THE daffodils are blooming, so it must be time for more benefit cuts. When you live under ideologically driven austerity, April is, indeed, the cruellest month.
It is said that you can judge a nation by how it treats its weakest members, and this year, yet again, the sick and disabled find themselves in the UK Government’s crosshairs.
People who are unable to work have to survive on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Anyone applying for this benefit from today, who is put in the Work Related Activity Group, will get only the same grossly inadequate £73.10 a week that they would get on Jobseeker’s Allowance. This is a cut of £29.05 on the previous rate, and the Government claims it will encourage them to find jobs. But the reason they are getting ESA is because they have been found unfit for work. Even if they were able to find someone prepared to employ them, a job could be seriously damaging.
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Such treatment might seem like pure vindictive cruelty, but it makes perfect sense if understood as part of a deliberate ideologically driven attack on the welfare state. In our increasingly divided society, the greater part of the population are required to fulfil the role of workers and consumers – that is consumers of privately produced goods and services. Work is portrayed as the answer to all problems, and those not working, for whatever reason, are to be despised as failures. While the cuts in benefits have produced immediate savings in government expenditure (they may result in more costs further down the line), this is not their primary purpose. Benefit cuts are part of a deliberate paring away of the protections that separate us from unrestrained market forces.
When unemployment means destitution and derision, then workers will accept poor pay and conditions without protest rather than risk their job and a fall into the abyss.
And the current brutal tick-box system for assessing ESA came out of consultations with a US health insurance firm who were experts in creating a process where people did not qualify for pay-outs, and who envisaged a future whereby the UK would be increasingly dependent on private insurance rather than publicly funded social security. Another long-time favourite target is lone parents, and the UK is again following the example of the US by increasing the pressures for them to find work. From this month, they will be expected to do preparatory activities when their youngest child turns two, and look for a part-time job when they are three.
There is more than a touch of eugenics in official attitudes to poor families, and this is exemplified by the ending of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent element in Universal Credit) for any third or subsequent children born after April 6 – subject, of course, to the infamous rape clause. They will lose their extra Housing Benefit too.
All this is in addition to previous devastating cuts, caps, and reduced rates, and also the tightening of rules and sanctions – including their extension (through Universal Credit) to some people in work.
This spring does bring positive changes in the form of further devolution of benefits as a result of the Smith Commission; but these are limited (just 15 per cent of Scotland’s total benefit spend) and are taking a long time to come into operation. The planned changes to PIP (the benefit to cover the extra costs associated with being disabled) sound good, but many people quite literally can’t wait years for them to be implemented.
They need at least some changes now. Even the knowledge that future Scottish training schemes for the unemployed will be voluntary and not lead to sanctions will seem hollow to those who are already on the current two-year schemes and will be expected to see them through.
So, for people on benefits, and people who help them, and anyone who cares about working conditions or the welfare state, there is a lot more to campaign about in the year ahead. We need to protest against this system at every turn and make it unworkable, we need to ensure that our Scottish Government does as much as possible with the powers we already have, and we need to campaign for independence and the power to create real social security.
Sarah Glynn is an activist and organiser with the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network, and edited their recent book Righting Welfare Wrongs, published by Common Weal.