CHAI Project Executive, David Gardner, takes a look at the events of this week and can’t help feeling he’s been here before:
This week has brought us the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget Statement as well as the largest scale public sector strike in a generation, and it is hard to avoid feeling that there is an awful inevitability about where this is all heading.
The graph (above) illustrates the ‘Institute for Fiscal Studies’ assessment of where the pain in the Chancellor’s plans will be felt most, and – with depressing inevitably – those at the bottom of the income pile are, once again, at the sharp end.
The bottom (poorest) decile will feel no relief at all from George Osborne’s most recent economic tinkerings, and although the Autumn Statement may lessen the impact of previous budgetary announcements for some of us, the overall picture – as displayed all too sharply above – is that the better off are being looked after at the expense of the poorest people in our society. Again. Here comes that ‘déjà vu’ feeling.
It is estimated that the effective cuts to Tax Credits announced this week, added to the previously announced reforms to Local Housing Allowance, will plunge a further 100,000 children into poverty in 2012/13 – making a shambles of the Government’s 2020 targets on reducing child poverty.
Even that usually measured organisation, Citizens Advice, was moved to stinging criticism:
“The Chancellor has broken the promise he made in last year’s Budget to protect families on the lowest incomes from the impact of last year’s harsh cuts by increasing child tax credits above inflation, leaving them now with no protection at all. It’s astonishing that George Osborne could think it fair that the lowest paid families who can least afford it should pick up the bill for kick-starting the recovery at a time when they are battling with hikes in fuel bills, rising rent and food costs.
Make no mistake, this means children in the poorest homes are at risk of going cold and hungry to pay for the new schemes the Chancellor has announced today.”
Meanwhile, looming on the horizon are the greatest changes to the welfare benefits system in almost quarter of a century – with the introductions, from 2013, of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment (replacing Disability Living Allowance). Much of the focus of Universal Credit is about mirroring the work experience, with claimants receiving their benefit payments – including their full housing costs – monthly in arrears, and then being expected to budget through the month and assume responsibility for paying things like rent – just as if they were in work. The aim may be laudable, but for those of us working at the sharp end of the system, there are real concerns about how many of the most vulnerable people – including those hit again by the announcements in the Autumn Statement – are going to manage.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), responsible for implementing the new system, has indicated that it is sensitive to those concerns, and a working group considering ‘Support and Exceptions’ is about to be formed. Having already taken the opportunity to raise some of these concerns at a recent meeting with a representative of the DWP Universal Credit Policy Team I now find myself part of this new Working Group, and will do my best to ensure that the issues of concern, raised daily by the people CHAI works with, are fully articulated in that forum.
There is, however, a depressing familiarity to it all. Twenty-Five years ago I found myself involved in the National Campaign Against Social Security Cuts, taking to the streets in protest against the welfare reforms then being proposed by Norman Fowler – the Secretary of State for Social Security. Of course, those changes went through back then anyway – and almost a quarter of a century later I stand watching again, bemused, as the poorest and most marginalised in our society are squeezed to make life a little easier for the better off. Again. Déjà Vu.
During the 1980’s we were beset with industrial relations strife and policy attacks on the poor. Now, despite finding ourselves in a new century, it’s a case of ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer is something of a cliché (while we’re dabbling with French), but sadly the direction of travel in our social and economic policy seems resolutely determined to take us straight back down that road. Déjà vu all over again.
It’s a road I’ve travelled before – leading to a place I’d hoped I’d never see again. This may get worse before it gets better again …