Clearly, the Scottish Labour MPs who trailed the Tories into the lobby to vote for the welfare cap in the House of Commons yesterday didn’t hear the Mental Welfare Commission’s condemnation of the new benefits system, far less take time to read its investigation report. Following the suicide of a woman who failed her work capability assessment – not a scrounger in the parlance but a woman who had worked most of her adult life until becoming ill with significant mental health issues in her fifties – the Commission examined her particular case in the wider context of the welfare reform progamme, surveying psychiatrists to gauge the impact of these assessments on a wider cohort of individuals with mental health issues.
Its investigation found that “the decision [relating to the woman’s benefits] was made on the basis of an assessment that contained insufficient information about her mental health” and that more generally, “the work capability assessment needs to be more sensitive to mental health issues“. Effectively, how she was treated and communicated with, contributed to her taking her own life.
We can expect more tragic stories like this, following the application of a welfare cap as part of the UK budget – or Charter for Budget Responsibility as it is properly called. This puts a ceiling on overall expenditure on benefits. It excludes state pensions, council tax benefit (now devolved) and job seekers’ allowance but includes all the benefits paid to people due to disability or ill-health such as disability living allowance, carers’ allowance and incapacity benefits. It will also affect families with children as it includes child benefit and pensioners will not escape its potential impact either, for it includes winter fuel payments and attendance allowance. It is not just aimed at those out of work but will cap the amount of benefits paid to those in work as well, especially those with children, encompassing tax credits and also housing benefit (which is relied on by many in work-related poverty to meet housing costs).
The details clearly do not appear to have bothered most of Scotland’s MPs. Only the SNP’s five and two hardy Labour souls with a conscience – Katy Clark and Michael Connarty – voted against it. Apparently, this is because Labour had to avoid the “political bear trap” set for it by the Tories. Presumably this means that had it abstained or voted against, the Conservatives aided and abetted by the right wing press would have attacked Labour for being soft on benefit scroungers.
Some left-leaning lobby journalists – yes, that’s you Kevin Schofield and Torcuil Crichton – tried to conflate this cap on overall welfare spending with the cap on individual household benefits. All the better to try and embarrass the Nats you see, thanks to a line in an interview by the First Minister which suggested there might be a place for limiting the amount of benefits any one household could claim. Apparently, this made the SNP hypocrites and this was the real story from yesterday for some Laboury types.
Which just goes to show how far some will travel in their efforts to protect the Labour party. For having voted for it yesterday, presumably this means Labour will continue to apply the cap, if it wins the 2015 General Election. And while a cap might be superficially popular because no one understands it – because no one beyond the policy wonks has tried to understand and explain it – that won’t last once it starts to bite.
In practical terms, if expenditure on welfare looks set to breach the cap, cuts must be made to prevent that happening. The biggest area of expenditure is on tax credits – the money the government pays to help people work, either through childcare tax credits or because their wages are at such low levels, the state has to augment their income to make work pay. The second biggest is on housing benefit – and we are already seeing the damage being done by the dread bedroom tax. Labour if voted in in 2015 proposes to ditch the spare room subsidy but hasn’t quite got round to telling us what it might do instead, which is now a rather urgent issue, having supported this ceiling.
Next up is the bill for supporting disabled people – many of whom rely on DLA (as it was) to provide care and travel support to enable them to work incidentally – and that too will need to be kept under control. Expect more humiliating work capacity assessments then and potentially, more destitute disabled people. And more suicides.
This political gimmick has the potential to hurt hundreds of thousands of people across these islands, because little attention has been paid to current demographic trends. First, we are experiencing a baby boom – more people having babies means more statutory maternity pay and child benefit being paid and more demand for child and childcare tax credits. Which should be a good thing but according to the Tories, Lib Dems and now Labour, now isn’t.
Second, we may be in economic recovery but the data also shows that many are having to work part-time and that wages have been largely frozen, thus meaning potentially more qualifying for working tax credits. Third, we are also an ageing population: more of us survive well into old age for longer, meaning more will have to be spent on things like winter fuel payments and attendance allowance.
Finally, as this excellent analysis points out, in times of economic instability, forecasting the amount a government needs to spend on welfare and benefits is difficult. Plucking figures out of the air for now will only work if the rest of the economic forecasts are accurate – and we know how good the Tory-Lib Dem government has been at this.
Still, I’m sure this is exactly the kind of homework all those Labour MPs did before they responded to the crack of the party whip. Now all we need is a plan from the Eds not just to avoid adverse headlines but also which will prevent ordinary people – hard working families! squeezed middle! those hardest hit by the cost of living crisis! – bearing the brunt of unfair and unjustified cuts to their benefits and household incomes.
And just in case they haven’t quite got round to that yet, here’s one Scotland prepared earlier: independence.