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8 July 2015

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.

By 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.

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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.