Monday, 10 December 2012

A good week for thumping the poor

Cuts to benefits could put the poorest people living in Stoke-on-Trent into debt and into the hands of high interest loan dealers. For the most vulnerable people the bad times that started rolling in 2007 are fast turning into an avalanche.

According to figures released by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) over the weekend the number of people seeking help with council tax arrears has risen from 610 in 2008/09 to 1236 this year, the total debt has risen over the same period from £466, 97 to £1.3million.

Further cuts to childcare payments, out of work benefits and sickness benefits are also going to hit the most vulnerable people hardest.

In a truly Victorian touch the council will be required to deduct £25 from working claimants of council tax benefit as an ‘incentive to work’. If you’re an investor now might be a good time to take out shares in gruel; the workhouse may be making a comeback.

A spokesperson for the CAB told the Sentinel that the changes to benefits will increase levels of personal debt and force vulnerable people to ‘borrow, often at exorbitant rates, from home credit providers, payday loans and pawnbrokers.’

Deputy Council Leader Paul Shotton told the Sentinel ‘welfare reform is not something we choose to do but something forced upon us and every council nationally,’ the council was, he said, ‘mindful of the potential impact and we want the changes to be as fair as possible.’

Whatever your opinion of their regeneration plans, and mine isn’t high, there is no argument that the council have been forced into a corner by the government over welfare reform. They have been unwillingly recruited as the hired muscle for a programme of withdrawing the support of the state from the most vulnerable members of society that revives notions about the deserving and undeserving poor belonging to a bygone age.

Pious talk about giving claimants and ‘incentive to work’ rings hollow when jobs are rarer than hen’s teeth. Many people lucky enough to be in work are struggling as food and heating costs continue to rise whilst wage levels remain stagnant, for them benefits aren’t a windfall; they’re a lifeline.

There was a time when I had a certain degree of respect for Iain Duncan Smith, unlike many former leaders of the Conservative Party he didn’t retreat into a cosy world of executive directorships and gentleman’s clubs; instead he set out to see how the other, poorer, half live. At least he’s supposed to have done, which makes it surprising that he’s managed to survive the experience with every one of his prejudices intact.

The biggest of these is that anyone, working or not, receiving benefits is a ‘scrounger’ living high on the state reared hog while everyone else struggles. This is demonstrably wrong, a fact attested to by the sad lines of people queuing up at food banks, the alarming rises in homelessness and mental illness to be found in areas blighted by high unemployment and low wages; areas just like Stoke in fact.

A life on benefits isn’t a free ride, it’s a miserable trudge through dependency and despair that all too often leads to a very dark place indeed. It isn’t just the government that wants to get people off benefits and into work, the vast majority of claimants are desperate to work too, this won’t be achieved though by telling people to pull their socks up and try harder.

Pretending it can might play well with the sillier sections of the Tory party and the tabloid press, but politicians with expensive educations and serious responsibilities should take a more nuanced approach. It isn’t a matter of carrots and sticks so much as working constructively with people to find them work that actually pays; not an easy task but a vitally important one none the less.

If the current misbegotten government can’t grasp the necessity of carrying it out then vulnerable people in Stoke and many other towns around the country will continue to struggle. Alone and abandoned with the only help on the horizon a loan from a company that hides sky high interest rates behind a cheery jingle.

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