Sunday, 28 November 2010

Welfare that works ?

Blog by Ash
The Coalition Government`s `way forward` on wefare matters has become much clearer with the November 4th release of the Ian Duncan-Smith inspired, `Universal Credit:Welfare That Works`.
In a nutshell, this White Paper proposes wholesale reform of the existing benefits system, combining current Income Support, Income -Based Job Seekers Allowance, Income-Related Employment and Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit into one `Universal Credit`. Ian Duncan-Smith hopes that this, together with a more effective taper as individuals move from benefit to a job (individuals to lose 65% of benefit payments per £ as they move into work, as opposed to the curent 95% loss),will make work more attractive, breaking a cycle of benefit dependency that he believes has gone on for far too long. Within two years of the 2013 launch, he estimates, 300,000 adults will be raised above official existing levels of `poverty` (a level measured as those on 60% or less of the average UK income), and more importantly and by association, 350,000 children. Amen we would all say to that I`m sure. Oh, and £5.2 billion of Tax Credit fraud will be averted.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation though, this would still leave over 2 million below that poverty line. So if it works it will be a much-needed start in the right direction, but much greater effort and determination will be required to finish the job.

There has been a lot of hoo-hah in the media about the matter. The Sun has started a campaign on behalf of its readers (it claims) to help David Cameron rid the country of `benefit scroungers`(together with illegal immigrants).The Guardian on the other hand has given only a cautious welcome, wondering if the other austerity measures imposed by the government will in effect`neuter` the undoubtedly honourable intentions of Duncan-Smith.

Rowan Williams has bravely popped his head above the parapet and predictably been attacked as an out of touch do-gooder for his much reported statement "I don`t immediately think it`s fair". A full transcript of his response however indicates a clear realisation on his part of the economic dilemma faced by the government, and a request for them to address the fundamental injustice apparent through the widening inequality in British society. He also pleaded that sight be kept of the obvious truism; "people are often on benefits not because thay are wicked, stupid or lazy, but because their circumstances are against them"

A `Churches Together` alliance of Methodists, Church Of Scotland, United Reformed Church, Baptist Union Of Great Britain and the group Housing Justice and Church Action On Poverty
have also aired their views, less widely reported that;"there is a serious danger that people living in poverty will be staigmatised by government announcements that imply they are lazy or work shy". For good measure they sought, and gained, a government retraction on the alleged size of tax credit fraud at£5.2 billion. In fact the figure was nearer £1.6 billion (still unacceptable of course).

No matter our opinions on this matter, the fact remains that in these increasingly difficult economic times, welfare reform of any magnitude will have a significant impact. There will be those at the bottom of the `pile`, and those who may be in work in low-paid activities, who will struggle to cope. Our church building stands in a pleasant part of Kidderminster town centre in the ward of `Greenhill`, yet even here the last census reported that 17% of children lived in workless families, and 22% of children lived in families receiving Working Tax Credit; the poorest families. That`s an average of one in five, living in straightened circumstances with all that entails for life-opportunities. We don`t need to look very far for somewhere that requires welfare support; it`s on our doorstep.

So what will our response be at New Meeting House ?.We are involved in social action; how can we be more effective ?
And what is the response of the Unitarian movement in general toward these issues ? Is there a consensus view? Our Victorian forebears would certainly have been `in there` leading the charge.The Cross Street Chapel Congregation of those days,according to the fine report by Geoffrey Head, "used their wealth and respectability with discretion and judgement; yet they did not back off when their convictions took them to the edge of the permissible and legal". I suspect they would already have expressed their views on such reform to local and national politicians, and agitated for change that really does work for the poorest. They would also have instituted local support mechanisms.

Times and circumstance change, but surely Unitarianism also has a public view on `Welfare That Works`, that needs airing.Ian from New Meeting has already entered the fray (see previous blog) What do you think ? Surely, at the very least, Ian Duncan-Smith and his fellow politicians need to know !

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Is it really a punishment to work?

Post by Ian

For the past few days, the argument over the benefits changes has swung back and forth. Especially with the proposed policy of forcing people who have been on benefits for a while to perform community service. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has come out against the plans, stating that the plans will lead people "into a downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair". Why? Is the Archbishop really saying that going out and doing something for the small sum people get as a benefit will lead them in to despair? Of course, the full details have not come out yet and these plans will have to be implemented appropriately. However, I can't see why a few hours of work for the benefit received would bring people in to despair. Let's take the Jobseeker's Allowance as a guide (£65 a week). That benefit equates to around 12 hours work at current minimum wage levels. So, what can be done with 12 hours? Well, litter picking has been mooted as an idea. There's never enough time or money available for the council to keep up with people dropping the litter in the first place. Add to that, clearing up graffiti and painting walls. This might actually get people thinking about challenging those who produce the graffiti. How about just sitting and chatting with an elderly or disabled person for a few hours? It doesn't have to be manual labour, even this small thing can help immensely. Add to this any other skills people can bring, or want to put their minds (or hands) to. Get companies involved, to see if they can accommodate someone for a few hours at a lower cost in order to get people in on some training and experience. This could be a way to provide career changing skills at a low cost - giving the unemployed person another skill to add to their CV in the quest for a new job.

But, I hear, there's the law of unintended consequences. Arguments have been made that people will resort to crime, as the punishment they'll get for minor offences will equate to the same thing (community service). There's the argument regarding the community service done by the unemployed will put council workers out of work. Personally, I think the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks. This is a way of getting people doing things in their communities, getting to know people in their communities, working to improve their communities, and so on. We might actually get back the pride of doing work for the community, and see our communities thrive as a result.

I would hope that the policy is thought through, and does not end up being exploitative. Hours of community service should be calculated on at least the minimum wage level equivalent. The proposed 30 hour work placements are just wrong. However, I think we should not be looking on this policy as a punishment, but rather an opportunity to make communities closer. The policy is a chance to regain that pride of earning the money we get, instead of expecting an "entitlement". It's a policy that needs some work, but is a good thing in principle. Here's hoping that the MPs will modify the policy appropriately as it goes through parliament.