Amidst all of George Osborne’s triumphalism last week, the Chancellor slipped in two austerity measures that went somewhat under the radar - the welfare ‘cap’ and a freeze in council tax. Both threaten to have serious and damaging consequences for vulnerable people.
Speaking on Shelagh Fogarty’s BBC Radio 5Live show after the Autumn Statement, I insisted that, “welfare must be provided on the basis of need”. That’s a fundamental principle that you wouldn’t think would need to be defended, and yet it very clearly does need to be restated, and defended, loudly.
A real life example of that need was obvious in the account provided on 5Live by Sue, a mother of a disabled child, who spoke about how it has become increasingly difficult to get respite care; some relief from the grinding hard, emotional work of caring. She was a passionate, compelling, persuasive speaker – and if she has to fight for what little help she gets, it’s not hard to imagine how many miss out.
One reason why this aspect of the Statement hasn’t got a lot of attention is its apparent technicality – this is a cap on AME, the “annual managed expenditure on social security”, which the government is of course selling as a populist move to tackle the (very small number of) benefit “cheats”.
It’s been left to the Child Poverty Action Group to explain what this means: a cap on collectively Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Child Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Income support, Universal Credit (but only for people in work and disabled people), Housing Benefit (but only for people in work and disabled people).
What the government is whispering is that excluded from this is Job Seekers’ Allowance, the most often attacked benefit, since this is – although you’ll have to find a clever interviewer to get a government Minister to admit it – a benefit whose cost is linked to economic conditions. If there aren’t jobs to be had, people, as so many are now, end up on that meagre £71.70 a week.
Not nearly enough has been said about how this Government has, with its ideologically driven cuts, targeted the most vulnerable – and particularly the disabled. It doesn’t help when we have a Labour ‘opposition’ that’s promising to be tougher on benefits than the Tories, instead of speaking up for the essential security blanket of the welfare state that their party established. It doesn’t help that they’ve already announced a “welfare cap” of their own.
Labour is heavily complicit too in an even-less-noticed element of the Autumn Statement - the freeze on council tax.
Labour councils up and down the country, included Camden’s where I live, have year after year gone for populist council tax freezes, even when the option of a rise was available to them – proudly trumpeting the fact that they are saving the comparatively well off a pound or so a week, while losing more and more cash (compound interest in reverse) that might fund essential services, from libraries to social care to youth clubs - services that are particularly essential to the most vulnerable. Now they won’t even have the option of a small catch-up.
Local government provides many essential services, and its ability to do so – to continue to function at all – is being increasingly compromised. So much for this government’s claims to “localism”.
The Autumn Statement was very clearly an electioneering budget. But two tags that it will rightfully wear in history are clear – “viciously tough on the the vulnerable” and “not at all interested in the common good”.
Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green Party