A fair welfare state provides for citizens not supplicants

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.


10 thoughts on “A fair welfare state provides for citizens not supplicants

  1. Great comment on FoodBanks, my family would have qualified for help many times, if we were willing to crawl (and have it on record we couldn’t feed our kids), but food allergies meant there was never any point, and quite frankly I’d sooner shoplift

  2. Great Post Kate – Followed

    I’m just starting to open my eyes to the vile hate-mongering that is being generated by this government and our media.

    Please could you take a look at and bump my blog too at quackecho.wordpress.com as well?

  3. Marvellous piece Kate, I hope all political parties can read this, might shame them then again maybe not

  4. It is useful to understand what interest the Tory Party serves. No matter how they dress it up the Tory Party is a conspriracy against the common good. By appealing to a significant section of the population on a whole array of false pretexts – opposition to unlimited immigration, work shy scroungers, support of queen and country and our brave boys, moral rectitude etc etc etc. they gain and hold onto power for the few that own much of the power and privilege in our society (When the independence bandwagon takes on the aspects of a certainty they will be on the bandwagon in double quick time to hold onto wha they have in our country). Imperial capitalism is their creed and they will save that at all costs. Capitalism can only work if the majority work to enrich a small minority and in UK to feed the beast that this the inperial London city state. The Tories believe this is a perfectly acceptable course of action. When from time to time capitalism implodes as it must due to greed getting out of control the protective drawbridge is drawn up and most of us are left outside till another opportunity to exploit us comes along.
    Hard times are good for us and we’re all in it together – my arse.
    Sadly today the Labour Party has joined the wrong side. Once the Labour Party convinced itself that its raison d’etre was to gain and hold onto power rather than to fight for a decent society it’s cause was abandoned. Clement Attlee’s Labour may have devised much of the Welfare State. It was the Tories in goverment that put much of it into operation due to a Labour Prty in opposition fighting for the things it believed in.
    Labour no more. It has been swallowed by the establishment

  5. The process of demonising the disadvantaged has been going on unchecked for some time. The word “benefits” has been given a pejorative meaning as a part of this and I prefer as far as possible to use the word “services”. or “provision”
    The recent changes in Child benefit will produce an accounting shambles, a reason for people to lie, millions of reams of paperwork and will save no money. That is not the point.
    It represents the Trojan Horse that will destroy the concept of universal provision and the fact that they have got this through without determined Labour opposition is a symbol of the total abandonment of Labour of its tradition. But it also means that they can now move on to the next totem and knock it down as well.

  6. Your best post yet, Kate! The “expert team” needs at least 3 more women and strong input from the voluntary sector for balance.

  7. Not only are the Tories intent on characterising the debate as “Strivers Vs Slackers”, they created the contitions for people to descend into becoming “Slackers”. Remember that in the 80’s money flowed into the benefits system, purely for the purposes of creating a “flexible employment market”. Of course the idea that this would create an alternative class did not occur to the Tories (or maybe it did, who knows).

    Indeed 13 years in power saw no real attempt to provide root and branch reform of the benefits system. Prehaps New Labour were spooked by the opposition to the Minimum wage. Certainly a lot of the “strivers” who will be worse off are in that position because our elected leaders have shown no interest in tackling the real issue, our very low wages. Tax Credits were in effect a subsidy for employers to continue to pay low wages when the “sun was shining”.

    Its not desirable that Sturgeon has picked four rich men to form her “experts” to look at any future benefits system. I would hope that they do take soundings because the benefits systems do need root & branch reform (rather like our tax systems). I do suspect that it will be a talking shop that is as much use as the preverbial chocolate fireguard

  8. Pingback: A fair welfare state provides for citizens not supplicants | Politics Scotland | Scoop.it

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