In the last few days we’ve had an awful lot of sanctimonious rhetoric from the Government benches, from the Prime Minister down, expressing their outrage over a defeat in the House of Lords which they were framing as an affront to the elected chamber. But Ministers’ actions in the Commons this week suggested that, rhetoric aside, this is a Government which holds the democratic process in contempt. They are acting with the arrogance of a Government with a majority of 112, not a majority of just 12.
On Tuesday, a truly nasty piece of legislation – the Welfare Reform and Work Bill – was rammed through its final stages without the time for proper scrutiny. This Bill will force the poorest and most vulnerable to pay a £12 billion part of an austerity programme which the Government says is necessary, but which the poor had no part in creating.
It seems like a long time ago that we used to talk about a safety net for everyone. Now the Government just tries to divide us into “scroungers and strivers”, or to use the new dog-whistle phrase, “fairness to people on benefits and to the taxpayer”.
This is dangerous, dishonest and divisive. It has to be challenged. “Taxpayers” and “people on benefits” are not two separate and distinct groups of people. The truth is that millions of the people who are going to suffer most because of this Bill will be working families on low pay.
Take the two-child policy. Iain Duncan Smith has said that the policy is aimed at “bringing home to parents the reality that children cost money and if you have more kids you have to make the choices others make and not assume taxpayers’ money lets you avoid the consequences”. Has he forgotten that most families claiming tax credits with three or more children are working? How can he get away with calling them feckless and irresponsible?
And the worst part of it is that the policy has nothing to do with “choices” at all, because those who will suffer could find themselves in need of support for reasons outside their control. Perhaps the main earner in couple dies unexpectedly, leaving their partner to raise the children alone. Perhaps a mother fleeing domestic violence takes the children with her. Or perhaps somebody loses a job through redundancy, or because of an accident which leaves them disabled.
In the real world, we are not all masters of our own fates, and limiting support to two children could end up locking families into crushing poverty when they fall on hard times.
It won’t only be larger families that lose out because of this Bill. One of the measures which has been least discussed, despite being one of the most significant, is the freeze in working-age benefits and tax credits for four years. This hasn’t made the headlines, but it is important, because it largely determines whether people relying on the welfare system receive enough to meet the cost of basic necessities.
The impact of this Bill on working families will be severe, but the impact on those who cannot work – whether because of ill-health, disability, or caring responsibilities – will be far worse.
The Bill includes a £30 a week cut to ESA, for people who the system accepts can’t work because of a long-term sickness or disability. And what for? Apparently the cut will give disabled people an “incentive” to work. So the Government says it’s doing them a favour!
It includes a lower benefit cap – another policy which is packaged as an “incentive to work”, despite the fact that 85% of the people it applies to are not jobseekers, but carers, mothers of young children and, again, the disabled.
It also includes a requirement that single mothers go out to work – under threat of sanctions if they don’t – when their children are as young as three. The Government says that this is justified because there might, at some point in the future, be 30 hours a week of free childcare – just don’t hold your breath.
Families hit by this Bill will find life harder, and they will be poorer. There are hundreds of thousands of children who will be tipped into poverty. The Government knows this just as much as their critics, which has led them to the most cynical step of all: they will “abolish” child poverty by attempting to bury the evidence.
By repealing the Child Poverty Act, which forced Governments to take real action to tackle child poverty, this Government brings a proud chapter of British history to an undignified end. In future we will measure child poverty not by looking at whether they have any money, but by looking at their so-called “life chances”.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Britain led the world in finding the best ways of measuring and tackling poverty. Our approach, which was enshrined in the Child Poverty Act and was reached by cross-party consensus, served as a model for international institutions including the European Commission, the OECD, UN agencies and even the World Bank.
Now, those organisations, and the countries which once looked up to our example, are laughing at us because of this Bill, which measures child poverty without looking at money. Who can blame them?
If this Government was really interested in doing anything to help improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children, they would have etched on their shaving mirrors and make-up mirrors the fact that two thirds of children living in poverty have a parent who works. Based on the evidence of this Bill, they have forgotten that. The “Welfare Reform and Work” Bill does nothing to address low wages, or underemployment, and I haven’t even got started on how it undermines the provision of affordable housing.
The social safety net was created by a united society in the aftermath of the Second World War. It came out of a British sense of fairness. I believe that people would be aghast if they really knew how many holes the Tories had made in it this week. This isn’t what they would want from any Government. Whoever they voted for.