19 Feb 2014

Benefits reforms: a ‘deeply immoral’ smokescreen?

As the prime minister insists that he has a strong moral case for welfare reform, campaigners warn that, in an already unequal society, the changes are falling unfairly on the poorest.

Writing in the Telegraph, the prime minister said:

“For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up: building a country where people aren’t trapped in a cycle of dependency but are able to get on, stand on their own two feet and build a better life for themselves and their family.”

Mr Cameron took to print to rebuff criticism from the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, who said in an interview on 15 February that recent benefit changes had triggered a “dramatic crisis”, describing the situation as a “disgrace” in a country as affluent as the UK.

Responding to the archbishop’s assertion that many were being left in “hunger and destitution” because the safety net had “been torn apart”, the prime minister said:

“Let’s get the facts straight. Yes, we made the diffcult but correct decision that benefits should not go up faster than wages. But the safety net remains in place.”

There is no sign of things getting better in relation to justice, poverty and equality – these are the moral measures of success Dr Simon Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform

Dr Simon Duffy, of the Centre for Welfare Reform, told Channel 4 News that there are reasons to want to reform the welfare system.

But he said he fears the argument about the need for reform is being used as a smokescreen, behind which the minimum income level deemed necessary to live on is being eroded. Britain is already the third most unequal developed society (behind the USA and Portugal), and Dr Duffy argues that the decision to decrease the value of benefits year-on-year guarantees ongoing inequality.

A ‘tsunami’ of cuts

In his latest research, Counting the Cuts, Dr Duffy has calculated that people on low incomes face cuts twice as large as average, and disabled people on low incomes face cuts four times larger than average.

Close-up detail of a wheelchair user's arm (Getty)

Disability rights campaigner Kaliya Franklin told Channel 4 News:

“Benefits cuts are a bit like a tsunami for some disabled people.”

In July 2009, David Cameron wrote about his experience as the parent of a profoundly disabled child:

“The very painful thing about disability – whether your own or your loved one’s – is the feeling that the situation is out of your control. When the system that surrounds you is very top-down, very bureaucratic, very inhuman, that can only increase your feelings of helplessness.”

Referring back to these words, Ms Franklin said:

“Given the prime minister’s personal insight into disability, it is difficult for disabled people experiencing cuts to their support to understand how their experience differs so much from his family’s.”

The importance of work

In a speech to the Centre for Social Justice last month, Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith said:

“Of course in the most severe cases of sickness and disability, it is right that welfare should support individuals, but even then, it must be about more than sustainment alone. It should be about helping people to take greater control over their lives.

“For all those who are able, work should be seen as the route to doing so – for work is about more than just money. It is about what shapes us, lifts our families, delivers security, and helps rebuild our communities.”

But is this faith in the power of work to improve people’s lives justified by the reality of today’s labour market? Despite falling unemployment rates, latest government figures show that 1.4m people are in part-time jobs because they cannot find full-time work.

Read more: Unemployment falls to 2.34 million

Echoing the concerns of Archbishop Nichols, Dr Duffy said:

“Many people find themselves sanctioned or in dispute with an increasingly bureaucratic benefits sytem. This causes further hardship and is a common story at the growing queues for food banks. All this is despite the UK having a very high rate of employment. This suggests that poverty and inequality is the result of low pay and low benefits – not unemployment.”

Dr Duffy’s verdict is bleak:

“There are reasons to reform the welfare system, but the changes introduced by this government are making the situation worse, not better. They are increasing social injustice and they are deeply immoral. In the long run they will have a very damaging impact on social cohesion and increase inequality.

“There is no sign of things getting better in relation to justice, poverty and equality – these are the moral measures of success.”