Tony Benson examines the plight of benefit claimants and sees further dangers ahead.
People who claim benefits are now facing multiple forms of misery. Delays are occurring in the administration of claims for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and there is a backlog of appeals due to continued poor decision-making by the DWP. The Bedroom Tax will continue to rob from the poorest until a Labour Government remembers to keep its promise to get rid of this wretched law. The Tories’ ‘new welfare contract’ of 2010, which set out their prospectus for the social security system, showed no sign of the Bedroom Tax or its equally evil twin the Benefit Cap. The Tories promised local work clubs and a training and skills fund and nothing at all about caps and new taxes on the poorest. There was nothing about these things in the Coalition agreement either.
This democratic deficit does go right to the heart of the welfare reform onslaught. The damage done by these two measures, along with the cut represented by Council Tax reduction (also not put up for consideration by the electorate), will cost far more to the public purse than the amounts saved in benefit not paid out.
On top of this, benefit sanctions are being freely applied for minor and imaginary breaches of people’s ‘claimant commitments’. People are being denied money for food and bills for weeks and months on end as a result. Anyone who does not return work capability assessment forms in time or does not attend an ATOS medical examination is similarly denied money. By no money I mean no money, not just next to nothing. Rent and Council Tax arrears are increasing. Disabled people are bearing the brunt of this. The Tories do what they think the Lib Dems will let them do, which is a lot.
The approach to benefits – not seeking an electoral mandate, abuse of consultation procedures, relentless demonisation of benefit claimants and the imposition of one measure after another designed to be as oppressive and as vicious as possible – speaks of an ideological frenzy, not of a considered rationalisation of a system of sprawling complexity.
While the promise to abolish the Bedroom Tax is a start that the Labour leadership should be held to account for, there needs to be a political battle to build the type of social security system that will last the 21st century.
The problem is that at the moment the only ‘big-thinker’ on social security on the Labour side is Frank Field who has proposed a system of mutual welfare organisations. Superficially this seems attractive. Mutualisation is something of a buzzword on the centre left at least, probably as a way of avoiding making a head on challenge to the Tory offensive against the idea that social security is something that is the business of the whole of society. It is this idea that needs both defending and extending. This is whether we are talking about welfare benefits, health and care services or housing. As an alternative to rabid privatisation (such as the suggestion for a mutual company to take over the East Coast mainline) mutualisation can be progressive. As an alternative form of welfare provision it acts as a stalking horse to allow the attack on the welfare state to carry on after the election of a Labour Government in 2015.
At present the state retirement pension has a budget of around £80 billion a year. Its administrative costs are minimal. £80 billion a year being taken away from the state will provide a tempting target for every hedge funder boss and vulture capitalist on the planet. What are the odds on a mutualised replacement scheme following the fate of the Co-op bank into the hands of a waiting hedge fund?
We need to beware of how concepts such as mutualisation can and will be used to advance the interests of the powerful in swindling the poor. A system based on contributions is worth defending and advancing. The Tories often describe national insurance as a “tax on jobs”; they want rid of it and of contributions-based benefits such as the state retirement pension. The savings would not go into individual pay packets but into further accumulations of corporate profits: otherwise the “tax on jobs” rhetoric makes no sense. A contribution funded social security system is something that socialists can support so long as it is all-inclusive, leaving none in need and so long as it is democratic, accountable and transparent.