Once again this week, Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, alluded to the “dependency culture” which he claims to believe is preventing many welfare benefit claimants from looking for work. He also announced plans whereby claimants who refuse an offer of work from a Jobcentre will face the sanction of losing their benefit for three months. As a welfare-rights worker of 20 years’ experience I think I know what I am talking about on the subject of Jobseeker’s Allowance and, to bring a bit of balance to the subject, I’d like to make some observations.
The idea that claimants are offered jobs when they visit the Jobcentre is a myth. There are simply far too many claimants and too few jobs to make this a reality. The overwhelming majority of unemployed claimants (and there are sure to be many more of us joining their ranks in the next year or two), would jump at the chance to work. This is why most of them have already performed voluntary work or taken up work experience already, without having to be bullied into doing so by the threat of sanctions. The Coalition Government, like the Labour administration before it, has successfully demonised the unemployed in the media by implying that the unemployed must be at fault for not having a job. Like Norman Tebbit before him, Iain Duncan Smith has said that if a job is not available in someone’s backyard, they should get out and look for one. While Norman Tebbit referred to his dad getting on his bike to find work, IDS reckons the unemployed should hop onto the bus. The example he gave – that if there is nothing in Merthyr Tydfil then the townsfolk should take a ride to Cardiff where there is work a-plenty, will have come as quite as a surprise to those in Cardiff’s own queues down at the dole office.
Let‘s look at some figures now, and see what the allegedly work-shy are “dependant” upon. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in order to achieve a decent standard of living a single person in the UK should have an annual income of at least £14,400. The current basic weekly rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance is £65.45 for a single person aged between 25 and 60, or £51.85 if between 18 and 24. These weekly figures represent annual benefit income of, respectively, £3403.40 and £2696.20. Multi-millionaire IDS has not explained to us why or how anyone would be crazy enough to consciously choose to try to manage their daily lives on such meagre amounts. £65 is nowhere near enough to pay for a weekly food shop plus a fuel and phone bill and a TV license, let alone for such small luxuries as an occasional night out, a bus ride to the town centre (or from Merthyr to Cardiff!), a trip to a football match or a cup of coffee and a bun in a café.
People who are too sick to work, meanwhile, through physical or mental illness or a combination of the two, presently receive £91.40 a week in Employment & Support Allowance, providing they can get through the increasingly inhumane Work Capability Assessment. Labour’s last Secretary of State, Yvette Cooper, was so proud of the toughness of the WCA that she boasted, in the House of Commons, of the number of claimants who had failed to get through it. This year I have had to represent, at independent tribunals, claimants who have been found fit for work (and thereby not entitled to their £91.40, or £4752.80 a year if you prefer), despite having conditions including a broken leg in plaster, diabetes-associated blindness and agoraphobia to name but three.
That the Tories, traditionally the “nasty party”, should take a harsh attitude to the most vulnerable people in UK society is appalling but maybe only to be expected. That the Liberal Democrats should jettison their liberalism by supporting them is shocking, but that Labour, once the party of Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan, should acquiesce in robbing the sick and the poor of their already miserable benefits should make every one of their supporters hang his or her head in shame.
The unemployed people of the UK are the victims rather than the creators of the country’s financial crisis, which resulted not from benefit payouts but from the excesses of unbridled capitalism, and yet it is they, together with workers in the public sector, who are first in line to pay the price. If the descendants of the party that invented the Welfare State are no longer prepared to support claimants’ standards of living then there is a vacancy to be filled by a compassionate party that will do so, and promote “fairness” in its true (rather than its Cleggist) sense.
[Chris Connolley, 12 November 2010]