Thursday, 31 March 2011

Punishing the defenceless

Read the government's spin on state pensions and you could be fooled into thinking our older generations are going to emerge relatively unscathed from the cuts. Think again.One of the cruellest fronts of assault by the coalition has been its total demolition job on our welfare system.The groundwork for this assault was laid by a relentless campaign, also pursued by new Labour, praising "hard-working families" and attacking "lazy benefit scroungers."

Under the government plans a lot of formerly hard-working people are going to join the long list of the unemployed and be forced onto benefits.The government says that its plan will make benefits simpler and ensure that work pays more than benefits. But there aren't enough jobs to go round - unemployment is approaching 3 million - meaning that the welfare bill is set to mushroom.

The government is currently forcing its Welfare Reform Billl through Parliament. It plans to cut £18 billion from the welfare bill - 10 per cent of the total.Its targets include some of the most vulnerable people of our communities - children, the elderly, the mentally ill and the disabled.

The Bill applies to Wales and England. However some of its provisions will require the consent of the Scottish Parliament.Its central proposal is to limit the amount paid to households in benefits to about £26,000 a year and pay it via a single universal credit to be introduced in 2013.

This would be a means-tested payment that would replace benefits including jobseekers' allowance, employment and support allowance, income support, housing benefit, council tax benefit, child tax credit and the working tax credit.Like all state payments including pensions since the Tories changed the rules last year, the new payout would rise in line with the consumer price index, which doesn't include housing costs, rather than the higher retail price index.

The coalition has also employed private firms to reassess 1.6 million people being paid the disability allowance.A tickbox test decides whether people are "fit to work" and should receive lower benefits. Mental health charities have warned that people suffering from hard-to-see illnesses are particularly vulnerable. In one case a terminally ill man was told he was "fit" to work.

Disabled charity Scope chief executive Richard Hawkes warns: "The new assessment is a blunt tool that will find many disabled people fit for work, but in the real world, faced with intense competition for few jobs, negative attitudes from employers and very limited access to specialist help, they will struggle to find employment."Private businesses have also been employed by the coalition on multibillion-pound contracts to force people into jobs.

As well as a basic payment for the contract, these "providers" can get up to £14,000 of taxpayers' money for every long-term benefit claimant they get into work.Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud, a former City banker, believes that the "payment by results" model could be expanded to include drug addicts and prisoners.

"There is no reason why we can't replicate this approach more widely," he has said.Charities warn that the new system will plunge thousands into "in-work poverty" and see child poverty rates spiral upwards.

Unfair welfare

- Housing benefits capped at £400 a week

- Childcare allowance costs cut by an average of £436 a year

- Health in pregnancy grant of £190 abolished

- Child benefits frozen for three years despite prices currently rising at a rate of 5 per cent - and much faster for those on lower income

- Surestart maternity grant worth £500 to low-income mothers-to-be at 29 weeks pregnant restricted to first child

- Child trust fund worth £500 at birth abolished

- Baby tax credit worth £545 for mothers with children under 12 months scrapped

- Employment support allowance, which helps those who've paid into the national insurance scheme and have become unable to work through disability, limited to 12 months

Welfare facts

- The poorest and most vulnerable will suffer most from cuts. The worst-hit of all will be low-income single mothers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds who suffer from mental or physical disablity

- Women rely on benefits twice as much as men do because of their caring responsibilities and unequal pay and career prospect

- Research by the TUC shows that single parents - more than 70 per cent of them single mothers - will lose 18.5 per cent of their net household income because of changes to welfare and tax system

- The Bill threatens lone parents of children aged five and over with benefit cuts of up to 100 per cent if they "fail" to find work

- The benefit cap has a disproportionate impact on large families - 80 per cent of those hit will be families with three or more children which will lose £93 a week

by Louise Nousratpour, The Morning Star

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