I WANT to set the record straight about welfare reform this week – and attempt to bust a few commonly-held myths that often go unchallenged.
The creation of the Welfare State was one of the most socially progressive policies in modern history and it was one born out of need and politicians having vision about the type of society they wanted to create.
The year 1942 was very different in many respects and it is difficult to compare today with those times but we can point to the founding principles set out in the Beveridge Report. The five giant evils were squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease – and reflecting on those gives us perspective when faced with the challenges of a welfare system under attack.
Looking at where we are today, almost six years into this recession, practically everybody is feeling the pinch.
Wage levels are stagnating and the cost of living is rising, leaving people with less money left to spend on luxuries and, in many cases, even household essentials.
What we all initially hoped would be a short painful period of ‘tightening our belts’ has turned into more of a straitjacket we’ll never wriggle our way out of. It’s become a harsher new way of life.
During that time the Government’s Welfare Reforms, with its well-publicised cuts to benefits and credits, stringent Work Capability Assessments and huge numbers of sanctions, has gradually created an atmosphere of mistrust towards all people who get support from the state.
The attack on benefits and the welfare cap which aims to ensure no one is ‘better off’ on benefits than those in work is fundamentally flawed. If the benefits system today is to act as a safety net and to ensure the neediest and vulnerable in society are taken care of then an arbitrary cap might be politically convenient but it practically causes some serious problems.
Even below the cap, the language used by government and media commentators (who I suspect will pay more on a single meal than some families have to feed their families for a week) is weak.
Surely the argument should be about the lack of vision by today’s government. We see an argument around the edges and posturing to create an image of almost ‘tough love’; pushing people who are trapped on benefits with the nudge they need, and want, to get back into employment. And what better incentive than to create a welfare system so against its founding principles, so prone to error and one which is driven by a targets culture of kicking those already down?
Sanctions for those claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) can be a useful tool to deal with the minority who don’t want to work, but that is not how they are used. Official figures show that in Oldham, the Job Centre attempted to withdraw benefits from more than 11,600 people. However, most of those who were picked out had done nothing wrong, with just 5,366 of those actually sanctioned. Of that group of 2,927 won their appeals against the decision. How much did all that cost the public purse?
Alongside that there has also been a worrying rise in the hostility levelled at those people who – whether due to age, illness, disability, lack of skills or lack of opportunity – are genuinely not able to work.
The lack of any meaningful industrial and engineering strategy for the UK over the decades has left large parts of the UK unsure about the future.
If you want to see the real story just take a look at the (JSA) figures for Oldham. It is not the case that thousands have been ‘sat’ on benefits. The real picture is one of low pay, no pay. They will then come off JSA, only to be forced back onto it when they are let go by the employer.
And when we take a closer look at those in work we see a shameful picture of the UK’s weak employment base.
A new Joseph Rowntree Foundation report has found that more than half (52 per cent) of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK are in working families: many of whom are claiming working benefits just to make ends meet.
Indeed, in the last 10 years, £15 billion of the overall £63 billion rise in spending on benefits has been through increased take-up of Family Benefits, Income Support and Tax Credits.
Put simply, the state is actually propping up those employers who simply aren’t paying their staff enough to support a reasonable standard of living.
The idea that people are generally ‘too keen’ to claim benefits, or that benefit fraud is rife, is also untrue.
Did you know that benefit fraud represents just 2 per cent of the estimated total annual fraud in the UK – around £1.6 billion out of a total estimated £73 billion? Tax fraud, by comparison, accounts for a whopping £20 billion. The government hasn’t been so vocal about the corporate scroungers.
Both figures are a lot of money – and fraud is never right – but it seems that the direction and levels of public hatred are out of all proportion with the real issues.
What are we doing to help?
Here in Oldham, we’ve employed Welfare Advice officers to help local people get access to all the benefits that they are entitled to, but may not have been aware of or were reluctant about claiming (no doubt for many due to the stigma of doing so).
In the period from April 2013 to January 2014, we’ve supported 984 local residents to access more than £2.47 million of funding through this work. That’s money that has helped to improve their daily lives – and the health of the local economy.
History tells us that recessions polarise opinions – and that’s hardly surprising.
Suspicion and cynicism flourishes as times get tougher and people look for answers and someone to blame.
But scapegoating isn’t the solution and it’s time some of the prevailing ‘truths’ were exposed for what they are – myths.
Perhaps we need sanctions for government ministers for failing to fulfil their implied contract?
Thanks for listening.