Thanks to the Daily Mail and the Express, anyone claiming benefits has been made to feel as though they were born into a lower caste, hiding their scrounging and skiving behind drawn curtains. The inconvenient truth is, of course, rather different. Most of those on housing benefits are working but wages are so low they can’t pay the rent. Its high rents in both the public and private sectors that has driven up the cost of housing benefit. Almost all the money paid in benefits is invested in the local economy. Higher wage earners invest elsewhere including for example the global arms industries.
Does this matter to the Green Party? Well I for one think that “welfare reform” is the most important issue we are currently facing, let me explain why. A few years ago I came to the conclusion that the consumer society bequeathed to us by capitalism has hollowed us out eroding communal assets, skills and values because they cannot be turned into commodities. Consumerism doesn’t help us address climate change; we have to value people we will never meet, in lands we will never visit, who won’t be born until we are dead, consumerism doesn’t help. As Dawkins observed we aren’t hard wired to cope with issues where cause and effect are smeared through time and space, we need to adapt.
To build a society that has the capacity to take effective action we need to minimise inequality. The Spirit Level showed how inequality is the cancer that will wreck lives. We have to challenge the foolish mindset that sees inherited wealth as somehow earned and tells young people that if you haven’t got a job you are worthless. We have to value voluntary activities, raising children, caring for relatives and struggling to overcome mental health problems or addictions as just as valuable to society as stacking shelves in Tesco’s.
Thirty years ago when mining communities were under attack, elements of the Labour party organised a fight back. This time round Labour Councils are happy to dance to the Tories tune. Chesterfield, Bolsover and North-east Derbyshire Council for example have just voted to demand that every working person on Council tax benefit pays 8.5%. If these Councils are short of money, and from the money I have seen wasted at Bolsover that certainly isn’t the case there, then they should be increasing the Council tax not cutting benefits. The Council tax is paid by everyone and it is mildly progressive, those in large houses pay more. Instead they are taxing the very poorest in the community. They should remember from the dark days of the Poll Tax that this doesn’t make social or economic sense. Across the country other Labour authorities are requiring even larger contributions and when a Government grant drops out next year they will come back for more and more from the very poorest.
Council tax benefit is just one element of a phalanx of cuts which will come in on the 1st April, they include the Bedroom tax, which the Children Commissioner has said will harm our children; capping of universal credit which will have a particularly detrimental effect on ethnic communities; and the continued destruction of support for the disabled.
As Greens I feel we need to stand-up for those on benefits at every opportunity and argue for a more equal world where the rich contribute more. We need to carry this message home not just in urban deprived areas but also in the leafy shires where poverty is still present but camouflaged.
© Duncan Kerr