Welfare slashed to fuel tax cuts

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The Independent Online
THE KNOCK on the door of William Proudfoot Halfway House in London, Ontario, came without warning last week. It was just minutes after the province's solicitor-general Bob Runciman had risen in the provincial parliament in Toronto to announce sweeping changes in his department's operations.

Four correctional services officers told the eight women residents to pack up their belong- ings immediately. They were going back to jail.

Similar "raids" were happening at 24 other locations around Ontario as corrections officers rounded up a total of 400 people who had been convicted of minor criminal offences and were being allowed to serve the latter part of their sentences in halfway houses. Under the pre-release scheme, the residents were confined to the premises at night but could work or receive job training and counselling to ease their reintegration into society.

The women at William Proudfoot were among the first to feel the smack as the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris began implementing the hard-right turn he promised when his party swept the centre-left New Democratic Party out of power in the provincial election in June.

The closure of the halfway house programme is part of an overall thrust to slash expenditures for social programmes - even though it costs twice as much to keep someone in prison as in a halfway house. About 40 per cent of halfway house residents were working and supporting families who might otherwise be on welfare.

Sending people back to jail was also part of the get tough, law-and-order message the new government is sending which has even extended to cutting prisoners' daily canteen allowance from C$10 (pounds 4.75) a week to C$5.

In related cuts this week, the Harris government announced it was closing many of the province's shelters for battered women, eliminating counselling services for the abused women and the prevention and treatment programmes for men who beat their spouses.

No more co-operative housing programmes will be subsidised, although projects under construction will be completed; funding for maternity homes that care for about 1,200 young pregnant women and their babies each year will be slashed; subsidies for day care programmes will be reduced.

The new cuts were revealed just as the 20 per cent reduction in monthly social welfare benefits, announced immediately after the election, took effect at the beginning of October.

The new government has already stopped construction of a new underground transit line, and imposed across-the-board cuts of between 5 and 10 per cent on transfers to hospitals, universities and local (municipal) government. In addition to taking on the poor, the government also moved to repeal a law passed by the previous government that banned the use of replacement workers during strikes, a law that had been opposed by the business community. Under the new government, the labour department has laid off half its worksite safety inspectors.

These and other spending reductions are necessary, Premier Harris has said, to deal with the province's deficit "crisis" and to allow his government to honour its promise to reduce provincial income taxes by 30 per cent over the next three years.

But the moves have been criticised as an attack on the weakest groups in society to favour upper income groups who pay the most income tax. Former premier Bob Ray, now opposition leader, said: "This is a government hell-bent on destroying the services and the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people, all in the name, not of restraint, but of this tax cut."