Siobhan Brown looks at the likely impact of the Tories' welfare reforms.
The introduction of the Tories’ Welfare Reform and Work Bill in July marked the ongoing viciousness of the Conservative government intent on destroying the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society.
Touted by the Tories as making it “pay more to be in work than out of it”, they are now trying to pose themselves as the real party of working people.
The failure of the Labour Party to mount any serious challenge to the bill shows its continuing inability, in its current incarnation, to provide any opposition to austerity.
It was, in fact, Tim Farron, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats — not so long ago in government with the Tories — who was left to describe the bill as “unfair, unwise and inhuman”.
The Scottish National Party, whose 56 MPs voted against the bill, were left in the position of presenting themselves as the official opposition, attempting to occupy the Labour benches on the morning following the vote.
The Labour Party, represented by its interim leader Harriet Harman, might as well be “managed by an out-of-office email” insisted comedian Frankie Boyle. He is not far wrong. Harman has said that the Labour Party should not just vote against the bill “for the sake of it”.
That three of the Labour Party leadership candidates — Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall — all abstained on the vote has allowed Jeremy Corbyn, likely to win September’s leadership election at the time of writing, to lead the way in representing an element within Labour that recognises the bill as a vicious attack on ordinary people.
The composition of the group of other Labour rebels is also interesting to note. Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Sadiq Khan, three of the candidates for the Labour mayoral election next year, all voted against the bill. Diane Abbott has been a consistent opponent of Tory austerity.
That the other two have come to at least somewhat share her position on welfare is a recognition of a crisis which they cannot ignore. Put simply, Lammy and Khan know that they cannot abstain on matters of welfare when the cuts hit so many so hard.
A number of Labour MPs who defied the whip to vote against the bill were also newly elected.
They too must have recognised that the conversation on the doorstep was not that there were too many people claiming benefits, but that working class people were finding it increasingly difficult to live under Tory austerity.
The fact is that Labour, in coalition with the SNP, could have defeated the Welfare Bill at this reading. The disarray within Labour has only served Corbyn the chance to speak about its current failure to represent working class people.
What does the Welfare Reform and Work Bill propose?
The bill, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, proposes a staggering £12 billion worth of cuts. The reforms contained in the bill mean that people of all ages will be affected by cuts and sanctions, alongside the slashing of child poverty targets, the capping of benefits and the cutting of housing benefit for young people.
Children and young people
It is no fun being young under the Tories. They have scrapped child poverty targets and even changed the definition itself. In the past a child living in “relative poverty” has been one living in a household where the income is less than 60 percent of median income: the proportion stands at 28 percent, or nearly 4 million children.
Child poverty will now be measured by those living in “workless households” where no parent or carer works. Of children living in poverty according to the established measure, two-thirds live in households where at least one parent works.
The other measure for child poverty will be through young people’s exam results. But the truth is that poverty leads to poor exam results, not the other way round. Department for Education statistics show a 28 percent gap in GCSE attainment between young people who receive free school meals, an indicator of a low household income, and those who don’t.
On the redefinition of child poverty, Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, has said that the government “haven’t moved the goalposts; they’ve sent the players home and taken up croquet instead.”
The Tories also want to cut child tax credits and intend to introduce a limit on the number of children that qualifies a claim. The new bill effectively means a two-child policy where families will not be able to claim for their third and subsequent children.
The coalition government already capped benefits at £26,000 a year. The Tories now want to lower the threshold even further, at £23,000 inside London and £20,000 outside. When the benefit cap was originally introduced in March 2014, the charity Save the Children argued that it would push 345,000 more children into poverty.
In Britain the use of food banks has risen by nearly 20 percent in the last four years, according to Christian charity and food bank provider the Tressell Trust. A third of food bank provision went to children.
An increasing number of children rely on school breakfast clubs for their basic needs, and the Royal College of Nursing has highlighted an escalating child health crisis due to huge NHS cuts and pressures on local health services to provide school nurses.
The bill will have a disproportionate effect on women. According to the Office for National Statistics, women head up 91 percent of the 2 million single parent families in Britain, a group who will be hit hardest by the benefit cap and cuts to child tax credits.
It is more common for women to be in insecure, low paid work that needs to be topped up by the withering welfare system. A Fair Deal for Women, a coalition of 11 women’s rights charities, has found that half of housing benefit claimants are single women. One in eight women are on zero hours contracts and nearly 10 percent fewer women are in work than men. Female under-employment has nearly doubled since 2008.
Women are also more likely to be carers than men. In a document leaked to the BBC in March, it was discovered that the Tories were keen to limit the Carers’ Allowance to those eligible for Universal Credit, cutting the number of claims by an estimated 40 percent.
The attack on welfare is compounded by the fact that we are in the midst of a housing crisis of epic proportions. The Welfare Bill, and the benefit cap in particular, ultimately prices ordinary people out of many parts of the UK. This is made worse by low pay and a distinct lack of affordable housing.
In more than half of London’s boroughs the median rent for a one bedroom flat is more than £1,000 a month. The rent for a studio flat in a converted shed in Hackney, east London, was higher than that earlier this summer. In July data showed rents across the UK were up 4.6 percent on the year before.
The Welfare Reform and Work Bill also proposes to scrap housing benefit for under 25s. This means that young people will rely increasingly on their families for support, on top of ongoing pressure on household budgets. This is to say nothing about those who are estranged from their families or have no parents to rely on. Young people already make up a third of all homeless people in Britain.
The Tories insist that work must pay but if any person wants to move away from home to work in a low paid job, they will struggle to be able to afford it.
The sanctions on Jobseekers’ Allowance continue, with one in six jobseekers having had their JSA stopped in the last year. The Tories’ desperate attempt to present sanctions as a way of helping jobseekers was exposed when it was found that case studies used in DWP publicity were invented and the photographs posed by actors.
While satirical fake DWP stories spread via social media, the sad truth is that sanctioning leads to poverty, hunger and suicide.
In No Money, No Food, No Housing, a 2014 report from Disabled People Against the Cuts, claimants reported being sanctioned for not completing letters they never received, postponing Job Centre appointments so they could attend job interviews and applying for jobs out of their “skills range”.
Duncan Smith’s recent rhetoric has focused around how work benefits people’s health. He claimed in August, in a speech at Barclays Bank of all places, that the Tories wanted “a system focused on what a claimant can do and the support they’ll need, and not just on what they can’t”.
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit paid to people who cannot work due to illness and disability. Following a Freedom of Information request from a researcher for DPAC, the DWP had to release figures that showed a 200 percent increase in sanctions for people who receive ESA since December 2012.
Sanctions on people receiving ESA are increasing, and people who have mental health problems are more likely to be sanctioned than those with other illnesses. One in five of benefit-related deaths were due to sanctions. Although details of suicides related to benefit cuts and sanctions are often hidden, one example is of David Clapson, a diabetic who was found dead two weeks after his benefits had been stopped.
Meanwhile the services that enable benefit claimants to become less isolated, such as libraries and community centres, are being left bare bones or not there at all.
Disabled people are once again in the Tories’ line of fire. In late August Duncan Smith announced measures to change the way that ESA is managed and how sickness is assessed.
He boasted that 350,000 more disabled people were now in work. It is likely that these people — much like those forced off JSA — are in low paid, part-time jobs. While disability charities such as Scope have called on the government to close the employment gap for disabled people through improved access to support at work, the Tories have done this simply by deeming disabled people “fit for work”.
Personal Independence Payments replaced the Disability Living Allowance in 2013. Figures published by the DWP in June show that delays to the payment of the new allowance average at 11 weeks, although Welfare Weekly, a campaigning online magazine, claims that delays can take up to a year.
Welfare cuts kill. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill is a flagship policy for a government intent on driving ordinary people out of their homes, their neighbourhoods and further into poverty and despair.