By Caroline Lucas MP (Green Party, Brighton Pavilion)
MPs are today debating a grossly unfair piece of legislation that proposes to sever the long-standing link between welfare support and inflation.
If it makes it onto the statute books, the Welfare Benefit Uprating Bill will, without question hit the poorest in our society the hardest, including the many people in my constituency who are already struggling to make ends meet, and already coming to my surgeries in a state of desperation.
The Bill is not only a brutal attack on the poor, it also sets in motion far wider damage, deliberately tearing a hole in the welfare safety net which can only unravel further.
The government has been trying to sell this measure by painting a convenient picture of ‘shirkers’ on benefits – a whole army of lazy scroungers living it up at the state’s expense.
As others have already pointed out, many of those who receive benefits and will therefore be hard hit by this new legislation are actually working at the same time. In fact, an estimated 60% of those affected will be in work.
But more than that, the driving assertion behind the Bill – that “it is not fair for the income of people out of work to go up faster than the incomes of people in work”, with benefit recipients having apparently enjoyed a ‘lavish’ 20% income increase over the past five years, is shamefully misleading.
In his Autumn Statement in December, the Chancellor said:
“With pay restraint in businesses and government, average earnings have risen by around 10% since 2007. Out of work benefits have gone up by around 20%.”
The Prime Minister has also used this 20% figure as ammunition for his ongoing attack on the poor. But what does this really mean in cash terms?
I checked with the House of Commons Library – what it means is that, in 2007, Job Seekers Allowance was £59.15 a week. Five years later, by 2012, it had gone up to £71 a week – an increase of exactly 20%.
Conservative party advisers must have been jumping for joy when they made that calculation. But as they well know, 20% of very little indeed is very little indeed.
In actual money terms, it means that in the past five years, weekly JSA has gone up by approximately £2.50 each year – so simply keeping up with inflation and with the lower CPI measure at that, since the Coalition came in.
The Chancellor points to those on average earnings having seen only a 10% increase compared to the ‘20% increase’ for the unemployed.
But he and the Prime Minister deliberately stick to percentages instead of admitting the reality in cash terms. In fact, for people on average earnings, their weekly take home pay has increased in each of the last five years by around £11.
While this is unacceptably low in itself – thanks in part to the reckless public sector pay freeze – since it is still nearly four and a half times more in hard cash than the £2.50 annual increase for those on JSA, it’s outrageous and disingenuous to suggest that jobseekers are getting more than people in work.
Both David Cameron and the Chancellor claim that this Welfare Bill is about fairness. But how can it be fair if the poorest will suffer most?
The independent UK Women’s Budget Group has released analysis showing that the poorest 10% of households will lose 1.9% of their weekly income – and the second poorest will lose 1.6% from the benefits uprating cut. The richest 10% lose nothing.
The obvious truth is that this Bill is a continuation of Thatcher’s agenda to dismantle the principles of social welfare provision established after the Second World War.
It certainly does not feel like a coincidence that the debate is taking place in the same week that the government’s attack on Child Benefit comes into force.
As a universal benefit, Child Benefit has been successful – showing how you can give something to everyone to make sure no one is missed out, and then claw back from those who don’t need it via the tax system.
It has given people of all income brackets a stake in the welfare state. No wasted administration costs and every child covered. Not any more.
Add to this the proposals to further cut Local Housing Allowance (LHA) in real-terms, which housing and children’s charities warn will push more people into poverty and homelessness, and the future for the poorest looks increasingly bleak.
Before Christmas, food charity FareShare Brighton in my constituency reported a huge rise in people coming to them for food. They have seen a 23% increase on the food they gave out in 2011 and now deliver to 53 charities, serving almost 4,000 people a week.
Across the country, the number of people accessing emergency food aid has already exploded. We are now seeing figures of up to a quarter of a million accessing food banks.
While people on benefits are being demonised as scroungers, the reality is that most people want to work. The vast majority are struggling on meagre incomes, spending their time applying for jobs and looking for suitable work.
We are in a deep economic recession, with many people having lost their jobs through no fault of their own. As a nation, we should support people through the hard times without embarrassing, punishing or scapegoating them.
‘Getting tough’ on welfare is lazy politics. It relies on conning the public into thinking the system is much more generous than it is and making people think it is riddled with fraud.
A poll commissioned by the TUC shows that, on average, people think 27% of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently. The government’s own figure is 0.7%.
Designed to divide people and increase insecurity, the Welfare Benefit Uprating Bill is a mean, miserable piece of legislation from a mean and miserable government. It will likely prove counterproductive, driving more people into destitution – at great cost to the state.