From welfare to warfare

This week, the Lords battles it out with the government over the fate of Britain's benefits system. Faced with a small army including bishops, Lib Dems and enraged disability campaigners, their tactics are getting tougher and dirtier.
Simon Barrow
23 January 2012

The Welfare Reform Bill (WRB) comes back to the House of Lords for the final leg of its Report Stage this week, with the government bloodied but unbowed in its determination to radically reshape health, welfare and social provision.

Conservatives want to end what they claim is a ‘culture of entitlement’ by shrinking state investment and involvement, introducing ever-larger private and voluntary elements into public provision, and shifting from a web of universal care (the welfare state as was) towards a much smaller ‘safety net’ for the most vulnerable only.  

Apparently ‘the most vulnerable’ do not include large numbers of children, disabled and sick people, the jobless or those on low incomes, according to the fabric of complex changes put forward by the two key bills – the other one being the Health and Social Care Bill for England.

While the rhetoric is about efficiency and effectiveness, there can be little doubt that these changes are ideologically driven. They are also pitching the coalition against a sensitive swathe of those they seek to rule. In particular, the government has been up against disabled people, whose Spartacus Report exposing deeply flawed consultation on the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and in the process helped to inflict an unprecedented three defeats on the Welfare Reform Bill in one House of Lords session a fortnight ago.

Last week, the government fought off another strong attempt to get them to delay and pilot the introduction of reduced and controversially assessed Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) in place of DLA. But they had to make significant concessions on, among other things, the involvement of qualified local doctors in assessment, and they still won by only 16 votes. If just a few more non-Conservative Lords had turned up and voted the other way, they would have been defeated for a fourth time.

Now eighteen senior Church of England bishops are combining with rebel Lib Dems, led by former party leader Paddy Ashdown, to mount a high-profile challenge the £26,000 welfare benefit cap which will hit poor families, those trapped in uncapped private rented housing, and other claimants.

The government’s tactics in all this look increasingly shabby and desperate. Stung by his humiliating triple defeat, Lord Freud used a trick procedural amendment, after many peers had left, in order to overturn the will of the Lords on one WRB amendment.  The cabinet refused to discuss the issues raised by the Lords defeats. David Cameron has indicated that he will seek ‘financial privilege’ for the Bill in the Commons, to expedite it in the teeth of opposition from a huge range of charities, medical professionals, welfare experts and public figures.

A Freedom of Information request revealed that between 74% and 98% of expert organisations giving evidence to the government opposed key changes to DLA – which at the bottom line are about imposing a 20% reduction in costs, irrespective of need. Thousands of individual lobbyists and around three million Twitter users were mobilised on this by disabled and sick Spartacus campaigners and their allies – another major landmark in social media activism.

Tabloid newspapers have been fed, and have transmitted, a diet of ‘scrounger’ stories and selective scaremongering statistics by politicians and civil servants backing government plans to slash welfare. But the public mood is still questioning or restive. 

Now Iain Duncan-Smith, the flag-bearer of ‘compassionate Conservatism’, and Nick Clegg, who says his party are not lapdogs but critical partners of the Tories, have united in seeking to trash the knowledge of Anglican bishops who say current welfare reforms will make life less bearable for the worst off – while again harping on the populist ‘benefit cheats’ theme.

Last week a sordid attempt was made to play the immigration card. But minister Chris Grayling was forced to admit that just 2% of migrants on benefits (that's a total of 180 people) have been revealed by the DWP to have made false claims. And the DLA fraud rate is just 0.5%.

Meanwhile, it has been cheaply suggested by government spokespeople that the more than 70% of doctors who (according to polls) back the British Medical Association’s critique of creeping NHS privatization in England are doing so for purely selfish reasons and to defend their pensions.

Again and again, the government is stretching credibility in its tactics, its accusations and its attempts to defend particular elements of its reforms that will palpably disadvantage the most vulnerable. But its eyes remain very firmly fixed on a parliamentary majority, on the political goal of shrinking the state, on the economic aim of saving up to £18 billion in the process, and on an attempt to shift the burden of deficit-reduction from friends in the City to targets in inner cities and outer estates.

Welfare has now given way to open warfare. These latest battles are as much about the soul (or lack of it) of the coalition project as they are about money or the demographics of power. The government can command majorities in both Houses. But it is losing the argument, losing good will and storing up massive costs (financial and political) for the future. 

Simon Barrow is co-director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia.

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