Welfare reforms are designed to divide society against itself
In the last century our politicians’ made a promise. If you’re out of work, if you are sick or disabled, if you hit hard times, if you are young and vulnerable, if your employer doesn’t pay you enough to live on or you’ve reached your later years, the nation will provide you with dignified support.
Now these fundamental values of fairness and compassion are being stripped out of the welfare system by the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which will create a permanent system of social insecurity and uncertainty for millions. Coupled with the cuts announced in the Budget, it will remove a basic level of social protection and empowerment.
Last night the majority of the parliamentary Labour Party shrugged their shoulders in tacit resignation. This morning, George Osborne can claim forcing 330,000 more children into poverty is ‘progressive’.
But Osborne’s new social contract is fraudulent. He has distorted the facts and misrepresented not just the cost of welfare but William Beveridge’s legacy. This is a ‘Hunger Games’ politics which has divided society against itself, based on a falsehood that one group is not as worthy as another.
The extra help currently available for the sick and disabled will be slashed by a third. Lone parents looking for work will be excluded from receiving childcare. The under-25s won’t be allowed the minimum wage. Vulnerable under-21s will lose housing benefit. Vital tax credits will be slashed, hitting women and those from minority groups disproportionately. Those who have a third child will be denied support.
And at the centre is the pernicious welfare cap. The new Bill would entrench this cap, and give the government the licence to lower it at will and without debate. It is here that the principle of meeting basic need is being undermined completely.
The cap takes no account of the underlying drivers of destitution: spiralling house prices which push up housing benefit, low wages which necessitate support and an ageing population which increases the need for incapacity and disability benefits
Instead, the cap punishes people for being the victims of circumstances beyond their control.
For progressives, this should be where the line is drawn. We must confront the false narrative and build a new story.
When I was at university I befriended a woman who, after suffering abuse, left home at 16. She took part-time work, and worked her way through A-levels and then university. But it was only because of housing benefit that she was able to do this. She achieved a first class degree and went into a job where she could support others with similar experiences. She was caught by the safety net, and consequently was able to give support to others.
This is what social security really means, and it’s a reality George Osborne just can’t understand.
After the Second World War, when our debt was much higher as a proportion of GDP than it is today, we established both the NHS and the modern welfare state. Our national social security system should be as valued and engender as much pride from progressives as the NHS.
There is always room for improvement but welfare is fundamentally a public good, and we can make it even better. Welfare doesn’t just provide a safety net, it empowers and improves the life chances of the overwhelming majority.
It is time for progressives to say so loudly and proudly.
Jonathan Bartley is the Green Party’s Work and Pensions Spokesperson. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.