A call to arms for Labour on welfare reform

Does Labour want to rebuild the model of the liberal welfare state or try something different?

Today the Welfare Reform Bill returns to the House of Commons to debate the amendments won in the Lords. To mark the occasion, Soundings journal publishes an e-book, Welfare Reform The dread of things to come. It is written by people who have spent years bringing public attention to the impact of welfare reform on the most vulnerable people in society.

Like the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the Labour governments's 2009 Welfare Reform Act was provoked by a moral panic about the feckless poor, and the rising cost of welfare payments. Labour appeared unaware of the squeeze on wages for the bottom half of the working population. Globalisation and the economic boom were not trickling income and wealth down, they were spiralling upward to a small elite. Rising living standards for lower paid families were being sustained only by private borrowing and the growth in women's jobs. The result was growing indebtedness and increasing pressure on individuals and domestic life. Popular resentment toward people on benefits was being stoked by media stories of a dependency culture of welfare cheats. Rising immigration fuelled feelings of unfairness and resentment toward the political class and fed into the clamour against benefit scroungers.

Like the Poor Law, the target of welfare reform was the able-bodied worker who was considered to be shirking his or her duty to work. But Labour and coalition governments excluded the health dimension of the out of work problem. The large number of people living with limiting long term illness and its impact on individuals and their employability was not properly taken into account. It was politically expedient to focus on the supposed moral failings of the individual claimant, and the assumption that, contrary to the evidence, very large numbers were simply avoiding work.

A questionable evidence base and political calculation meant the design of welfare reform was organised around increasing conditionality. The lack of jobs, the inappropriate nature of many jobs for sick or disabled people, the considerable employer resistance to taking on the mentally or physically unwell, were downplayed in favour of a punitive approach to claimants. Like the poor law, welfare reform has ended up punishing the sick and disabled.

In the House of Lords, Labour has succeeded in defeating the government in a series of amendments. But this success masks a problem. Labour peers sprung a litany of amendments but they lacked a shared ideological project about the kind of welfare system they wanted. There was concern for fairness and compassion, a heartfelt fear of the impact on children, and awareness of the spectre of homelessness. But what kind of welfare system does Labour stand for? It seems to boil down to the Conservatives' system but a bit nicer here and there.

Whatever compromises emerge, the larger questions about the future of our welfare state remain. Labour will need to rethink its approach to welfare or risk being sucked into the political slipstream of the Conservatives. It will find itself assenting to measures and then qualifying its assent. It has a political problem because people do not know what it stands for and because it is viewed by many as being soft on welfare. It can never resolve its identity crisis nor sustain longer term popular support by trying to out-nasty the Tories.

By the time the Poor Law came into effect with its workhouses and principle of less eligibility hostility toward the poor had already peaked. Its cruelties and humiliations became notorious and it was met with considerable public resistance. A similar pattern is already emerging around welfare reform and its harsh and humiliating treatment of people who are ill or disabled.

Does Labour want to rebuild the model of the liberal welfare state or try something different? The question needs serious consideration. Beveridge's liberal legacy does not look politically robust today. It is not succeeding in protecting the most vulnerable. It risks being undermined by profit-seeking companies. Its safety net is mean and tattered. Who wants the impoverishment of the Job Seekers Allowance or the humiliation and fear of the Work Capability Assessment? Unlike the NHS, the welfare system lacks public support: in hard times and over longer periods of time, large fractions of the 80 per cent lose their sense of obligation toward paying for the needs of the twenty per cent.

In the coming period of austerity, welfare will be a critical political issue. The challenges of labour market volatility, of the soaring cost of pensions and an aging population, of a tax system in need of redesign, and of restructuring capitalism for wealth creation and jobs, might be better met with a reciprocal, contribution-based system of social insurance which ensures protection and is more politically robust. But it must be one that hard-wires compassion into its structure for those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to contribute. It will involve a massive change, perhaps one that is politically impossible given the liberal traditions of welfare in this country. But the present system is failing and the political prize for changing it would be enduring and historical. The call belongs to Labour, with its traditions of popular mutual aid and reciprocity.

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The SATs strike: why parents are taking their children out of school to protest against exams

Parents are keeping their children away from school to highlight the dangers of “over testing” young pupils.

My heart is beating fast and I feel sick. I force myself to eat some chocolate because someone said it might help. I take a deep breath and open the door…

The hall is silent except for the occasional cough and the shuffling of chairs. The stench of nervous sweat lingers in the air.

“Turn over your papers, you may begin.”

I look at the clock and I am filled with panic. I feel like I might pass out. I pick up my pen but my palms are so sweaty it is hard to grip it properly. I want to cry. I want to scream, and I really need the toilet.

This was how I felt before every GCSE exam I took. I was 16. This was also how I felt before taking my driving test, aged 22, and my journalism training (NCTJ) exams when I was 24.

Being tested makes most of us feel anxious. After all, we have just one chance to get stuff right. To remember everything we have learned in a short space of time. To recall facts and figures under pressure; to avoid failure.

Even the most academic of adults can find being in an exam situation stressful, so it’s not hard to imagine how a young child about to sit their Year 2 SATs must feel.

Today thousands of parents are keeping their kids off school in protest at these tough new national tests. They are risking fines, prosecution and possible jail time for breach of government rules. By yesterday morning, more than 37,000 people had signed a petition backing the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign and I was one of them.

I have a daughter in reception class who will be just six years old when she sits her SATs. These little ones are barely out of pull-up pants and now they are expected to take formal exams! What next? Babies taught while they are in the womb? Toddlers sitting spelling tests?

Infants have fragile self-esteem. A blow to their confidence at such an impressionable age can affect them way into adulthood. We need to build them up not tear them down. We need to ensure they enjoy school, not dread it. Anxiety and fear are not conducive to learning. It is like throwing books at their heads as a way of teaching them to read. It will not work. They are not machines. They need to want to learn.

When did we stop treating children like children? Maybe David Cameron would be happier if we just stopped reproducing all together. After all, what use to the economy are these pesky kids with their tiny brains and individual emotional needs? Running around all happy and carefree, selfishly enjoying their childhood without any regard to government statistics or national targets.

Year 2 SATs, along with proposals for a longer school day and calls for baseline reception assessments (thankfully now dropped) are just further proof that the government do not have our children’s best interests at heart. It also shows a distinct lack of common sense. It doesn’t take a PhD in education to comprehend that a child is far more likely to thrive in a calm, supportive and enjoyable environment. Learning should be fun. The value in learning through play seems to be largely underestimated.

The UK already has a far lower school starting age than many other countries, and in my opinion, we are already forcing them into a formal learning environment way too soon.

With mental health illness rates among British children already on the rise, it is about time our kids were put first. The government needs to stop “throwing books at heads” and start listening to teachers and parents about what is best for the children.

Emily-Jane Clark is a freelance journalist, mother-of-two and creator of stolensleep.com, a humorous antithesis to baby advice.