The plan in question involves decentralising the benefits system - giving individual councils a lump sum of money to spend on welfare howsoever they choose. Provided that safeguards were put in place ensuring a minimum amount of benefits and housing support were offered to the needy, this would actually be an improvement on the current system, which involves a great deal of overheads for very little positive return. JobCentrePlus, incorporating the new Pathways To Work scheme, currently spends £3.36 billion a year on administration costs alone which, when you consider that the total amount the state spends on Job Seeker's Allowance handouts is £5 billion, is not an inconsiderable figure – especially as much of this money is currently spent on finding creative ways to deny people state support.
I understand, of course, that the Tories are about as likely to really have the best interests of the poor and unlucky at heart as I am to be a contestant on the next series of Strictly Come Dancing. The reason that this plan looks good is that it would be hard to envision a welfare system more punitive, more cruel and illogical, than the one we currently have, reworked under the expert supervision of former Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell MP for Stalybridge and Hyde.
One of the founding principles of the welfare state, laid out in the Beveridge report and part-quoted in a poor-bashing article by Michael Portillo in the Times this week, is that the state "should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family". The current system both forbids other work ‘to provide more than that minimum’ and stifles incentive – not, as the received wisdom runs, by providing benefit recipients with a cushy lifestyle that they don’t want to relinquish, but by making it so bloody hard to access benefits that by the time you’re luck enough to receive your £50.95 a week, you’re terrified of giving it up.
Having lived with and financially supervised young jobseekers for a year, £50.95 a week isn’t much – in London, it’s barely enough to cover a basic, unhealthy diet of frozen pizzas, travel costs and heating bills. Britain has the stingiest welfare system in Europe – if you’re on jobseeker’s allowance, you can’t afford to buy a newspaper or take the bus into town to meet your parents, and you certainly can’t save any of it. But it’s the difference between poverty and absolute destitution, and despite the weeks and weeks of beauraucratic faff it takes to access it, as soon as you get a job, the benefit stops. Not only do you have no money to live off until you get your first paycheck, but if you lose the job at the end of your trial period, you’ll have to wait another couple of months before you get any money from the state, and you risk being turfed out onto the streets.
Centralisation of services should, in theory, streamline and speed up the welfare system. Instead, deliberate lack of communication between the DWP, the Jobcentre and the National Health Service makes it as difficult and as taxing as possible for people to access the benefits they need, an operating principle which punishes the sick and the mentally ill disproportionately harshly. Consider the case this month of the terminally ill hospice resident who was ordered to attend the jobcentre before he would be allowed to receive any benefits, and died without receiving a penny of state support. Or the woman with mental health difficulties who was so badly bullied by JobCentre staff and agencies that she was tipped into a major health crisis [reported by wimvisible, the campaign for women with non-visible disabilities]. There is currently no way for doctors and healthcare workers to ensure that vulnerable people get the support they need – instead, as many barriers as possible are thrown in the way of claimants, ensuring that it is the most doggedly persistent, rather than the most needy, who get state support whether they deserve it or not.
After helping my partner go through the agonising and humiliating process of filling out a form for Disability Living Allowance, we waited over four months to hear back from the DWP – four months of watching my partner get thinner and thinner through stress, poverty and persistent lack of proper food, whilst he came to terms with having to abandon his dream job because he could not walk well enough to sustain it. Four months at the end of which we were both sure that he would be given at least some money to improve his circumstances, because his is a clear case of not being able to walk without agonising pain and the use of crutches. Instead, we’ve just received a letter informing us that the DWP does not consider my partner disabled, and that he is well enough to work in any job immediately without any adjustments.
The sublime hypocrisy of all this, of course, is that JobCentrePlus – which employs nearly 700,000 staff and spends billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money telling disabled people, in the words of shoutyporn victimblaming Channel 4 hatefest Benefit Busters, that they can "walk down the street and get a job tomorrow" - has a very poor record itself on employing people with mental or physical disabilities. Despite being one of the only companies currently hiring, just 1.26% of the thousands of people taken on by JobCentrePlus in 2007-2008 had any sort of physical or mental disability, compared with15% of working-age people. I know a young man, a graduate with a degree from a top university, who got to the last stage of interviews for a benefit adviser job– the only interview he had been offered in six months of jobhunting – only to be turned down after disclosing that he had bipolar disorder.
You may have surmised that all of this makes me unspeakably angry. This is not how the welfare state is supposed to work. It's meant to help people, not punish people. It's meant to listen to people and work with them, rather than shunt them between departments and use any excuse to reject their claims. It's meant, in short, to be a welfare state, not a special circle of hell for anyone unlucky enough to lose their job, which these days could be anyone. In a few days, I'm going to tell James Purnell that to his face.
Turns out that contributors to this blog have finally shouted loud enough for the former Work and Pensions Secretary to hear - so on Wednesday night I'm due to have a personal meeting with Mr Purnell to discuss our differences. If anyone has a story or an issue they want to raise with him, post it in the comments and I'll print it out and take it along. Keep it clean, he's apparently a sensitive flower. I shall report back on my return, presuming I make it back unscathed; if not, I'll be locked in a basement at Demos, and I'm relying on you guys to send a vanload of heavily armed banjo-playing junior socialist feminists to rescue me.