Monday, 16 November 2009

The Welfare Reform Bill: an uncompromising attack on the poorest

On Thursday, the Welfare Reform Bill returned to the House of Commons. Having had its final reading in the House of Lords, MPs have made their last adjustments to the bill and it is now set to become law. Over the past few months, womens' pressure groups All Women Count and Global Womens' Strike had been campaigning against various measures in the bill. In particular;
The Welfare Reform Bill threatens us with destitution by abolishing Income Support, the main benefit which recognises unwaged caring work. It forces mothers and other carers to be “available for work” and, if there are no jobs, to work for our benefits i.e. £1.60 an hour. Traumatised women fleeing domestic violence get only a three-month respite from jobseeking. Asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work, were the first to be made destitute. Some get a subsistence amount; in October, this was reduced to £5 a day.
Moreover, as Libby Brooks pointed out in the Guardian;
The bill is so lacking in concrete detail and so wide-ranging in scope – from compulsory drug-testing of claimants (opposed by Liberty) to the criminalisation of women who refuse to name the father of their children on birth certificates (opposed by Gingerbread) – that campaigners have been left befuddled as to where to concentrate their energies.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, one woman with firsthand experience has no problem pinpointing her least favoured gem – that women escaping domestic violence should be given but one month's grace before having to comply with job-seeking conditions. "By the time you get out, you don't know who you are any more," Marianne told me. "I was like a beaten dog in a corner. It took me three months to find somewhere to live. If I had gone for an interview, they'd have thought I was a nutter. Yet my future is now supposed to be at the discretion of a jobcentre adviser, who isn't even properly trained. It's a joke."
Several of these measures were the subject of amendments in the Lords, thanks to fierce campaigning from various pressure groups. However, upon returning to the Commons, the Bill lost a considerable amount of the amended legislation. Most notably, as the Guardian reported, "peers backed down over government plans to fine jobless single parents with pre-school age children if they did not prepare for work while receiving benefits." This compounds the financial squeezes faced by single parents after the introduction of a measure just last month "requiring single parents with children aged 10 or 11 to look for work, or risk losing benefits. Under the new rules, lone parents in this category will be switched from Income Support to the tougher Jobseeker's Allowance."

The Anarchist Federation have given their support to groups such as the London Coalition Against Poverty and Nottingham Claimants Action, both of which stand in opposition to the entire Bill. Their reasons for this are well founded, as covered in the AFed anaysis reposted here last Wednesday. The Bill is a fundamental attack on the welfare state, the only safety net we have against crushing poverty, and on the poorest and most vulnerable elements of the working class.

Perhaps the most tragic fact in all this is that the new legislation will be applauded by precisely the sectors of society it attacks. Though politicians are often accused of pandering to "tabloid mentality," it is in fact the other way around, with the media reflecting the opinions of elite sectors in order to manufacture the consent of the ruled. Hence the depth at which terms such as "sponger," "scrounger," or "dosser," and phrases such as "milking the system" have become ingrained into our collective consciousness.

Whilst, at a grassroots level, activists have been fighting against the vicious class war waged by the rich, the media has been telling us a different story. Tales of "scroungers" raising a "dynasty of deadbeats" litter rags such as the News of the World, the agenda behind such outrageous stories becoming clear when it uses them to advocate stripping single parents of welfare. Likewise, the Daily Mail will report with horror that "Labour's reign puts 300,000 families on handouts worth £20,000 a year," the context for this figure being buried in the article. The £20,000 figure is less shocking when added to the fact "a couple need to earn £25,000 a year before they can afford to have children," the actual figure for a family with two children being £27,600. Given that the quoted figure "include[s] a vast array of benefits, such as jobseekers' allowance, incapacity benefit, council tax benefit and housing benefit," and that those whose welfare reaches £20,000 are "families" or "households," emphatically not single individuals. According to A minimum income standard for Britain in 2009, the report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation cited above;
Working-age people on benefits remain well below the minimum income standard. Even though benefit rises in April 2009 exceeded the published inflation rate at the time, they were similar to the rise in the cost of a minimum household budget. This means that people on benefits have got no closer to reaching an acceptable living standard.
Thus, stories about "scroungers" and "the soaring welfare bill" are revealed as nothing but a pretext for dissecting a welfare system which already bars people from an "acceptable living standard." As Dr Paul Dornan, head of policy for the Child Poverty Action Group, wrote in a letter to the Guardian, "it creates a complex bureaucracy for issuing orders and punishments to claimants, and limits the childcare choices of the poorest parents. What has become unthinkable is a decent minimum income standard for all claimants and an entitlement to the good, personally tailored support that really helps to get people off benefits and into decent jobs." Moreover, according to Jean Brownlie of the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, "this bill is also an attack on workers in jobs, as it will exert downward pressure on wages and conditions ... poor people are being forced to pay for the financial crisis caused by the rich."

Thus, the only reasonable conclusion seems to be the one offered by Brownlie. "We need to oppose this bill by taking dissent to the streets, to the government offices, to the bankers and the bosses."