The Cruelty and Stupidity of the Government’s Welfare Reforms


Journalists like to portray Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, as a caring, decent man, but while this may be true in his personal life, politically he is a ruthless ideologue, whose white paper on welfare reform, unveiled yesterday, reveals that he is, to be blunt, monstrously cruel and stupid. In the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, Mary Riddell provided a cautionary warning about how this would-be reformer’s mind works, which harks back uncomfortably to the Social Darwinism of the Victorian age. Duncan Smith, she wrote, “believes that dysfunctional lives are the root cause of poverty, while the centre Left thinks, correctly, that the reverse is true.”

Although everyone in Parliament seems to agree with Duncan Smith’s assessment that the tangled welfare system needs an overhaul, and that the notion of a universal credit is a good idea, the details in his white paper, unveiled in Parliament yesterday — which followed a shocking claim on BBC4’s “Today” programme that not taking a job was “a sin” — were greeted with horror by anti-poverty campaigners, who, quite rightly, accused Duncan Smith of creating a “climate of fear” and of exposing the most vulnerable families and children to the “risk of destitution.” In addition, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury — a man whose job involves a more professional assessment of what constitutes “a sin” than that of a politician — also weighed in, warning that the plans were unfair and could plunge the unemployed into “a downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair”.

Under Duncan Smtih’s proposals, the long-term unemployed will be required to do unpaid community work, and unemployed people will be obliged to take whatever jobs are offered to them. If they refuse, they will lose their benefits for three months. If they refuse twice, they will lose benefits for six months, and if they refuse for a third time, they will be deprived of their benefits for three years. Elsewhere, a mainstay of authoritarian governments — attacking single mothers — resurfaced, as Duncan Smith promised that out-of-work parents of young children — those with children between the age of one and five — “will be penalised if they fail to keep in touch with their local jobcentre.”

The main problem with Duncan Smith’s proposals — which appears to me to be blindingly obvious, but is not even perceived by an alarmingly large number of my flint-hearted fellow citizens — is that it paints a picture of millions of workshy scroungers shirking work opportunities, which is fundamentally at odds with the actual situation in the job market.

Given that the government’s own figures show that there are currently 2.45 million unemployed people, and just 459,000 available jobs (and with the government having vowed to add another 1.3 million to the jobless total in the imminent future), beating up on the unemployed with such a variety of sticks is nothing short of heartless.

With one job available for every five people unemployed, only someone who has put ideology before common sense (as Duncan Smith admitted at the weekend, when he told the Telegraph that this particular period in time — during a recession — was “a dreadful period to try and do any of this”) would want to penalize every single person who doesn’t take up a job that is offered them, would want to harangue single parents with babies and toddlers (almost always mothers) in their own homes, would delight in humiliating the long-term unemployed — and undermining the minimum wage — by making them work for their benefit (presumably in orange jackets that will make them look like convicted criminals doing community service), and would delight in continuing the onslaught on the mentally and physically disabled that was begun by the Labour goverment.

In a malignant campaign to eradicate invalidity benefit, which began in 2008, Labour replaced it with employment support allowance, and then recruited malleable doctors to give disabled claimants tests and pronounce that almost anyone with a pulse was capable of work (see here for an appraisal by Edward Lawrence, a disabled man supported by the State). However, the new government has now taken this one step further, announcing that employment support allowance will only last for one year, after which those claiming it will be downgraded to jobseekers’ allowance, leaving campaigners concluding, with some justification, that a shockingly large number of people with long-term health problems will be consigned to a minimum of state support, even though their chances of ever finding a job are, to put it midly, remote. — or, as Polly Toynbee put it yesterday, “Large numbers who have been on incapacity benefit for years, who even in good times were pretty unemployable, will now lose a large slab of their income on the spurious grounds that they could, in theory, be fit for something or other.”

As the Guardian explained last month, according to estimates from the Department for Work and Pensions, about 290,000 people “are likely to be deemed too incapacitated to work, and will not see their benefits time-limited,” but 865,000 people on incapacity benefit will be “placed in the ‘work-related activity group,’ who will see their benefits cut after one year.” The Guardian also pointed out that “Those with assets, savings or partners who work will no longer receive benefits. They will not be able to claim JSA even if they are out of work, so would therefore have to rely on partners’ income or savings — if they have any — or sell off their assets.”

For those, like the government, who persist in ignroing evidence that the tests are unfair, Anjuli Veall, social policy and campaigns manager at Parkinson’s UK, said, “In spite of the government’s assurance that any cuts would protect the most vulnerable in society, we are concerned that the latest policy shift regarding ESA will unnecessarily target people with long-term conditions, such as Parkinson’s,” which, to my mind, indicates the extent to which the seriously ill are being regarded as fit for work.

A final problem with Duncan Smith’s reforms is that, although they involve an attempt to help those on low pay out of a benefit trap, where they end up poorer by working, they fail to address a far better solution: raising the minimum wage, as Mehdi Hasan noted in the Guardian on Tuesday, when he explained that, according to a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, there are 1.7 million children in working households identified as living in poverty, and 3.4 million adults. Hasan also pointed out that the TUC has recommended to the low pay commission that it raises the minimum wage by 21p (3.5%) to £6.14 from October 2011 (which, it says, would save the government about £125m in tax credits and in-work benefits), but as he also noted, Tories have always despised the minimum wage, introduced in 1999, and “In opposition, Tory sources suggested the minimum wage would be allowed to ‘wither on the vine.’”

In contrast, as John Harris noted in the Guardian today, “on 3 November, a Treasury minister named Lord Sassoon served notice that the coalition’s work on City bonuses was done.” Lord Harris stated, “The government has taken action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the banking sector,” meaning, as previously reported, that an annual £2.5 bn levy on the City — almost all of which will be returned due to a convenient reduction in Corporation Tax — is the sum of the government’s demands on the City fat cats who got us into this mess in the first place. As Harris also noted, “Six days later, Barclays announced that its latest bonus pot would total £1.6bn.” In the context of his article, framed around the proposed demolition of university funding, he pointed out that this is “about a third of what the government currently spends each year on university teaching,” although it should also be noted that it is about two-thirds of what the government plans to save through its remorseless assault on the disabled.

In conclusion, then, my message to Iain Duncan Smith is simple: ask the City for more money before you start hitting the poor, think long and hard about your duty of care to people with disabilities, create two million new jobs and raise the minimum wage, and then I might be prepared to listen. Until then, however, I will resist your self-righteous cruelty with every fibre of my being, and will encourage everyone I meet — whose heart has not yet frozen over — to do the same.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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