The benefits uprating bill currently progressing through the House of Commons represents another nail in the coffin of the British welfare state. Removing the link with earnings and substituting a fixed one per cent annual increase to benefits rates is the kind of populist move this UK Government revels in and it epitomises the wider shift in social policy which George Osborne has crudely caricatured as “strivers vs skivers”.
Labour is, no doubt, patting itself on the back for a job well done in opposing the principles of the bill. But make no mistake, the only reason it found its mettle on this issue is precisely because it attacked the strivers – those in work on low incomes – as much as the supposed skivers.
In truth, no party has its hands clean on this idea of deserving and undeserving recipients of welfare. Indeed, Labour started it, when it froze child benefit for single parents who have always been an easy target for politicians. And it was the UK Labour Government in the early noughties which began the demonising of disabled people in the media to help create the right conditions for reforming welfare with the introduction of sanctions and pay-by-results work programmes.
Even here in Scotland, as we prepare to patriate some aspects of the welfare state, the SNP Scottish Government is considering introducing vouchers instead of cash payments to applicants of the new Scottish Welfare Fund. Was there ever a more demeaning approach to supporting people in the direst need, that marks them out as poor for all to see?
What is happening is a systematic dismantling of the concept of a rights-based welfare state which is being led by the Conservatives and which all political parties – and indeed, sections of society – are complying with. Because no one in party politics is prepared to stand up and say what a modern welfare state should look like or do. Because we have all allowed ourselves to buy into the concept of deserving vs undeserving and allowed our values to be manipulated, they are now feart to challenge such assumptions.
Thus, by open challenge and also by stealth, we are moving away from a welfare state built on key principles of social justice, equality and rights to one which is predicated on evidence of need and of those who have sitting in judgement of those who have not. In short, we are edging our way to becoming a society not of citizens, but of supplicants.
A good example of this is the fast-growing establishment of food banks. The Trussell Trust is a faith-based organisation with the rather perverse goal of “every town to have a food bank”. It works with churches and community organisations to set them up but largely, funding for food banks comes from local authorities – public money in other words. And in order to satisfy their self-appointed role as guardians of the public purse, local authorities have devised rules and conditions for eligibility. You will be assessed by a social worker as to whether or not you qualify; you will then be handed a “pink slip” – no doubt after a wait of a few weeks for the wheels of bureaucracy to churn – to take to your local food bank; and only on production of said pink slip will you be able to access the goods on offer. You won’t get to pick and choose, except within tight confines relating to dietary requirements, as to what you can have, but will be handed a parcel or a box. Much of what is in that box is what locals have been prepared to donate and indeed, supermarkets willing to offload. Worst of all, you will only be allowed to visit the food bank three times before your time is up. After that, you are on your own.
At every step in the process, the most vulnerable people in our communities are reminded of how far they have fallen and how lowly they now sit in our society’s hierarchy. They are being judged as needy, feckless and reckless by those of us in positions of power and influence who can control how and what those who have nothing are allowed to eat. We who have means can eat tuna: you who have nothing must eat spam and like it.
And yet, we know that some of the most vulnerable won’t come forward, won’t ask and won’t subject themselves to such demeaning treatment. They will choose to go hungry instead.
It is a scandal that in a country as rich as Scotland, that boasts of its multi-million export trade in food and food products, that there are people without enough to eat, never mind that they also only have access to the poorest food in nutritional terms. Because of what this Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is doing to benefits – applying strict rules of conditionality, time limits and now annual uprating, while removing some key payments related to housing, care and childcare costs which mean people will be left to plug the gap from within the meagre amounts of universal credit they will be allowed to have – in the next few years, the physical, emotional and mental health and well-being of many vulnerable people – pensioners, disabled people, lone parents, their children, care leavers, young singles in low paid employment – will suffer significantly. It won’t be long before there are headlines about people literally starving to death.
And instead of reviewing our whole policy and approach to food, using all the powers and resources already at our disposal in the Scottish Parliament, gathering all the parties and interests together in power at all levels in Scotland to come up with an holistic approach to addressing food poverty, our politicians are tacitly allowing and enabling the Tories and Lib Dems to do their worst. It is not enough to make grandstanding speeches at Westminster nor is it enough to stamp feet in opposition to the UK Government’s worst excess. And it certainly isn’t enough to wring hands, point fingers and shrug shoulders and say what can we do.
The SNP has sat least signalled intent to follow a different course. A series of speeches which set out that with independence, Scotland can do differently has now been augmented by the Scottish Government establishing a “panel of experts” to explore and recommend what might constitute “a fairer welfare system” in independent Scotland. It’s all good but it isn’t enough. And anyway, why do we need four wealthy men (and the belated addition of one woman after protest) most of whom will have had limited exposure to the welfare state throughout their lives, to give us a blueprint for this most basic and central policy architecture of a civilised society?
It’s not hard to imagine what the principles and values of a Scottish welfare system should be. Indeed, if you oppose what the Tories and Lib Dems are doing to the British welfare state, you have your route map. But what they are doing should not be the starting point – we don’t need a fairer system, we need a fair one.
Such a welfare state should be fundamentally universal, available to all who need it, when they need it, without hoops for people to jump through – hoops which, by their very nature,create layers of impenetrable bureaucracy designed to keep people out.
It should also provide for the needs of those who cannot create enough of their own income through work, whatever their circumstances, so that they and their families get to enjoy a decent standard of living. The evidence of failing to do this is all around us. Suppressing benefit levels consigns significant sections of our society to poverty – poverty of income, access, aspiration and social mobility – and results in associated “povertys” such as food and fuel.
And we also know that systemic and generational poverty in communities spawns a host of incidental social problems, including ill-health, low educational attainment and skills, crime, violence, family breakdown, homelessness, substance misuse, child neglect and abuse. And all of these cost much more than funding a fair welfare state. Thus, it cannot be predicated on what we – sitting in judgement of course – deem to be affordable. A fair welfare state looks for the means to pay for it after its values and principles have been established.
Moreover, a fair welfare state cannot be calibrated without addressing some of the other injustices in our economy. It should not enable employers in whatever sector to pay people a pittance. It should not allow energy companies to charge its poorest customers proportionately the most for heating and lighting. It should not allow food producers to bulk out their offerings with the unhealthiest of additives nor supermarkets to charge a premium for fresh and healthy food. It should not facilitate the creation of multi-tier access to financial supports and products nor the flourishing of sharp practice.
The most important principle of all in a fair welfare state is that it aims to deliver social justice and to address inequality. It should be based on the rights of all – both temporary and permanent residents – to have access to benefits, financial and in kind, whatever the reason they find themselves in need. It must not, cannot, be allowed to establish a hierarchy nor a moral code which allows some to sit in judgement of others, to distinguish the supposedly deserving from the undeserving poor. In short, a fair welfare state must be founded on the principle that we are citizens, not supplicants.