Welfare politics and changing the power landscape

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
8 Feb 2012

When the government’s Welfare Reform Bill first went through the House of Commons last year, signalling a massive overhaul of the benefit system and around £18 billion worth of cuts affecting some of the least well-off in Britain, there were – remarkably – few ruffles at Westminster.

But in January 2012 the balloon went up. That was largely due to a small group of disabled and sick people who were determined not to be ignored by politicians and the mainstream media. They took to the Internet and launched one of the most successful social media awareness campaigns we have ever seen.

The ‘Spartacus report’ and campaign (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA) started off using the Freedom of Information Act to reveal a huge level of concern and opposition to the coalition’s plan to take 500,000 people off Disability Living Allowance, replace it with a new payment, cut costs by 20 per cent, and introduce a vague and untested assessment regime. Up to 98 per cent of expert respondents disagreed with key aspects of what was being proposed. As did Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson, it transpired.

Suddenly, three million people started talking about this on Twitter. Thousands began lobbying. Churches and bishops questioned the arbitrary and unfair nature of a one-size-fits all, top-slicing benefit cap. The Institute for Fiscal Studies raised issues about the government’s sums. And charities called for a legislative pause and review of the Bill as a whole, given serious concerns about its impact on disabled youngsters, cancer sufferers, the terminally ill, those in housing need, carers and children in low income or unwaged families.

As a result, the coalition lost an unprecedented seven Welfare Reform Bill amendment votes in the House of Lords, where crossbenchers and independents exerted their power and knowledge to question what was being done to the most vulnerable in society.

“If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, then we enter into a different form of morality,” said Lord Patel, responding to arguments that slashing welfare payments was justified by the need for deficit reduction.

Actor and comedian Francesca Martinez, who lives with cerebral palsy, went further. By trying to reform welfare without putting human need and suffering first, government was proving “morally disabled”, she declared.

The coalition can and will force its changes through. It is using procedural measures, minor concessions and ‘financial privilege’ to do so. But the long-term political fall-out from all of this could be immense. Legal challenges are being investigated. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is being invoked. Lords reform will also become more of a minefield.

It is ironic that an unelected revising chamber has proved more sensitive to democratic procedure and the need to listen to ordinary people than the elected one. That does not justify the current set up. But it sends out a strong warning about simply cloning the second chamber on the first. The warfare over welfare has also shown just how powerful citizens’ action and web-based crowd sourcing can be. Politics 2.0, anyone?

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his regular column in Third Way, the Christian magazine of social and cultural comment. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/

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