Do you ever miss the era when you didn’t know what a benefit sanction was?
That innocent time, before the Department for Work and Pensions renamed a family a “benefit unit”?
One of the great luxuries of no longer having a Conservative-led government would be not having to learn any more about their intricately boring, functionally brutal social security innovations.
Look, I’m no Pollyanna. There are clearly question marks over a possible Labour/SNP coalition: how is it going to work, for a start, now that Labour has explicitly promised not to talk to the SNP? Prime minister’s questions would look like a cocktail party with two exes blanking each other. We’ll know they’re in love, but they’ll be too angry to see it.
And what, exactly, is Ed Miliband’s rent capping idea?
The beginning of a new courage, as he sets his face to the blizzard of the rentier economy?
Or a canny bid for the votes of people who don’t think any politicians are capable of anything?
These are battles for the future, and I would have them 1,000 times rather than watch unfold the nightmare of “in-work conditionality”.
As part of the universal credit pilot, last week saw the beginning of new requirements on the number of hours worked: under these regulations, anyone earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours on the minimum wage would be subject to pressure which could end in a sanction.
The second parent in the “benefit unit” would be required to work a minimum of 16 hours, taking the working week for the family up to 51 hours, before the threat of sanctions would be lifted.
Over the coming year, 15,000 families will be placed on this regime, to varying degrees of stringency: some will just be nudged with a fortnightly phone call, others will have to attend regular interviews which, as we’ve seen with the regular social security picture, comes with the ever-present risk of having your benefits removed and being left with nothing.
Labour’s Baroness Sherlock asked some searching questions in the Lords in January about the ethics of doing a randomised control trial in which one of the groups suffered a real risk to their wellbeing.
Lord Freud waved the problem off, but this is the man, remember, who thinks people use food banks because there is an “infinite demand for a free good”. He probably thinks these families only had children in the first place because they presented no immediate unit cost.
It may sound as though there is no moral dishevelment more profound than deliberately leaving parents without the money to feed their children (the cost of the trial, incidentally, is £15m, which I am prepared to bet real money is more than the scheme will ever save). But there are two other aspects, one cultural and one democratic, to consider.
First, as Lindsay Judge, who conducted research on the pilot for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to be released on Monday, points out:
“If you focus on hours, you individualise the problem of low pay. It allows employers to take their eye off pay, and it allows the state to take their eye off benefits.”
To be on low wages under this regime is to be at the mercy of many different pressures: employers who think you’re expendable and are less likely to make accommodations for you, whether that means flexibility or extra hours; government agencies who will focus on increasing your hours, regardless of what that does to your family; and an inbuilt discrimination in the fact that people on the minimum wage are expected to work more in the first place (since the “conditionality” element of universal credit is based on family income, not hours worked).
But if you were to take this policy, and the demands it makes of parents, and lay it over other debates – education, where the worthy parent is at the school gates and all over the homework; or health, where good parenting involves a lot of home baking – you can see that to be on the minimum wage is, by steady increments, becoming incompatible with “respectable” parenting. This is even starker for single parents, who are of course often judged as deficient in the first place.
The democratic deficit emerges from the CPAG’s research, in which it asked two groups, one high income and one low income, how much other parents should be expected to work. Judge describes “parents being shocked at the sharpness of the state in other parents’ lives. You come up against these sharp edges all the time when you’re a low-income family and they’re really unpleasant. People who don’t have that interaction with the state are really surprised.”
CPAG found that people tended to approach the issue as parents first and taxpayers second, concluding overwhelmingly that it has to be a question of individual choice; parents must decide for themselves how many hours they work.
“Everyone said, people should be able to make the same choices about work-life balance across the income spectrum. Policies that bear down in a coercive manner are not acceptable – and that response was found in the higher- as well as the lower-income group.”
So many benefit reforms are justified on the basis that the country is sick of a something-for-nothing culture. But when you ask in-depth questions about what other people’s lives should be like, and what kind of dignity a state should respect and uphold, a much more generous, human picture emerges.
The genius of so many of these reforms has been in the naming – “spare-room subsidies” and “work-related activity groups” – they sound like technicalities rather than financial traumas. I don’t know what the in-work conditionality would have to be called for parents to stand together against it: I’d sooner not find out.
Source – The Guardian, 26 Apr 2015
A draconian rule which saw 3,600 Sandwell residents being forced to pay a higher rate in Council Tax has been ruled unlawful, Inside Housing has reported today.
Labour dominated Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, introduced a policy in April 2013 that prevented anyone who had not lived in the area for at least two years from claiming a reduction in Council Tax, regardless of whether they could afford to pay or not.
The policy affected around 3,600 local residents and was challenged by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) on behalf of three claimants, two of which have been forced to leave the area due to inability to pay the higher charge.
One of the claimants is a victim of domestic abuse, while another has mental health issues. The third is said to be a widow.
Judge Hickinbottom said that the Council’s decision to strip local residents of their right to claim a reduction in Council Tax, and subsequent legal defense, was like trying to “make bricks without straw”.
He added that the Council had presented no viable defence or evidence and was acting unlawfully by failing to conduct a “race or gender impact of the residence requirement, at or before it adopted the scheme”.
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of CPAG, said:
“This ruling confirms what should have been obvious to the Council from the start: it cannot be sensible or right to charge people on low incomes a higher rate of council tax simply because they are new to the area.
“If Sandwell Council had given any thought to this policy, or held a consultation it might have realised this earlier. Instead thousands of people have been threatened with arrears and some people, even those who like these claimants were originally born and bred in Sandwell, have been forced to move away.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 30 July 2014
Child Benefit should be limited to no more than four children per family to help cut welfare spending, say Policy Exchange.
A report by the centre-right think tank has recommended limiting child benefit for larger families. The move could save around £1 billion over the course of a parliament, say Policy Exchange.
Policy Exchange is said to have close ties with the Conservative Party and was founded by a group that included Michael Gove, Francis Maude and Nick Boles. Many of the past recommendations made by the think tank have been adopted into tory manifestos.
If this new policy is adopted, it would see child benefit progressively cut for each child born into a family, and rise by no more than 1% each year over the five-year course of a parliament.
Parents would initially receive £21.50 a week for their first child, £14.85 for the second child, £14.30 for the third and £13.70 for the fourth. Payments would be limited to no more than four children per family. Supporters of the policy claim it would help deter immigrant from coming to the UK to claim benefits for their children.
Policy Exchange said that a YouGov poll, commissioned by the think tank, found that 67% of voters would support cutting child benefit for larger families. 20% were opposed to the move.
According to the results of the poll, the proposal is supported by 83% of Conservative voters, 63% of Liberal Democrat voters and 55% of Labour voters.
The Conservatives have previously considered a similar proposal put forward by Nadim Zahawi to limit child benefit to just two children, but decided against the policy out of fear it would cost the party votes.
The author of the report, Steve Hughes, said:
“The chancellor has suggested that annual welfare savings of £12bn will have to be found to avoid further and faster cuts to departmental budgets.
“Choosing where this money comes from is not easy, but with such high levels of public support, capping child benefit at four children and redesigning payment levels offers a very real opportunity to generate some much needed savings in the fairest way possible.”
A spokesperson for the right-wing pressure group, Taxpayers Alliance, told the Daily Express:
“No one should be immune from having to make the sometimes hard choices associated with having a family and people have to realise that there is not a bottomless pit of money.”
Opponents argue that the tory-led coalition government has consistently targeted Britain’s poorest households with draconian welfare cuts, while continuing to allow multinational companies to escape paying their ‘fair share’ in tax and handing tax cuts to the highest earners, who could afford to pay more.
They also say that there has been far too much focus on cutting state benefits, rather than introducing a living wage to help parents cover the cost of living and raise their own children, instead of having to rely on benefits to top-up stagnating wages.
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) yesterday (17 June) appear to support such an argument. ONS figures show that average pay has increased by only 0.7% on this time last year, or just 0.3% excluding bonuses – well below inflation which currently stands at 1.9%.
A Survation poll for the union Unite, found that over a third (34%) of low wage earners cannot afford to shop where they work and nearly sixty percent of workers earning £6.50 or below (58%) feel trapped in low waged work. 79% of respondents said that they want work to pay and want to earn a living wage instead of depending on benefit top ups.
Welfare News Service requested a comment from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) on how limiting child benefit would impact upon child poverty figures. Unfortunately they did not respond in time for publication.
Source – Welfare News Service, 17 July 2014