Amid the fury, the closure of the social fund is a quiet tragedy

This government, the most radical in recent times, is laughing at us, writes Carl Packman

Welfare reform has been a huge part of the national conversation this week, but one under-reported move by the government will see community care grants and crisis loans, which were paid through job centres as part of a centralised social fund package, end.

Instead local authorities will now have unspecified funding for alternative provision – boosting the worry that help for the most vulnerable will be subject to a postcode lottery.

While people in receipt of benefits will face more challenges, and almost certain crises, the money sources they can apply for as a last resort are being squeezed. From the bedroom tax, caps on the amount they can receive, and a real term cut after benefits are capped at 1%, measured alongside a rising cost in living, government policy is disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable, especially disabled people who make up one third of social fund claimants.

A new report looking at the localisation of the social fund, by the Centre for Responsible Credit, notes that “Many local authorities are implementing tight eligibility criteria and their assistance is less likely to involve cash payments, with in-kind support such as food parcels and voucher schemes used in their place.”

According to Damon Gibbons, the author of the report, though some local authorities are keeping something akin to the social fund, many are not proposing to put anything in its place, which will inevitably lead to the reduction of support for those in crisis. 

With no state provision, the likelihood that payday lenders and other high cost credit suppliers will benefit is dramatically increased. 

The Social Fund was introduced in 1987, during the Thatcher days. Norman Fowler, who served as a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet from 1981 to 1990, instituted what came to be known as the ‘Fowler reforms’ of the social security system, under which the social fund was introduced.

The fund, set up for those who could not withstand financial shocks or who have little or no savings, could be applied for through government to fund various one-off payments such as funerals or larger items such as furniture. 

Because of problems such as delay, many critics said the fund needed reform. But adding further proof that this coalition government is in many ways more radical than the Conservative government of the seventies and eighties, its future existence is compromised. 

In her book Hard Work, Polly Toynbee re-told her hardship at applying from her local authority for a social fund loan. After making her application she was told she would have to wait several weeks for it. For recipients this meant weeks without money for necessities, and when it did come in it was less than she had applied for. To be sure the social fund needed reforming – but not in the way that this government has done it. 

This is a dangerous move, not only because it removes part the state's duty to provide for the most vulnerable in society, but because it boosts the possibility of more bad consumer debt when all other options are off the table. 

At such radical moves by the establishment, we have to level equally radical demands back at it. The social fund should be immediately reinstated and centralised, so as to avoid the trappings of a postcode lottery. Government needs to reform the fund so it is fit for purpose, helping families in the face of severe financial shocks. Policy makers should seriously consider making the social fund something that operates through a credit union, which would increase credit union funding and do more to highlight its social importance.

This government, the most radical in recent times, is laughing at us, while the media responds painting welfare claimants are feckless. Radical demands from citizens and consumers can and must counteract this, and that time is long due.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot