Sorry, but it could be you – students and welfare reform

It’s through. After suffering some humiliating defeats, the government’s Welfare Reform Bill stumbled through Parliament on Wednesday. The controversial bill, in the words of Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith, ‘reforms every part of our welfare system’. All that’s now left is Royal Assent.

The motive for the changes seems clear enough – handling ‘the worst deficit since the war’, according to a DWP report. But would it be so facetious to say we are still at war, or that following the very war the report refers to, Britain established a comprehensive, publically run and funded National Health Service, created the welfare state and set about reconstructing the country after the disaster that was WWII. How times have changed.

But the real reasons behind the welfare reforms are that people on benefits are very easy targets. If there is one thing that shores up a government’s support it’s that terrible phrase ‘welfare reform’. Reform used to mean progressive things like extending the right to vote (e.g. The Great Reform Act) – it’s hard to see what rights the Welfare Bill enshrines.

You’ll be familiar with some of the changes. Limiting benefits for families to £26k a year, replace Disability Living Allowance with a Personal Independence Payment, replacing Jobseekers’ Allowance and other benefits with a single ominous-sounding ‘Universal Credit’, etc. etc. Fairly technical stuff.

But behind these changes we see unprecedented cuts to the social safety net – £11bn a year. We already have one of the most stripped-back welfare states in Europe, at a time when there are less than half a million jobs to over two and a half million people unemployed. In fact, when this government came in, unemployment was at 7.8%. It’s now at 8.4%. It might not sound like a huge jump, but it’s the difference of several hundred thousand people stepping onto an increasingly punishing dole-queue. Talk about kicking you when you’re down.

It makes depressing reading for us students. We’re going into the most volatile jobs market this country has seen for decades. Rents are too high, wages too low, inflation is rising and you pretty much have to know everyone in your desired area to get decent work. That’s why this stuff matters. With fewer of us able to afford a house after university, it’s our generation that will most rely on Housing Benefit once we’ve graduated, or Tax Credits to top up measly incomes from working on tills and petrol stations.

Yet you do have to hand it to the government. The reframing of the debate from one of simple economic collapse to one where the individual is responsible for the jobs market has been amazingly successful. This bill is just the latest stage in that reframing.

Take just one of Ian Duncan Smith’s statements to the BBC: ‘the Universal Credit will mean that work will pay for the first time’. For a start, the problem lies not with the ‘generosity’ of benefits, but with the fact that wages in the UK have been rising below inflation for years. If the minimum wage was at a level where families did not have to live in working poverty, the problem of benefit fraud would be far smaller than it is, and the government would not have to subsidise supermarkets for not paying their staff enough to live on.

Labour’s take on the welfare bill has been no better. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Liam Byrne, said the bill ‘offers some good ideas’, but criticised the fact that there are too few jobs around for claimants to turn to. Yet it was New Labour that shipped over America’s ‘welfare-to-work’ policies that penalised the jobless and encouraged the same kind of workfare schemes that the Conservative-led government is currently being blasted for.

Across Europe governments are doing the same thing – slashing benefits and making it easier to sack people. All part of one painful ‘growth drive’. How exactly the economy is meant to grow when people are fearing for their jobs isn’t spoken of, but it is clear that these policies aren’t working. Since austerity began to kick in around the start of 2009, more than 4m people have become unemployed. It now stands at around 24 million people across Europe. That’s about five and a half times the population of Ireland.

Still, at least it’s not long until the Olympics.

[This is my latest article for the Yorker – the University of York’s top online news/comment site]

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