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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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