Monday, January 21, 2013

Austerity with a class vengeance as benefit cuts bite

Most people were aware that the cuts would be harsh and affect the most vulnerable in society. But now religious figures around the country are joining with charities to point to deep privation amongst large numbers of families, long before the full range of cuts are implemented.

In Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool, many people are already experiencing cuts in benefits of £200 to £300 a year. James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, has warned that many cities will suffer from “urban diabetes”, where blood pumps around the heart but fails to reach other parts of the body.

Thousands of families already rely on food banks to survive and numbers are growing fast. In Liverpool, for example, 6,000 families signed up for food parcels in the city in the last six months alone. Last year, 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide; in 2012-13 it is thought this could rise to nearly a quarter of a million.

The ending of universal benefits with the termination of child benefit for all  – a policy promoted by the ConDems but accepted by New Labour Mark II – is being disguised by the introduction of “universal credit”. Within this consolidation of benefits into one payment are severe reductions in what people can claim.

Housing benefit for private sector tenants is being capped and most social housing tenants will have to make a contribution to their council tax. Many families are already deep in debt. It has been left up to charities to try to help those faced with council bailiffs claiming back arrears. One local vicar Rev Paul Nicholson in Tottenham, north London, has set up a group called Taxpayers against Poverty. says that charging council tax to the poor will result in “debt destitution and forced migration”.

Then there is the “bedroom tax” through which the government plans to claw back £500m a year from the housing benefit bill. People in council homes who are said to be “under-occupying” will charged £11-£20 per week unless they move to a smaller home. The financial and psychological effects of such a deeply intrusive measure is of course not acknowledged by the government’s “impact assessment”.

In areas like Derby, the housing support budget is being cut by 83% per cent over the next two years. Local charities describe it as “catastrophic”. Homelessness is rising, particularly among vulnerable young people who will no longer quality for services. (Cameron has famously proclaimed that no one under 25 years of age will qualify for housing benefits of any kind.) In 2012-13, five out of ten homelessness services had their funding cut.

The most vulnerable people in the firing line are the disabled. Building on the policies of the previous Labour government, people with disabilities are being subjected to horrendous tests by Atos. Last week former Labour Minister Michael Meacher said that 3,500 have died during the assessment process itself and another 7,100 died after being judged to be entitled to unconditional support because they are too ill or disabled to work.

Chief executive of Citizens Advice, Gillian Guy, has said Atos has given grounds for concern: “Last quarter, Citizens Advice bureaux had more than 100,000 inquiries about Employment and Support Allowance – a rise of 76%. More than 21,000 were appeals against decisions based on Atos assessments, mistakes that are subsequently overturned and have cost the taxpayer £60m over the past year.”

For many all the future holds is thus a spiral of deepening poverty and debt. The failure to increase benefits in line with inflation means there is a massive transfer of wealth going on. Cuts in benefits to reduce the budget deficit are essentially the price paid to the bankers to help pay for the financial crisis they created. This is austerity with a class vengeance at the heart of it.

A corporate-driven market state has replaced the old welfare state. It will take a complete transfer of power to ordinary people before we can even think of a future better than the one the mainstream parties have laid out before our eyes. 

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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