The coalition's Dickensian welfare cuts are terrorising the poor

Ministers either don't know about the devastating impact of their policies in areas like Neath or just don’t care.

If Britain’s working poor can be cast as so many Oliver Twists condemned to the workhouse, then this government is surely Mr Bumble, looking aghast at a starving child and exclaiming "more? You want more?"

It’s a sad fact of life in 2013 that ministers either don't know about the devastating impact of their welfare cuts or just don’t care. Many of my Neath constituents are, in the stark words of one, feeling "terrorised". The impact can indeed be terrifying in communities in south Wales, which for historical reasons have lower wages than average, higher unemployment, more industrial injuries, more disability and therefore more benefit claimants.  

Far from conquering poverty and making it pay to work, as ministers cosseted away in the Westminster bubble constantly profess, their policies are having the reverse effect. Since Parliament returned after the new year, every week has seen yet more bad news for those who live with a Sword of Damocles hanging over them.  Ironically, these reforms are hitting those in work and on low pay the hardest, including 6,200 people in Neath who rely on benefits to top up their meagre incomes, but are now having their tax credits removed. 

Government suggestions that they shore up their income by taking on more hours simply ignore local reality. Many part-time workers will be competing with the thousands more that are unemployed in the Neath labour market, where as many as six people have been chasing every vacancy.

Under-employment is also a growing trend.  In 2005-2008 (pre-recession) there were, on average, 86,000 underemployed workers in Wales, a fairly average underemployment rate of 6.5 per cent of the working age population. But in the last three years, 2009-2012, there were an average of 134,000 underemployed workers in Wales, an underemployment rate of 10.3 per cent  – nearly half as much again as the standard rate – an increase of 48,000. That’s one in ten Welsh workers being thwarted from working as much as they wish – often thwarted from bringing themselves above the benefits threshold. There simply are no extra hours in the south Wales economy for people to work the fuller week they want to.

Furthermore, how are they supposed to compete in an already saturated labour market against hundreds of youngsters between the ages of 16 and 24 who every week are demoralised by being rejected as both "over qualified and under experienced"?

As for the carers, who must balance work with other duties, when will these extra hours fit into already unmanageable timetables? Being in work should always be preferable to relying on welfare, but this will only be the case if the government helps to create jobs and guarantees a living wage across the public and private sectors. As long as full-time work is so badly paid that it falls beneath certain welfare thresholds the case for removing those benefits cannot be made in good faith.

An impact study undertaken by Sheffield University shows Neath to be one of the worst affected constituencies. An old industrial area dominated in the past by coal and steel, we have a legacy of incapacity – one of the highest counts in the country with around 6,000 people in receipt of incapacity benefits. When she shut coal mines and heavy industries in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher dumped many on to what was then termed 'invalidity benefit' to conceal the true level of unemployment: most never worked again.

Official estimates suggest that over a third of them will now be assessed 'fit for work', stripped of their incapacity benefit and arbitrarily forced to seek jobs which either don’t exist or, if they do, are likely low-paid, part time, temporary – or a combination of all three. They face a future of stigmatisation by local Job Centre workers forced to administer oppressive regulations and procedures designed solely to cut the welfare bill, not to increase job opportunities.

People with serious health problems, including cerebral palsy, hemiplegia and a speech impediment have previously worked in sheltered employment in the local Remploy factory.  But it is now being closed. One constituent taking over twenty tablets a day, and in and out of hospital, was found fit for work: hard working people are being made to feel tawdry and ashamed by the government.

Now being added to this chaotic and upsetting process is the payment of housing benefit to tenants rather than landlords, ostensibly to teach 'responsibility', but loudly denounced by addiction and mental health charities as fundamentally misunderstanding the predicament of vulnerable citizens.

Cynically parading their 'scroungers' versus 'strivers' bile – lapped up by government supporting newspapers – ministers demonstrate wilful ignorance about the realities of poverty, unemployment, lack of jobs and welfare reliance, and the highly complex causes.  Far from promoting a sense of pride and opportunity, government 'reforms' humiliate through dehumanising assessment tests performed by quota-ticking, private sector drones like ATOS.

Ministers must know that their zealous drive to cut the deficit, no matter what, will result in 500,000 disabled people being worse off under the new Universal Credit on top of big cuts to child disability payments.

Where is government compassion for the countless people who will face difficulty heating their homes or putting food on the table as well as having to go without specialist equipment and care? Far from removing obstacles on the route to employment, the government is creating huge road blocks for those with disabilities.

Do ministers also comprehend that few will be affected solely by one of these cuts? Disabled single parents stand to lose twice over. Take the new 'bedroom tax'. Disabled people will no longer have a spare room for relatives to come and stay to take care of them. One of my constituents is a carer for his severely disabled, bed-ridden wife, who hardly sleeps at night and has the TV on constantly, yet the government is to deprive him of his second bedroom, and there are no local one-bedroom homes available. Meanwhile young families won’t be able to have a relative to stay to ease soaring childcare costs, forcing people out of work and onto benefits in order to look after their young children.

In Neath we have bedroom tax cases of parents who have separated – the parent who does not have full care of the children but may have them on the weekend is not considered eligible to have a ‘spare room’, so either has to pay the extra rent or leave the child without a roof to sleep under. 

Neath is one of 69 areas in Wales where more than half of all children are living in poverty with a household income totalling less than 60 per cent of the average. These official figures are shocking enough without taking into consideration the rising cost of living with utility bills and food prices spiralling. The benefit cap will push a further 200,000 children across Britain into poverty. Material deprivation, which is a key indicator of poverty includes the inability to afford clothing or bedding, a situation that will become a reality for another 400,000 children by the end of this parliament.

Neath Foodbank has seen over 1,600 different people in 12 months – half of them working and desperate. I had to refer one young man who had suffered a breakdown because all his benefits had been stopped – and he was starving.  Meanwhile, voluntary groups’ budgets have been savaged and the once busy Citizens Advice Bureau office has been forced to shut because of the cuts. Some 'big society' this is.

Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council's excellent Welfare Rights Unit is deluged with distraught people needing help with an appeal against one arbitrary decision after another. So is my constituency advice office. 

Viewed from Neath, the prospect of returning the country to a Victorian state of dependency on a handful of charitable do-gooders is all too real; the image of the government as a cabal of Dickensian villains rings only too true. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a former Labour cabinet minister

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.