No, welfare reforms aren’t ‘working for everyone’

'Tough love' is not the right tactic for children and disabled people who depend on benefits


In an opinion piece in the Times today, Matt Ridley has written an impassioned defence of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, which he says are ‘working for everyone’.

Ridley writes that the tougher welfare system designed by IDS has helped people out of welfare dependency, and that it has been a ‘crucial cause of the surprising surge in unemployment’.

As the Conservatives set out plans to make even more cuts to the welfare budget, here are just some of the things Matt Ridley is wrong about:

 – ‘The welfare reforms have proved to be among the most popular things this administration has done’.

Ridley says that Tory candidates report that welfare reform ‘is most popular in the meanest streets – where people are well aware of neighbours who play the system.’

Official figures have shown that ‘playing the system’ – benefit fraud – is not a huge problem in the UK. In 2013/14 it accounted for just 0.3 per cent of welfare spending, and a study by Ipsos Mori showed that the public think benefit fraud happens 34 times more than it actually does. So it is very possible that, even if what the Tories say about these ‘meanest streets’ is true, it doesn’t change the reality for most people claiming benefits: they need them.

Secondly, Ridley writes that four in five trade union members think the £26,000 benefits cap is a good idea. So why are the Conservatives planning to push it down to £23,000? As an experiment?

I can’t find Ridley’s figures on trade unions, but I know the IFS delivered a damning verdict on the benefits cap, saying that ‘the large majority of affected claimants responded neither by moving into work nor by moving house.’

The Supreme Court also ruled that the cap breaches children’s rights because it has a disproportionate effect on women and children; two victims of domestic violence took the matter to court after changes to the law left them in dire poverty.

So whatever Tory canvassers think, these reforms are certainly not popular among the people they affect.

– Benefits sanctions help people into work

Last month, the Work and Pensions Committee said there was NO evidence that sanctions, or the threat of them, were moving people into work. Sudden withdrawal of benefits leaves some people too destitute even to feed themselves, not a situation conducive to energetic job searches. There have been many cases where sanctioned claimants have been unable to afford to travel to an interview – this is trapping people in the welfare system, not forcing them out of it.

The Committee recommended a full review into the application of sanctions, which have been blamed for driving up food bank use and even contributing to suicides. Liberally administered, without regard to unforeseen circumstances or mental or physical health problems, benefit sanctions have been described as harsh and punitive by diverse organisations including the TUC, Crisis, a coalition of UK churches, Mind and the Trussell Trust.

Changes to the welfare system have meant that single parents whose youngest child is over five must now claim Jobseeker’s Allowance instead of income support. This means that they are expected to be actively seeking work, without coordinated support for childcare – and if they fail this sometimes impossible task, they’ll be sanctioned.

Sanctions are one of the most controversial areas of Conservative welfare policy – and it is not appropriate for Ridley to wheel them out as an example of success when investigations into sanction-related suicides are still underway.

-The Conservatives are the only party who want to get people off benefits and into work

Nobody thinks that a person living on welfare is in an ideal situation – the system is there for when things aren’t ideal, for when things go wrong. But over the last five years, it has lost its character as a safety net and started to become a punitive system which further marginalises the poorest in society.

For us to tackle welfare dependency, we need to make sure that jobs are always more worthwhile than benefits. As Ridley admits, the miraculous jobs boom he praises has created many ‘insecure, poorly paid and part time jobs’. But he is adamant that ‘shoving people into some kind of work rather than parking them on welfare has to be better for their morale and their future’.

Well no, not if you have children to feed. If you are one of the 697,000 people on zero-hours contracts, and you have been given no work for two weeks, your morale might reasonably be very low, and benefits might look like a much more attractive option.

In this way, the Tories’ failure has been twofold; they have made the welfare system much more impenetrable, but it is still preferable to some of the exploitatively low-paid jobs that they have created.

– Tough love is best

Ridley praises IDS’ ‘tough-love’ approach, but tough love cannot be applied to disabled people and children affected by cuts.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), if current government policies continue child poverty will carry on increasing, with an expected 600,000 more children living in poverty by 2015/16.

Meanwhile the abolition of Disability Living Allowance and the Independent Living Fund have been disastrous for disabled people. DWP figures last year revealed that 323,000 disabled people were waiting an extra 33 days each for assessments. Changes to capability assessments mean that around 8,000 people with degenerative conditions had their benefits cut because IDS said their conditions would improve enough for them to work – that’s diseases like Parkinson’s and MS. This is tough love to the point of absurdity.

This government has stigmatised welfare users, promoted the idea of the scrounger, and punished people for needing benefits. I would love to hear from a welfare user who believes the reforms are ‘working for everyone’.

 Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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