apart from the ‘fantasy perfect computer system’ that will know everything.

Firstly, to push people back to work there have to be jobs to push people into.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the government and the right wing press have pushed an agenda and a narrative of ‘benefit cheats’ and ‘malingerers’ into the public perception. This is no doubt going to be a precursor to cuts.

We are, by nature a rather selfish society, looking to our own pockets before the needs of the citizen as a whole. If we see our  next door neighbour who SEEMS to be doing very well on benefits with a nice new plasma TV, we will moan and groan ad infinitum about the base unfairness of it all.

The truth is that no-one knows what is happening in someone elses’ life and household, the choices they might be making and the invisible disabilities they might be facing – but we all seem to become omnipotent when we are able to judge or compare what we, the perfect tax-paying citizen might be doing in comparison.

The Guardian quote Iain Duncan Smith as saying

there is “something fundamentally wrong” with a system that pays 5 million people not to work while immigrants come in to do jobs those on benefit reject: “You’re just replacing one group of unwilling workers with another group of willing workers. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

I think this is generally a dangerous narrative and one that needs to be explored and questioned much more fully. There is an assumption that the ‘system’ is paying 5 million people not to work. I’d challenge that assumption. Of that 5 million, I assume that almost all are desperate to find good, dignified employment. Someone does not claim Jobseeker’s Allowance because they don’t WANT to work but because they cannot find work.

Knowing personally a few people who have had to claim, I think that trying to make an assumption that these people are ‘rejecting jobs’ that are then taken by immigrants plays (unsurprisingly) into the narrative of the Daily Mail and the Sun. This needs to be challenged. The job centre system needs to be reformed but as long as we treat people who don’t have jobs as quasi-criminals rather than individuals with skills that can be utilised in different ways, we will perpetuate the ‘us and them’ system.

Forcing people into jobs that have no match with their skill-set does not build an effective and strong economy.

There is also an underhand ‘blame’ of immigrants ‘coming in and taking ‘our’ jobs’ that is perfidious in the extreme. Many of these ‘jobs’ that are being ‘stolen’ are taken by citizens of member states of the European Union. It may not be that British people are unwilling to take the jobs but more than our culture values different types of jobs differently or that we do not train sufficiently in certain skill areas.

Helpfully, the Guardian also relates that

Cameron also promised today that unemployed people who refuse work would face tougher benefit sanctions, but gave no details.

That’s a really useful statement, Mr Cameron – but with no details, it is completely valueless.

At the moment, it sounds like empty crowd-pleasing rhetoric and a kick at people who are unable to find work – not because they are ‘being picky’ but because the manufacturing and industrial base of this country was torn apart by the previous Conservative government in the 1980s and because the global credit crash has affected the worldwide economy.

Cameron has picked an easy target and uses crowd-pleasing words. That makes me nervous.

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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