They said Britain was broken – it is now

By Bernadette Meaden
January 31, 2018

We were told we needed welfare reform because we were living in ‘Broken Britain’ , a Britain where poverty and the social problems associated with it was mainly the result of people's personal failings, not economic injustice. This version of Britain was largely based on what Tom Slater of Edinburgh University calls “decision-based evidence making”, but a relentless stream of negative media stories about benefit recipients persuaded the public that ‘something must be done’, and paved the way for the biggest changes to social security in sixty years.

Thus we got, amongst other things; the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the abolition of Disability Living Allowance, more and harsher benefit sanctions, and, like a slow motion car crash, the relentless rollout of Universal Credit.

Simultaneously, and entirely predictably, we got soaring rates of hunger and homelessness.

Since 2011 the number of people who sleep rough has risen by 134 per cent, with the respected Homelessness Monitor finding welfare reforms responsible. We also have evidence that hunger is becoming endemic in Britain, with millions of people, working or not working, having to skip meals because they simply can’t afford to eat properly. There is even an attempt to legislate to make the government officially monitor food insecurity. 

Challenged on such issues, the government resorts to what is becoming its stock response - that ‘the causes are complex’. But really, the causes are very simple – if you reduce someone’s income to the point where they can’t pay their rent, they will be evicted and become homeless. If you reduce someone’s income to the point where they can’t afford food, they will go hungry. And as Universal Credit rolls out, this will happen to more and more people. Anyone who doubts this should read the new Universal Credit briefing from the Joint Public Issues Team - or even just look at the title: Universal Credit: Increasing poverty by design. 

The test of a properly functioning social security system must surely be whether it ensures all people are able to meet their basic needs, and millions now clearly can’t. The European Committee of Social Rights has judged that in the UK, the level of many of our benefits is inadequate. 

Benefits being too low to live on is bad enough – but our social security system has been so distorted and perverted that it now increasingly acts not as a support for the least fortunate people in society, but as a tormentor.  

To fully appreciate this, I would urge people to read the posts of an anonymous ESA claimant on the site, under the title 'I’m broken, Britain'. In their latest post they write

“I no longer receive any benefits at all. I'm fully cut off. My Personal Independence Payment (PIP) tribunal is still pending with a rather indefinite feel to it, and the small amount of help that I was receiving in Employment Support Allowance (ESA) is no more. As you may imagine, it was a dark Christmas.

“The ESA system requires a disabled person to jump through many hoops with no allowances made to personal circumstances and impediments. This system became untenable for my health, with requests being made of me which I was simply unable to carry out. And so, I decided to end my claim…I am now officially without a penny to my name and left bewildered as to where to go next in obtaining any degree of independence… on the breadline, reliant on the goodwill of those around me to keep me housed and fed.”

And recently, Harrow Law Centre tweeted, “Sad and angry today. Our client refused PIP because he was not sufficiently ill/disabled, lost at first tier tribunal.  We represented at Upper Tribunal successfully- remitted back to 1st tier which he again lost as not sufficiently ill. He has just died.”

The next day they tweeted, “We have been inundated by the media about this case but anyone working in this field knows there are thousands of similar cases, people in very poor health clinging on. It is surely time to restore a benefit system that provides dignity to people when sick or dying.”

We were told Britain was broken. That was debatable. But for the least fortunate people, it is certainly broken now.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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