Withdrawing benefits when there are no jobs to find is just cruel

A doctor writes first hand of the repercussions of Whitehall hyperbole on benefits.

The government knows exactly what it's doing. When the Prime Minister broadcast his intention to substantially shrink the benefits system, it wasn't because he's blissfully unaware of the consequences. He knows this will remove a crucial lifeline that could condemn millions to an inescapable cycle of poverty.

A pattern is developing with this government. Policies are announced that seem so clearly detrimental, those enacting them are declared by detractors as either oblivious to the ramifications or utterly callous. But rather than dismiss their decisions as the immoral acts of ignorant elitists, I want to understand their politics. Instead of blustering and chastising, I'm willing to consider that Cameron's cabinet are neither naive nor malicious. I'd like to know how they justify their actions, and why they think what they're proposing is right.

As an NHS doctor I can't agree with sweeping cuts to welfare. We need a social security safety net because the unexpected is precisely that. You cannot predict the personal disasters that drive the need for benefits, in the same way that no-one sets out to require emergency medical treatment. It's not a culture of entitlement, and it's not a lifestyle choice. It's a last resort. Doctors see first hand the repercussions of Whitehall hyperbole. Half a million people will lose their disability living allowance by 2016. They won't lose their disability. Accident and Emergency departments face the overwhelming challenge of a newly homeless generation when housing benefit for under the twenty-fives is withdrawn. When government aid is withheld from the people who need it  the most, the NHS feels the impact.

Nonetheless, the Conservative's idea is perfectly valid: switch the emphasis from benefits to employment. Make it more profitable to work than to rely on the state. Enable all people from every part of society to determine their own existence, instead of being reliant on the whims of government funded charity. It's a well known argument:give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he feasts for a lifetime.

Even when judged by their own standards, this government falls short. So far they've taken away the fish. This is the easy half, the half that abdicates state responsibility for the most vulnerable in society. Truly compassionate conservatism would be to ensure a reliable alternative income for each and every person who has their benefits withdrawn. Otherwise those previously trapped on handouts will be just as trapped, but without any financial support at all.

Unicef has already warned the UK government that their spending cuts will reverse the progress made on tackling child poverty. A recent joint report from Action for Children, the NSPCC and The Children's Society has concluded that depression, poor quality housing and poverty are far more prevalent than government figures suggest. Children's charity Kids Company has seen a two hundred percent increase in families relying on them to avoid starvation over the past twelve months. Further cuts to basic social securities will do little to help this sobering trend.

Reducing housing benefit, capping the numbers eligible for council houses and asking the jobless to do full time community work for free does nothing to address the fundamental flaw in Cameron's argument. Focusing on jobs not handouts conveniently forgets that employment is the part you need to get right first. It relies on a buoyant jobs market where employers are willing to risk their business on a previously unemployed and potentially unskilled workforce. The UK is fast approaching three million unemployed. In today's calamitous economic situation, even the most qualified and most experienced remain out of work.

Giving people no choice but to find a job is a great way to get them off benefits. Unless there are no jobs. There is no plan to address the fallout of Cameron's rhetoric. The new homeless, impoverished disabled and jobless millions don't factor into his equation, where you're either productive and employed or a work-shy fraudster. The least appropriate action for the government is precisely what they're promoting: withdrawing the only means of survival for someone powerless to change their circumstances without help. No matter how you cut it, that's cruel.

Tom Riddington is a NHS hosptial doctor with a special interest in medical ethics and healthcare politics. You can find him on twitter @drtomriddington.

 

Job seekers need jobs to find. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.