It may have been swept under the carpet in the midst of the latest Brexit conjecture and the worrying developments in Syria, but quietly this week, some major changes to our welfare system came into force. And by changes, I do of course mean sweeping cuts that will see, among other things, many unemployed disabled people receiving £30 less per week from the Government – rendering their weekly support equivalent to JobSeeker’s Allowance. Amendments to Child Tax Credits, which dominated debate during the Budget in 2015, but have now largely been forgotten, will also now be limited to the first two children in a family.
On any normal day of any normal year, the five big cuts being implemented in the new financial year would be receiving wall-to-wall coverage; think of the furore that surrounded the introduction of the Bedroom Tax. These new policies are of a similar ilk, both in terms of the financial impact on the budgets of some of the most vulnerable households in the country, and in their short-sightedness.
But there are no normal days now after Brexit, that omnipresent force that sucks up all political and media oxygen. And, in any case, these changes are old news – the legacy of George Osborne (remember him?) and his master plan to squeeze as much from the benefits budget as possible. By 2015, the fifth year of our ‘austerity age’, the Chancellor had given up salami-slicing the welfare budget and started hacking great lumps off, as inexorable demographic change and the more prosaic problem of poorly designed policy led to fewer of the savings he had counted on.
As a result, some of the last cuts announced under the Cameron reign were also the boldest and most controversial. Yes, there was furore, but it was mooted by the knowledge that they were still years away – scheduled for 2017-18. Fast forward two years and the architect of the changes is now turning his hand to journalism, while his successors are having to deal with the very real fallout.
It is these very same successors who, somehow, have to simultaneously juggle a whole raft of damaging, inherited domestic policies, while steering the UK through the most complex constitutional and geopolitical challenge in our modern history. Austerity and Brexit – those are two very big plates to spin.
This headache on the home front is no doubt all the more galling for the fact that those picking up the pieces weren’t the ones who made the mess. Austerity is last year’s big issue, the last Government’s ideology. The policies they pushed through in their haste to reduce the deficit now cast a long shadow over this Government, and yet the referendum vote, and subsequent analysis of what on earth happened, has demonstrated very clearly the risks of marginalising (economically, socially and politically) large swathes of the UK.
Theresa May seems to have understood this; her “left behinds” and “just about managings” feels very far removed from the ‘scroungers’ versus ‘hard-working taxpayers’ rhetoric of years past.
And yet, these most brutal of welfare cuts, announced for a different time by to all extents and purposes a different Government, are being implemented without challenge. The Benefit Cap and freeze on uprating remain in place, placing downward pressure on benefits incomes, and even the least effective and damaging policies of the austerity era, such as the Bedroom Tax, WCA, and PIP assessment reform, are all creaking on while the DWP trundles towards the certain catastrophe of Universal Credit.
If Brexit has focused minds on the left behinds and austerity has lost popular support, why do we not see a systematic dismantling of some of the worst examples of austerity policy-making, or at least a halting of the ones that have yet to be brought in?
Certainly, there is an opportunism to our lack of an Opposition. The Government is not being held to account of these domestic decisions – there are no probing questions being asked about the lack of impact assessments being carried out, no shocking anecdotes on the life-changing impact of these cuts to make MPs on the other side of the House feel awkward, if not ashamed.
The government is, understandably, prioritising Brexit negotiation over and above another round of welfare reforms. Unpicking what’s been done and replacing, for example, the mess that has become the welfare-to-work regime for disabled people, seems too much to take on at such a time, especially without too much outward pressure from Labour and other quarters.
But deep down, any Minister of any political persuasion truly committed to stimulating social mobility and generating real job prospects for disengaged communities across the UK, genuinely keen to tackle insecure work, low pay and housing poverty, and developing a safety net that encourages contribution and aspiration, cannot exclude welfare from this puzzle. The welfare budget must be seen as tool in the arsenal for this agenda – not simply a money pot from which to draw. Brexit is a once in a lifetime opportunity to claim “all bets are off” – it justifies the biggest of policy u-turns and boldest of new directions. Why not start by dismantling the albatrosses of failed policies from another age?
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