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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.