Welfare and poverty 2012: Ideology before people

We asked six experts to give their verdicts on the events of 2012 and suggest ideas for progression in 2013. In our fifth instalment, Keren Suchecki sums up a year which saw poverty rise up the agenda

The year 2012 has been a shameful one for welfare and poverty in the UK.  We’ve seen the poorest forced to work unpaid or lose their benefits, some left to sleep under bridges while the nation celebrates the Olympics: a work programme which has replaced real jobs with modern slavery. We’ve seen the sick and dying deemed fit for work by incompetent assessments.  A year in which the under 25s have been threatened with having the roofs taken from over their heads risking a return to the rough sleeping numbers we saw under Thatcher.  This government has demonised and trampled on the most vulnerable.

The chancellor’s autumn statement delivered a final kicking with the welfare uprating bill, capping benefit increases at 1% for the next three years instead of keeping up with inflation; a real terms cut at a time in which basic food prices rise daily and with a 10% home energy price increase on the horizon. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that the poorest 10% of the population will be hardest hit by the autumn statement, proving false George Osborne’s claim that the richest 20% would lose the most. This, coupled with tax cuts for those earning over £1m per year and the scrapping of the mansion tax following pressure from Tory donors, exposes again the cruel lie that we’re all in this together.

It took Labour three days to decide they will vote against the uprating bill following a woefully weak response from the shadow chancellor. Ideologically Labour are stuck in the same place as the coalition, focused entirely on austerity and cutting welfare as the way out of recession, differing only on the speed of cuts but not on who to punish.

And punishment it is. This has become ever more apparent in the language used to describe those in poverty. Politicians are heavily influenced by the press who consistently report that reducing the welfare bill is a popular measure. Tabloid slang for those on benefits is increasingly being used by politicians, to the extent that the previously popular term ‘hard working families’ has been replaced with ‘strivers’ because it resonates with the echo of ‘skivers’ as their opposing number i.e. those who must be punished for sleeping on behind closed curtains while their neighbours go to work.

Strivers and skivers, workers and shirkers, divide and rule. The term skiver suggests there are plenty of jobs out there and the lazy bastards just need to get off their fat arses and go find one.

Even the term ‘welfare’ which has been recently adopted in place of the more traditional ‘social security’ carries negative overtones from its American origins, conjuring up images of soup kitchens and dosshouses for itinerants.  Although we’re not that far off soup kitchens for UK families with the rapid growth in food banks across the country. Is Cameron embarrassed by this manifestation of the Big Society?

Also rapidly increasing are doorstep and payday loans with extortionate interest rates that the government refuses to cap.  If living on benefits is the easy street the chancellor claims, one has to wonder why the poor use loan sharks to make ends meet.

The most shameful increase is in homeless households, up 25% this year to 50,000 in Britain.  There are fears this figure could rise dramatically once housing benefit starts being paid directly to claimants next year. A recent survey by the National Landlords Association revealed that more than 58% of landlords were planning to drop tenants in receipt of housing benefit because of the forthcoming changes.  A knock on effect of today’s younger generation of potential homeowners being locked out of the housing market by the reluctance of banks to lend means that the number of households renting privately has almost doubled, leaving landlords free to dump benefit claimants on the streets.

In writing this piece I was asked to suggest what improvements might be made. Welfare and poverty are complex and I’ve only skimmed the surface; the detail is massive and complicated, so I am going to make one suggestion that relates to some of the issues I’ve touched on.

As I’ve said before in New Start, I’m a fan of council housing and it shouldn’t be regarded as the housing of last resort. Local authorities should be able to borrow against future rent receipts so they can build thousands of new council houses, providing four main benefits:

1. It provides housing where it’s needed, not where developers want to invest;

2. It creates jobs all across the country, particularly in less well off areas, increasing tax receipts and reducing the need for benefits;

3. It will undermine the value of the private housing market, which needs driving back down to its pre-bubble level and private rents which need reigning in;

4. Local authority spending on housing benefit would flow back into councils instead of out to private landlords.

Refusal to implement practical, low risk-solutions simply puts political ideology before people.


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paulette lappin
paulette lappin
11 years ago

Excellant article, Just finished reading JRF research into the myth of the ‘culture of worklessness’. 1% of those claming make up this section of the population. Another example of easy pickings for politicans and policy makers allowing the press to make policy

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