Few would argue that the welfare state and our benefit system do not need to change. Our society and people’s needs are constantly changing and the nature of state intervention ought to reflect this. But what we are seeing today is the Con-Dem Government using the argument for change as a pretext for making crude and disgraceful cuts.
Because the Government’s economic strategy is failing, with economic growth being virtually non-existent, the Government has decided to make drastic cuts in public expenditure and to turn the screw on some of the weakest and least well-off in our society.
This month is seeing the introduction of a whole raft of measures which will severely undermine the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. Amongst the most insidious of these ‘changes’ is the ‘bedroom tax’.
Basically, the bedroom tax means that people living in social housing are losing on average 20% of their housing benefit if they have one or more ‘spare’ bedrooms. The Government argue that tenants with ‘spare’ bedrooms should move into smaller properties. But the problem is that in most areas there simply are no smaller properties in the public sector for people to move into. The result is that many tenants are having to face a huge increase in their rent.
Wales is the worst hit part of the United Kingdom with 46% of working-age housing benefit claimants being affected. This means that 40,000 Welsh people are being hit by this unfair charge.
What does this mean in real terms? Here are two examples, which are not untypical. Firstly, there is Mr Palmer, my constituent who lives in Llanbradach. He and his wife share a two bedroom property with the second bedroom being used for his kidney dialysis machine. This is not a ‘spare’ bedroom and yet Mr Palmer has to pay an extra £14 per week.
Another example is Mr and Mrs Goodwin of Blackwood. Both Derrick and Jill Goodwin are registered blind. They both have guide dogs and are very dependent on their family and neighbours. Despite the Government claiming that disabled people are excluded from the bedroom tax, Mr and Mrs Goodwin are having to pay extra for the two bedrooms which are deemed ‘spare’. I would suggest that life is tough enough for Mr and Mrs Goodwin without having to worry about paying over an extra £20 a week.
The bedroom tax is but one of a number of other changes which are being introduced. There is also the Universal Credit, the benefit cap and the replacement of Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payments.
At the same time, the Government is implementing cuts for legal aid, so that it is harder for less well-off people to obtain justice through our legal system.
Then, adding insult to injury, the Government has indicated that it is ‘examining’ the minimum wage. They have ordered the Low Pay Commission to consider freezing, or even cutting, the National Minimum Wage. The argument is that ‘it must always pay to work’. Fair enough. But what is indefensible is that the Government is now considering a reduction in the wage levels of the lowest paid. The result would be a downward spiral into poverty for thousands upon thousands of people.
And let us not forget that as this sustained attack on the least well-off gathers momentum, the rich are getting richer. Bankers' bonuses are still going through the roof and in the same week as the bedroom tax was introduced, we are seeing a reduction from 50p to 45p in the top rate of income tax. This means that each of the country’s 13,000 millionaires will be on average £100,000 per year better-off.
Nothing highlights better the fact that the Tory-led Government is using the crisis to create a more unequal and unfair society. Although the financial crisis which precipitated the current levels of public expenditure had little to do with ordinary people, it is they, and particularly the less well-off, who are being made to pay for that crisis.
Earlier in the week, Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said that he would be able to live on £53 a week if he had to. Since then, over 300,000 (at the last count) have put their name to a petition and have challenged him to do precisely that. Given that he is a multi-millionaire, like so many of the Cabinet, my guess is that he hasn’t the faintest idea what it’s like to struggle on £7.50 a day.
To their great credit, four of our Churches have recognised the unfairness of what is happening. I believe the people of Wales will also realise that there is a better and fairer way to reform our benefit system.
This article was written for the Western Mail