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Britain's 'tough choices': a call for a new approach to welfare

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At the Citizens Advice Bureau the real Thatcher legacy can be seen every day: social disengagement, indifference and injustice. It is Thatcherism that needs burying.

Deborah Padfield
26 April 2013

I wonder what each minute gun salute from Tower Hill cost last Wednesday. Surely Margaret Thatcher could have spared one of them. They could have started a minute later. The money saved would have come in handy in Peterborough, as I tried to decide if a client was in need enough to receive a maximum £15 top-up on her gas meter, or if I should be more sparing. Someone more desperate might come in later in the month.

The utility top-up for people in emergency need is part of Peterborough City Council’s system for replacing JobCentre Plus’ old final safety-net for the desperate. Crisis loans and community care grants were abolished this month and local authorities were given the job of replacing them, at their discretion. Different Local Authorities are approaching it differently, with no ring-fenced funding from government. This is alongside the long-existing and invaluable food parcels provided by the Trussell Trust, whose vouchers are distributed by many CABx.

In my job as a Citizens Advice Bureau supervisor, I have to make what the government call “tough choices” every day. I haven’t quite worked out how to assess the level of hunger or desperation. It’s relatively easy to check when someone’s on means-tested benefits. Magistrates’ court fines and possession notices tell their own tale. And people are ready tell their story. It’s hardest for those newest to this degree of want: they have a shock as they realise that they, now part of the ‘dependent’ poor, are allowed no privacy or pride. We know too well that there are others out there, desperate but physically or emotionally unable to seek for help.

But given that there isn’t unlimited funding for utilities or supplies of food, it’s trickier to assess whether this man’s desperation now is as great as that family’s might be, later in the month. How hungry is ‘hungry’? How cold is ‘cold’?

Splitting the pie

We hear so much about welfare benefits and unemployed scroungers. It is idiocy to blame low-income tenants for the costs of housing benefits, a fruit of the housing shortage and rocketing rents; for tax credits, a fruit of unsustainably low pay; and for unemployment benefit, product of a jobs shortage. And such a blame-game ignores the fact that benefits don’t only benefit the poor.

The basic state pension is far the biggest item in the welfare bill; and since life expectancy is higher amongst the wealthiest, they are disproportionately the recipients of that largesse. According to Professor Goran Therborn of Cambridge University, ‘The gap in life expectancy between Calton and the leafy Glasgow suburb of Lenzie is 28 years – the same as that between the UK and Haiti…. Those living in Chelsea-Kensington have a life expectancy 17 years longer than people living in Tottenham Green’. Further, ‘between 1999 and 2008 the gap in life expectancy between London boroughs widened by almost four years.’

Apart from the pension bill, it’s not only the poor who gain from welfare benefits: ‘In total 32% percent of all benefits paid last year went to people who are wealthier than average, a total of 53 billion pounds. Excluding the state pension, 28 percent of all benefits go to the better off half of the population, a total of 30 billion pounds,’ according to Neil O’Brien in the Daily Telegraph. He is talking about child benefit, contribution-based incapacity benefits, Disability Living Allowance and tax credits. I do not quote this in support of a means-tested approach to welfare benefits; merely to balance the poor-scrounger arguments.

And who benefits from the bedroom tax? It affects many of the poorest, people in social housing who have – not through luxurious choice but through happenstance – ended up in ‘too large’ a property. Many won’t be able to afford the rent, or will have to choose between it, council tax, food and warmth. Many other seriously poor and vulnerable people are already in the private rented sector, increasingly so now that LAs can discharge their homelessness duty by placing priority-need people in private rented accommodation (a fruit of the Localism Act 2011). More social tenants will be forced by the bedroom tax to join them, desperately searching for a way to downsize.  They may well find they’ve jumped from frying pan into fire, for rents are higher in the private sector, often well above what HB allows. Perversely, even so the cost to the LA is tends to be higher than the cost of HB for a social tenant. Neither LA nor tenant will gain by such downsizing. Private landlords will.

Nor is the bedroom tax April’s only major whammy. For some reason there’s been far less comment about the replacement of council tax benefit by a council tax subsidy levied at LAs’ discretion. In Peterborough, people hitherto on 100% benefit will now have to pay 30% of council tax; in nearby Fenland, 8.5%. Peterborough magistrates’ courts and their bailiffs will gain a surge in work as people can’t pay. Again, neither LA nor its taxpayers will benefit. Government will, as it passes on responsibility for its cuts. So will those who wish to see the collapse of local government.

Welfare, Thatcher and dysfunctional society

Since the welfare state was born in the 1940s and overwhelmingly in the last quarter century, this country has altered out of all recognition. Work has changed, and with it the potential for worklessness among those who have not been enabled to reskill. Family structure and population levels have changed, and with them demands for housing and publicly-provided non-family support. Longevity has changed, with treatment delaying death by illness or disability but not abolishing vulnerabilities.

These are fundamental shifts, with which our political, social and economic structures have failed – or rather have hardly tried – to keep pace. So one golden post-war achievement has been reversed. Inequality dived between the 1940s and ’70s; then bounded back up. Welfare benefits are now being made to carry the burdens of a dysfunctional society whose malaise needs fundamental analysis and change. Playing the blame game is superficial, long-term counter-productive and despicably unjust.

It’s a change of heart that we need. You can be cold and hungry, and life can still be good. That, I suppose, was Iain Duncan-Smith’s meaning with his confident claim that he could live on £53 per week. But if you’re cold, hungry and despised; cold, hungry and blamed; cold, hungry and worn down by endlessly trying and hoping and having the struggles and the hopes flung back in your face: then life can’t be good.

One outcome of Thatcher’s and her successors’ policies is a corrosive culture of distrust and indifference. Few forces can be more socially destructive and economically weakening. She is dead but her legacy is not: the legacy of disengagement from society.

Social responsibility: a moral tale

I recently worked with a man in his late 50s. He won his appeal against a four-week JSA sanction, but meanwhile he’d had to live on his aged mother and his friends, all of them already on the financial edge. His anger – even sense of defilement – came partly from the arrogant injustice of JobCentre Plus’ judgment of him as failing to meet his commitments; partly from being thrust into such dependence.

Probably my man’s mother and friends didn’t begrudge the money. They will know that he’ll help them as best he can when needed. I honour that level of mutual commitment. I don’t see it in richer people. Not at the level of personal cost and risk offered by those who are poor. The spectres of debt and eviction will be haunting those who helped him.

The benefit system assumes mutual responsibility amongst the poor. To have a hope of a hardship payment when benefits are sanctioned, you have to show you’ve no other source of help – primarily loans from family or friends. CABx see a lot of such debts, and have to advise unhappy clients that they aren’t priorities for repayment. Rent, council tax, utilities and court fines all take precedence. So in practice do many non-priority debts since the big beasts – banks, commercial companies, loan sharks – have legal and illegal resources for debt collection far beyond the individual. Your friend can only take action in the small claims court and if you’ve no money, s/he won’t be able to enforce the action anyway.  People who ‘lend’ to friends or family are often donors, and they know it.

People on minimum wages (or below) keep our economy afloat. As employees, picking our veggies and cleaning our loos and as workers, caring for our children and our disabled neighbours. Calculate the output of social responsibility per unit of available human energy, and there’s no question who comes out highest: the benefit scroungers of Peterborough or the tax-payers of Kensington and Chelsea.

True, the wealthier population pay their taxes – those lucky enough to work 40 or 50 (or 10) hour weeks and be paid handsomely for it in money and social standing. It is a privilege to pay taxes. Would not minimum-wage earners dream of such a privilege, as they work a fluctuating 2 or 10 or 40 or 60 hours, plus job-searching, hunting for cheap food, walking because the bus is too expensive and/or caring for children? Those I talk to would.

Time for change

It’s a sense of social responsibility we need: not just among the poor but also among those who gain from our rich economy and give nothing back.

Some rich people and companies are responding, but it’s small, so small. The voluntary sector and LAs shouldn’t need to seek out volunteers and partners – they don’t have the resources to do it. We need queues of financially comfortable people volunteering to work at CABx, advising people on the maze of law, regulation and unlawful action confronting them. Offering to share skills in literacy, numeracy and business practice with others desperate to use their pent-up enterprise but lacking the necessary know-how. We need lawyers coming forward with pro bono advice, and businesses creating apprenticeships or moving closer to the living wage. Not the struggling small businesses, but the big beasts. Amazon is in Peterborough. It’s well-researched as a zero-hour-contract exploiter and a tax avoider/evader. It could afford some social responsibility.

Our Bureau volunteers have been surprisingly resilient in face of April’s foreseen but still shocking increased demands. But last week three said to me how hard it is to face the flow of intractable problems. Two were youngsters, law graduates hunting for traineeships, one an older woman. It batters them, but they’re not running away. They know we don’t have the right to give up – there’s no room for such luxuries.

We need a government with the vision and moral courage to call upon all citizens to share in the struggle which this financial crisis has brought upon us; to show us exemplars of people from all walks of life who are doing just that; to create a climate of encouragement, shared endeavour and hope rather than spreading the toxins of distrust. 

What I’m talking about here is political choices. There is a macho allure about iron laws of economics and iron ladies; about the call for ‘tough choices’. As in war, the allure of power – of being the one making the tough choices at others’ expense – distorts the vision.

There are strong economic as well as social and political arguments for a greater equality of wealth and power. They demand not crude toughness but thoughtful, long-term courage.

Dead Thatcher is not dead. Poor people pay for her legacy as well as her gun salutes. It’s more than time to bury her so that society can re-emerge.

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