By Lisa Nandy MP and Teresa Pearce MP
The Welfare Up-rating Bill currently before the House of Commons will have a disastrous effect on thousands of people, including many of our constituents in two very different parts of the country, who rely on benefits just to make ends meet. But the bitter political row over this Bill also presents an opportunity to change the terms of the debate about the welfare system, which is currently peppered with myths about the cost of the system and a culture of worklessness and often underpinned by offensive language used to describe welfare recipients.
George Osborne announced the Bill by identifying the so-called ‘strivers’ who are in work and the so-called ‘shirkers’ who are not. It is an astonishing distinction to make; not least because the majority of people who will lose from the 1% cap on benefit and tax credit up-rating over the next three years are people who are in work. But while this has been repeatedly highlighted, the fact that unemployment levels remain unacceptably high and surgeries like ours are packed with people desperate to work has been largely overlooked. We are MPs from very different areas, representing Erith and Thamesmead in outer London and Wigan in the North West, and yet we are both dealing with the same problems created by this Government’s failing growth policies. In Erith and Thamesmead there are 12 people on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) for every vacancy advertised at the local Job Centre, whilst in Wigan there are 5 people chasing each job vacancy.
These people are not shirkers. In the last year we have been contacted by many constituents desperate for work. They have come to their local MP because they are at the end of their tether. In Wigan there was the father who won an apprenticeship with a rail firm that went bust, leaving him ineligible for JSA because he was theoretically still under contract and unable to find work elsewhere because he did not have the necessary qualification. Or the 27 year old who has been seeking work for three years with no success – overlooked for jobs that teenagers could fill more cheaply and struggling to persuade employers that his learning difficulty does not automatically rule him out for other work. Or the woman from Erith and Thamesmead recently made redundant from the public sector and struggling to feed two children, who is applying every day for jobs but failing to even get interviews and who recently undertook special constable training in the hope of filling a vacancy with the Met Police, only to find that they too are facing cuts. Back in Wigan, the vast majority of Remploy workers forced out of their jobs last year remain unemployed. These are Osborne’s so-called ‘shirkers’.
In reality the boundaries between these two groups – those in work and those out of it – are increasingly fluid. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights how quickly and easily people currently move in and out of work, finding no evidence that a culture of worklessness exists and high levels of commitment to work amongst the unemployed. Many of our constituents are on zero hours contracts, working for free or classed as agency workers, moving in and out of work on a constant cycle. The employment picture is much more complex than the Tories claim and it falls to Labour to explain this to voters. The Tory mantra is that benefits should just be a safety net between jobs and not a ‘lifestyle choice’. Yet how can it act as any kind of safety net if they keep cutting holes in it?
That the Labour Party has rejected Osborne’s arbitrary distinction is important, preferring to guarantee jobs for those who can work and to recognise the worth, effort and value of people who are unemployed. To apply labels like ‘striver’ and ‘shirker’ to those who are respectively in and out of work is offensive and misguided. The Coalition should instead focus on creating jobs through public procurement, job-creation subsidies and investment in key infrastructure. They should also address in-work poverty by supporting policies like the living wage. Nobody in society wins by making the poor even poorer.
The parameters of the political debate should also recognise that targeting the poorest is wrong in moral terms, especially at a time when the wealthiest have had their taxes cut. The savage real-terms cuts imposed by this Bill will lengthen the queues at food banks and will have a particularly harmful effect on children. In both London and Greater Manchester nearly half of children are already living in poverty. Yet the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a further million children will be growing up in poverty in the UK by 2020. This Bill will hurt both those children whose parents are currently in work and those whose parents are not.
Research recently commissioned by the TUC demonstrates that attitudes to welfare are largely based on ignorance; the people who know least about the benefits system are the most likely to dislike it. This shows that the framework in which the political debate about welfare is held is essential. This is a particularly important message for politicians and the Labour Party. As Jon Cruddas argued in 2010, “there lies political death for Labour. No language, no warmth no kindness; no generosity, vitality nor optimism. No compassion. If you seek to outflank the coalition from the right, you will turn Labour into a byword for intolerance… If Labour becomes the voice for this sour, shrill hopeless politics it will die. And it will deserve to.”
This is backed up by polling amongst young people which suggests that attitudes to welfare are less hardened because they believe they will need the welfare system at some point in their lives. On this basis, the Welfare Up-rating Bill could potentially become a watershed moment in British politics, where the prevailing myths about welfare that Osborne seeks to perpetuate are finally discarded. As the TUC poll shows, politicians who are prepared to lead and are driven by Labour values to defend the most vulnerable in society, rather than follow the prevailing narrative on welfare, can succeed. For the sake of the thousands of people who will lose out if the Coalition passes this Bill, we must do so.
Lisa Nandy is MP for Wigan. Teresa Pearce MP is for Erith and Thamesmead