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 a former Labour cabinet minister and was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 before joining the House of Lords.

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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