Crisis staged their 2013 conference on 13 May in central London to review welfare reform, benefit cuts and policy. Speakers included Don Foster MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government, and Dame Anne Begg MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee; the chair was BBC Home Editor, Mark Easton. (See: www.crisis.org.uk/pages/the-great-welfare-debate.html)
For me, the weight of analysis and opinion throughout the day added to an intuitive feeling that welfare reform, mixed with cuts and hard-line rhetoric about ‘skivers vs strivers’, is probably on the road to disaster.
I was also struck by the lack of co-ordinated protest. The event sparked lively debate from an audience of homelessness and advice agencies, campaigners, social landlords, civil servants and others concerned about changes to the benefits system. There were heckles and angry exchanges, but overall, there was an overwhelming atmosphere of defeat.
We haven’t seen the angry reaction we might have expected from the public, either. Alison Park, Head of Society and Social Change at NatCen, revealed research showing that public opinion has hardened against those in need of support. In past recessions, there was a sense of empathy for the poorest in times of national hardship. Now, the study indicated, that there is huge scepticism about the value and purpose of benefits – and the people claiming them.
Labour’s response has also been muted and while Karen Buck MP, PPS to Ed Miliband, acknowledged the issues raised at the conference, she could not be drawn on what Labour would do differently. She said so much could change in the two years before the next election, they don’t want to nail their colours to the mast. This is a mistake. It’s not difficult to say, ‘If an election was called tomorrow, we’d do X, but that might change as other things change going forward’.
Don Foster was challenged about Stephanie Bottrill, whose suicide note named the Bedroom Tax as a trigger. He declined to comment about the specific case, but this isn’t good enough. Mind and Moneysavingexpert.com have just released a report saying so. And even in Foster’s own back yard of Bath, the Social Publishing Project has heard from several Quids in! readers who said they feel suicidal, as have local social landlord Curo.
Within Quids in! magazine, we’re careful not to be partisan. Organisations buying the magazine do not want to be accused of bias and we focus on helping readers deal with the changes and financial challenges. That doesn’t mean we don’t have an overview and a perspective to take a view.
The conference helped me understand: the way the Underoccupancy rule has been introduced is wrong. It’s wrong because if a tenant says: “I can’t afford it, I’ll move,” chances are there is nowhere for them to move to or they can’t afford the removal costs. What do they do then? Make up the shortfall in rent, go into debt, or face homelessness.
Is the rule wrong in itself? Arguably, the housing belongs to the community and should meet its needs; larger homes should house larger families. Don Foster claims the Bedroom Tax is designed to do this but it’s far too unwieldy a device and relies on a perfect match of supply to demand. It’s about cutting costs.
Why do people feel they would rather be dead? As someone from the conference floor shouted: “It’s their family home!” Are we ready to legislate against the emotion and security people attach to the place where they live?
BENEFIT CAP AND COUNCIL TAX BENEFIT
Dr Peter Kenway, Director of the New Policy Institute (NPI), brought the rigour of analysis to what the audience had been thinking for a while. With academic objectivity, slide after slide suggested a severe injustice against the poorest in our communities that led to a conclusion that there was more than housekeeping and good governance at the root of the changes. Apparently, 300,000 households will be affected by three changes to benefits; bedroom tax, council tax benefit, and the one per cent per annum uprating of benefits.
Kenway described the dismantling and decentralisation of council tax benefit as simply the Poll Tax. (Anne Begg reiterated this, calling it “the REAL Poll Tax”, relishing the opportunity to point out that in Scotland and Wales, it’s been absorbed by government there.)
Kenway reported this as a “tax increase for low income households” and that by shifting responsibility to local authorities, the Government deflects criticism from policies they introduced. It also ends the principle that as a nation we share the burden (through tax) of supporting those hit by a local crisis, such as a factory closing locally.
Some councils have decided not to bother chasing debts for council tax payments from claimants previously granted benefit because it would cost more than they might recover.
The £500 per week cap on benefits is an attack on children, Kenway suggested, because it will hit only large families: 56,000 of them. As with the Bedroom Tax, what are people supposed to do? Get a job earning more than £26,000? Two parents cannot both work and manage a large family without more costs in childcare, travel and to feed everyone properly. Maybe put the kids into care? Or become homeless? Either way, it’ll cost the taxpayer vastly more as local authorities take on responsibility.
Kenway pointed out that cuts like these affect more people in work than out, challenging the idea of penalties for ‘skivers’. Joseph Rowntree has been looking at the impact on the working poor, and reports that there are 4.3m in work and claiming benefits. There are now more people in work who are below the poverty line than there are on benefits. (See: NatCen’s Read public attitudes to poverty and welfare, 1983-2011)
UNIVERSAL CREDIT AND EMPLOYMENT
Maeve McGoldrick from Community Links commented that while there is some good in Universal Credit (UC), introducing it alongside cuts is a mistake. Any improvements UC could deliver to the current system will be lost in the perception it adds further hardship. Panellists agreed there should be greater distinction between what falls under Welfare Reform (the principle of making work pay, for example) and benefit cuts.
Various panellists agreed Universal Credit would not simplify welfare. Benefits are complex because claimants’ lives are. Even under UC, calculations will determine a string of variables and output a bespoke claim per claimant. With this in mind, billions are being misspent on introducing a system that will only be an umbrella for the same complexities the system already encompasses. Even tapered withdrawal for those going into work could be applied to existing benefits with a fraction of the investment required to make UC work. If it works.
Gill Brown, CEO of Brighter Futures in Stoke, said that punishing claimants will drive them away from jobs and employment. Quids in! works with employment and training social enterprise Clean Slate, and this is their experience. The Clean Slate team decided they had to ‘raise the drawbridge’ because the jobseekers sent along by JCP, often facing or on sanctions, are often in such distress that they cannot focus on the support they need to help them find work. Clean Slate will now only work with people in a fit state to utilise the limited support they can offer. Gill Brown called for more anger and a sense of political leadership on these issues.
There is no doubt in our minds at Quids in! that a surge in debt is inevitable: Huge, lethal debt. Peter Kenway described this as the Government’s answer to national debt. It’s a poignant thought that what started as a financial crisis, turned into national debt, and in balancing the country’s books will pass on that debt to the poorest in our communities.
A jobseeker I was talking to in London said he’d happily go into debt if his benefits are chipped away, saying he’d live with bankruptcy once he’d run up enough debt. Part of me enjoyed the irony that the banks would have to pick up the tab after all. But then I had to point out that no one wants to live in debt. It ruins, even ends, lives. In any case, debt causes mental ill-health, drug and alcohol misuse, crime and relationship break down and these are known triggers of homelessness, by the way. And that’s why Crisis was the right agency to stage this conference, even if the event did not make these connections.