Poverty is more damaging to health than obesity and smoking. These cuts will kill

Welfare cuts will render people less able to work.

In the wake of the welfare cuts there has been some excellent writing on poverty and how it feels. One of my favourites comes from Alex Andreou:

I find nothing more disingenuous than rich MPs or celebrities experimenting on television to see whether they can live on a weekly amount of X or Y and conclude “gosh it’s very hard, but doable”. Such meaningless exercises ignore the cumulative effect of poverty; they never start from a position of empty food cupboards, looming debt, threadbare clothes and shoes with holes in them. They ignore the devastating financial effect that a visit to the dentist or a child’s birthday or one late charge can have. They also ignore the fundamental psychological difference of “I know this will be over in a week” as opposed to “this may never end; this may just get worse”.

It's a vital point, because the way poverty feels not only traps you there "and pulls you under", but actually makes you ill (which in turn traps you there). People living in poverty are twice as likely to suffer from depression - which makes it that much more difficult to do all those things that make you a "hard-working striver", worthy of help. And, of course, the changes to welfare policy have also done harm just because they are changes. It's difficult to plan for the future, to be a striver and a saver, if the goalposts keep changing.

But these cuts will also kill. Those in poverty die, on average, seven years earlier.  Infants of poor women are more likely to be stillborn or born too early or too small. They are more likely to die within the first week of life or in infancy.

The government has made much of the need for tough policies on obesity, smoking, and alcohol. But the changes in welfare policy will do far more damage. 875,000 deaths in the US in 2000 were attributed to poverty and income inequality. Note how this compares to US deaths in the same year from obesity (400,000), and from smoking (435,000).

Pushing someone further into poverty is not a spur to action, but a way of rendering them slowly less capable of work. In fact arguments about welfare laziness miss the point entirely. Take a quick look on twitter, and it's full of employees pissing about Everyone is lazy. Some of us are just lucky enough to be paid for it.

 
 
 
 
Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.