Britain’s Benefit cuts: Today is the day that defines Cameron’s government
Those on low incomes, after all the vicious talk dismissing them as cheats and idlers, will be hit by an avalanche of cuts.
Not many know what is about to happen today: neither those about to be knocked down nor those sailing too high above them to notice. But historians will see it as the day that defines the Cameron government. An avalanche of benefit cuts will hit the same households over and over, with no official assessment of how far this £18bn reduction will send those who are already poor into beggary.
In his 2009 Hugo Young lecture, David Cameron spoke with apparent passion of the damage done by inequality: “We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.” The wise saw the wolf beneath the sheepskin: sure enough, once in power, the language he and his ministers used to blame the poor for their plight was cruder and fiercer than in Thatcher’s day. You need to go back to Edwardian times to find ministers and commentators so viciously dismissing all on low incomes as cheats, idlers and drunks.
On BBC news, Iain Duncan Smith, confronted with irrefutable cases of hardship, said: “It’s about trying to get as many people as possible out of the welfare trap and into lives they can control themselves.” As the economist JK Galbraith observed: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
So far, public opinion seems alarmingly content with these cuts – but before we despair of human kindness, many can plead ignorance. The government relies on destitution staying silent and unseen, isolated in families with no collective voice. Guardian reader’s know what’s happening because as they report on the social security calamity almost daily.
Readers of the Mirror were briefed last week, and the Independent covered the bedroom tax on its front page. But look back through last week’s Times, Telegraph, Mail and Sun to see how their readers were told nothing. They know a lot about immigrants. Sun readers were told the welfare bill is soaring out of control. They read a freak story of a woman refusing to take well-paid jobs to keep her children’s free university places.
Times readers learned at length of Tanni Grey-Thompson’s ordeal of hauling herself up 12 floors when her lift broke down, but only a very short story on her admirable campaign against cuts leaving disabled people £4,600 poorer. Telegraph readers were told “benefit claimants should be forced to seek extra work”, with a battery of stories against unfair budget treatment of stay-at-home mums suffering a “traditional families penalty”. The Bishop of Exeter pleaded their cause for tax relief, although surely he should be raising hell about the cuts?
People may read these papers to be protected from inconvenient facts about growing inequality and the catastrophic falling behind of the poor. The Brookings Institution reports that ever-worsening inequality will be “permanent” from now on. Most people would be alarmed at a never-ending widening of the gulf, if they knew. Most people want to believe the equal opportunities myth, but are easily comforted when told the poor are bad and the well-off deserving, so social justice prevails in this best of all possible worlds.
Here’s an interesting brief story in the Telegraph: a report that young children moving home three or more times suffer serious behaviour problems. Unfortunately, the Telegraph made no mention of the many families about to be uprooted and sent far from relatives, jobs and schools, into temporary accommodation and B&Bs, then moved on each time their rents rise. With virtually no takers for Cameron’s parenting class vouchers, it’s the government that needs lessons in child development.
No amount of IDS newspeak can turn the bedroom tax into a “spare bedroom subsidy”. Frank Field calls for social landlords to knock down walls or brick up rooms so people can keep their homes: it’s all a fraud, since IDS knows that 660,000 tenants with a spare room can never be found smaller properties, they will pay the extra or fall into debt and arrears until they are evicted. From Monday, most of the poorest get a new bill of an average £138 for council tax. Landlords expect mayhem when tenants are paid rent directly every month: pilots show many fall into debt.
Now add in these: disability living allowance starts converting into personal independence payment with a target to remove 500,000 people in new Atos medical tests. The Guardian has revealed how jobcentre staff are under orders to find any sanction to knock people off benefits. New obstacles are strewn in their path: people must apply for their benefits online from computers they don’t possess; many of these claimants are semi-literate. When in dire straits, there will be no more crisis loans, only a card for buying food, with not a penny for bus fares. Trussell Trust food banks expect a great surge of the hungry, so they ask everyone to donate the price of an Easter egg.
Here is the final wicked twist: legal aid has been removed for advice on benefits, housing, divorce, debt, education and employment. On Monday the budget of Citizens Advice for such cases falls from £22m to £3m. The few emergency cases still covered – families facing instant eviction – can only use a phone service, not face-to-face legal help. Law centres will close. There will be no help on school exclusions, landlord or employer harassment, or failure to pay wages.
Every new benefit system starts out with a high error rate: everyone knows the complex universal credit will leave millions with incorrect or no payments – and now, nowhere to go for help. Courts and tribunals expect chaos as people try to make their own cases without any help. Try to imagine the plight of people in debt because of the non-arrival of payments, with no credit on their phones to call and inquire, no crisis loan to buy phone credit, no internet access – and now no advice service either.
I refuse to believe most people would not be shocked if they knew, if they saw and if they understood. Even some of the 30% who always vote Tory might be appalled if they weren’t so well deceived by their ministers, MPs and newspapers, who lie knowingly and deliberately. People should know that historians will record the earthquake of social destruction that happened in their name, while they read of nothing but “scroungers” and the “soaring benefit bill”.