TRADE UNION DESK: Welfare fraud

Political devolution and power-sharing should be restored, but on the basis of delivering all of the commitments under the Belfast Agreement, and not the threat of causing further hardship to impoverished people, writes ICTU’s John O’Farrell.

Welfare reform would be the principal toxic legacy from the decade of Tory rule, were it not for all of the other catastrophically bad choices made by Cameron, Osborne, May, Rudd, Hunt, Hammond, Grayling, Davis, Gove, Johnson, Fox, their enablers in the Liberal Democrats, and especially Iain Duncan-Smith, whose Damascene moment in a grim Glasgow housing estate brought into being the most radical and regressive policy to clobber Britain’s poorest in a century.

Social policies he proposed were described by the European Court of Justice as ‘unfit for a modern democracy’ and ‘verging on frighteningly authoritarian’.

Most of its bad ideas were hatched in an extremely influential think-tank he founded, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). As with most of this government’s favourite brain trusts, the CSJ “lists ‘partners’ on its website, and acknowledges some funders in individual reports, but does not give information systematically or indicate the proportion of funders acknowledged”, according to the estimable Who Funds You? Project, which graded the think-tank a D for transparency.

Journalist Nick Cohen gets to the central flaw in the grand theory, or its ‘original sin’: “Universal Credit was doomed from the start. The right failed to see the poor as they were rather than as they wanted them to be. People are losing tenancies and going without food not only because Universal Credit is underfunded but because it imposes delays of five weeks or more before it pays anything at all to claimants. The delays are a matter of deliberate policy. In 2010, right-wingers wanted poverty to be the result of chaotic lives, alcoholism, drug addiction and, above all, for this was what got the religious right’s rocks off, the breakdown of traditional families. They blamed individuals, not the system.”

Last month, yet another nail was hammered into the coffin after the report on Welfare Reform by the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly, which said that the full impact of welfare reform has not yet been felt in Northern Ireland, and warned that claimants may face significant hardships when the £585 million of mitigations agreed as part of the Fresh Start Agreement comes to an end in March 2020.

Donnelly added: “When the mitigation schemes end, there is a risk that we will see the same hardship and increase in the demand for food banks, reported elsewhere in the UK.” Annual social security expenditure here currently totals £7.3 billion, of which £6 billion is administered by the Department for Communities, who estimate that the ‘reforms’ will lead to savings of approximately £3 billion for the Westminster government by 2025/26.

“Savings from welfare reforms go to HM Treasury directly, not Northern Ireland.”

The Auditor’s report is a vindication of the position taken by the trade union movement since 2012 and regularly outlined in these pages. So far, all we have seen is vindictive scapegoating and cruel sanctioning of claimants and huge ‘savings’ for HM Treasury which went to pay for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. While the proponents of these ‘reforms’ preached about ‘responsibility’, billions were wasted on doomed IT projects and outsourcing to incompetent benefits assessors, such as ATOS, who decreed dying cancer patients as ‘fit for work’.

The mitigations in Northern Ireland would not have been introduced in 2016 were it not for the strong and united opposition of the trade union movement, with allies across civil society and some politicians.

This mess cannot be too complicated to fix, and we can only hope that this will not be used by the current Secretary of State to pressure political parties to resume their positions in the Executive. Political devolution and power-sharing should be restored, but on the basis of delivering all of commitments under the Belfast Agreement, and not the threat of causing further hardship to impoverished people.

We should heed the advice of expert groups such as the Law Centre and AdviceNI that the mitigations in Northern Ireland must continue for as long as is necessary, until we have a government in Westminster to admit the IDS version of helping the vulnerable only caused hurt, while facilitating a massive transfer of wealth to the already wealthy.

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