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Yesterday's Comprehensive Spending Review was a display of politics at its most callous and divisive.
Over the past three years, the Coalition has been carefully setting the tone on what used to be called 'social security'. This has been crafted to embed the idea that citizens who claim benefits represent whatever combination of feckless, idle, scrounging or malingering happens to suit the moment. They have been ably assisted in this by the right wing press and so ready have large sections of the electorate been to accept lies and misrepresentation, that today's (27 June) Daily Mail headline 'George declares war on welfare Britain' will not meet with the universal revulsion it deserves. The propaganda is cynical and immoral, and its falsehoods, even when challenged and disproved, are not recanted (Fraternity, propaganda and transformation, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18421)
But a society divided against itself cannot prosper and a governing elite who know nothing and care less about many of the citizens they are elected to serve, can ultimately only engender contempt for the democratic process.
The cost of food and fuel is putting a huge strain on the budgets of people on low and medium incomes. Where pay has not been frozen, increases are below inflation; unemployment is high and many of the new jobs about which Ministers boast are insecure, low paid and part time. Food banks are multiplying across the country and many of those who have recourse to them are in full time work.
This is a world away from the well-padded world of Westminster salaries, expenses and subsidised food. The idea that individuals and families may quite literally have no money left at the end of the week is outside the experience of most parliamentarians. There have been so many 'let them eat cake' moments from this government that it is hard to pick one as an example but let this serve: during a debate on the Welfare Reform Bill, the point was put to Lord Freud that that some disabled people stood to loose £1500 as a result of changes to the DLA. The Minister replied that this “was not a very large sum”.
It is not therefore surprising that George Osborne, his feet firmly planted in the soil he and Iain Duncan Smith have been so assiduously tilling, was able to disguise spite towards job seekers as “helping them get back into work”. Someone who has lost their job (itself a de-stabilising and frightening experience) will not be allowed to apply for JSA for seven days. According to the Chancellor this is so they will “focus on looking for work, not looking to sign on.” It seems to have escaped his notice that it can already be three weeks before benefits arrive and that a job seeker is unlikely to be able to focus on very much else if their children are going hungry or cold. And as many people have short term contracts, this punitive process could be repeated several time a year. It is estimated that this will save the Treasury approximately £245 million. Its cost in anxiety and humiliation to people already struggling is incalculable.
That a Labour MP (I hear Neil Kinnock's incredulous intonation here) should be similarly indifferent and out of touch is appalling. Simon Danczuk, MP for Rochdale, tweeted this morning: “Waiting seven days instead of three before claiming benefits means people will need to save a week's wages in case they lose job. Fair enough.” It would be fair enough for Mr Danczuk to spend a few months managing on the minimum wage and see how much he was able to save. One is left wondering where to look for understanding of, and resistance to, the life-crushing and frightening experiences of poverty.
Job seekers who the DWP think are not doing enough to find a job themselves (what are the appeal procedures here?) will have a mandatory weekly meeting with Job Centre staff. This is again presented as a means of 'helping' people back into work. Listen to the accounts of job seekers who have been 'sanctioned' (deprived of benefits) for being late for an appointment or missing one due to illness – or in some cases for having attended a job interview – and it is hard to escape the conclusion that the ethos is more about bullying and the exercise of petty authoritarianism than genuinely assisting people into work.
Today's infrastructure wish-list, for which there is no new money, clearly illustrates the government's real mindset. Contempt for those who are poor, unemployed, sick or disabled is the reality. Talk of “those with the broadest shoulders bearing the greatest burdens” is mendacious cant as Osborne fixates on “winning the global race.”
A good moment to remind ourselves and our politicians of William Penn's words: “Gross impiety it is that a nation's pride should be maintained in the face of its poor.”
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet