Houses in Bath. Photo: Getty Images
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The welfare cap is government policy at its worst - but Labour won't challenge it

In a crowded field, the welfare cap is the coalition's worst policy. It's a failure of courage not to oppose it, says Caroline Lucas.

I cannot be the only MP whose email inbox is full to bursting with heartbreaking testimony to the hugely damaging impact of this Government’s savage welfare cuts.

And whilst the Chancellor continues to wage war against the young, the disabled, the poor –all dressed up in the name of reducing government debt - he gambles recklessly with our economy. Austerity, says the IMF, is wholly unnecessary. A growing number of economists also warn it’s paving the way for another crash. The Chancellor is shifting government debt onto households at a time when when unsecured lending - via credit and store cards, car financing and pay day lending – is at an all-time high. By 2020 levels of household debt in relation to income levels look set to exceed the previous pre-financial crash peak.

His approach is cruel, economically illiterate and, in the case of the welfare cap at least, legally questionable. A recent judgement casts doubt on the legitimacy of benefit capping, citing both the impact upon women – especially vulnerable single parents – and children, and the requirement on local authorities to house families should they become homeless. Restricting benefits to £20,000 without help to prevent local families becoming destitute, for example, and guaranteeing local authorities can meet additional Discretionary Housing Payments, might well prove to be unlawful.

The welfare cap appeals to the very worst in human nature. It’s part of a narrative that chooses to ignore the underlying causes of poverty or inequality, justifies punishing anyone out of work, and breeds resentment towards anyone who falls on hard times. Sadly, it’s a narrative that the shadow frontbench will not risk challenging – and many are even willing to go along with it.

We live in a country where wealth inequality is rising. Where people are dying because of having their disability benefits stopped. A society in which young people at risk could end up on the streets thanks to a twisted ideology that blames housing benefit for market rents being sky high, rather than 30 years of utter failure on housing policy.  A society in which welfare has become a dirty word and the social security safety net is in tatters.

My constituents deserve something better.

That means taking a stand against the bedroom tax, against scrapping the Independent Living Fund, and against refusing to allow asylum seekers to work. But it also means being bold enough to look for radical new ways of providing for each other: a new economic and social settlement that delivers security over fear, and more equitable outcomes to start with.

A settlement that recognises social security should be a contract between citizens, who then employ the state as an accountable mechanism to realise shared goals. After all, any government is our servant, tasked with distributing money that’s ours, not theirs. That gives any government a responsibility to properly reflect the collective contract that binds us together as members of society – by appealing to the very best of human nature, rather than the worst.

No matter what George Osborne and David Cameron try to tell you, social security isn’t handouts for scroungers. It’s a warm home and decent pay that covers the cost of living, rather than a choice between eating or heating.  It’s affordable rent levels, rather than going to bed each night with the fear of eviction hanging over you. Everyone paying fairly into our joint insurance scheme, and having the right to  draw on it without being demonised. True social security is valuing unpaid as well as paid work; prevention rather than crisis management; action to tackle both supply and demand in the labour market; and the benefits of realising every individual’s potential rather than benefits as a stick with which to beat people.

Social security as trust is at the very opposite end of the spectrum from the overarching message in today’s Budget. But giving people an equal share in what society has to offer, alongside responsibility – for themselves and for one another – is the real meaning of being in it together. It’s also how to put social justice, environmental sustainability and a more equal distribution of power centre stage.




Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.