What the Dickens are the Tories up to on welfare reform?

3rd January, 2013 12:17 pm

Christmas is over, unemployment is high and foodbanks look like they will be busy in 2013. The jousting at the Prime Minister’s Questions prior to the holidays will set the scene for much of the welfare debate over 2013. Ed Miliband’s seasonal attempt to tar David Cameron as a Dickensian Prime Minister was timely. The allusion to Dickensian tales of poverty, squalor and the horrors of workhouses is powerful. It’s clear that Tory welfare policy won’t lead to the recreation of Victorian workhouses. Nonetheless, the Tories appear to have a similar outlook to the Victorian policy makers who put together legislation on poverty which shaped the terrible conditions Dickens wrote about.

The most obvious similarity is the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. This was an idea that was enshrined legally in the Poor Relief Act of 1576 and is still a particularly pernicious – but also relatively popular – idea. Once this division is accepted it is easier to go down the path of punitive measures and an unfair approach to social security provision in an economy with a high unemployment rate. After all, who wants to help shirkers when there are strivers finding it hard to make ends meet?

It’s the kind of thinking that reinforced workhouses as a central pillar of the welfare system created by the Victorians. Workhouses were often scenes of horrific conditions, where the poor worked for free for their upkeep. Such conditions and intuitions will not be seen again but there are worrying attempts by the government to get people to work for free, leading to disgraceful, and telling instances, of people sleeping rough and working for free during this year’s Jubilee celebrations. This is despite academic evidence that workfare is of limited value in helping people find work.

This is linked to the strain of utilitarianism behind the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which contended that people choose pleasant options over unpleasant ones. If not working is made unpleasant enough people would not claim relief and find gainful employment. There are echoes of this in the idea that idlers will be more likely to work if they face having benefits withdrawn and also in the idea of ‘no booze’ cards for those on benefits. It is conveniently forgotten that this is a strange approach in a stagnant economy with 2.51 million people unemployed.

Victorian poor law also intruded into the family life of the poor. One of the driving forces was Malthusian theory, the idea that previous poor laws has led to pressure being removed from the poor to find work, leaving them free to increase the size of their families. Sound familiar? That’s probably because Iain Duncan Smith earlier this year floated the idea of limiting cash for those having more than two children on benefits.

Another of aim of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment was to transfer large numbers of unemployed rural workers to urban areas where there was work. This contributed to the creation of a very large urban poor. The current government also thinks it is worthwhile shifting large populations of the poor. However, this time they’re intent on doing the reverse, moving what could be up to 1 million people from expensive inner city areas to places where there are no jobs. London councils are doing this at the moment.

Tim Montgomerie is right that the debate on social security can be overblown and that is damaging to arguments on the left. The most prominent recent offender has been Tristram Hunt. Of course, the Tories damage their own credibility when Iain Duncan Smith makes false claims about tax credits which have been embarrassingly refuted by Channel 4’s fact checking team. All the same, while the Tories will never build workhouses there is a strong similarity in the ethos’ justifying the current welfare reforms and the laws that shaped Victorian approaches to what we call Dickensian poverty. As a result of the work of campaigners there were big improvements on this approach to poverty prior to the Attlee government and it was Labour’s introduction of the National Assistance Act in 1948 that repealed the poor laws. Although it’s not something that Ed Miliband might want to gloat about it’s something Labour should be proud of. Unfortunately, with a tax cut for the wealthiest and benefits cuts both due to come into force in April, Dickensian comparisons will still be relevant in Christmas 2013.

John Clarke blogs at johnmichaelclarke.wordpress.com

  • AlanGiles

    Have you seen this, John?:

    http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/westminster-councils-bid-to-slash-benefits-from-fat-people-sparks-backlash-from-gps-8436802.html

    But let’s be frank about it, what sort of opposition does Duncan-Smith get whilst the inept Byrne remains shadowing him?

    Also, of course, right-wing Labourites are not beneath trying to imply there are the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.

    • johnmclarke

      Thanks Alan, I had seen that. It’s ridiculous and shows a very poor and crude understanding of human nature and motivations.

      On your other point, I think a major problem is that a significant chunk of the public buy into the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor idea. I’m not sure it’s a notion that’s going to be easily shifted even if the evidence points the other way. Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published research showing that the belief that there is a culture of worklessness is nonsense: http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/cultures-of-worklessness

      • AlanGiles

        Thanks for replying John.

        One of my problems with the Crudas “listening to the people” exercise is that, rather than confront the prejudice or the ignorance of the public, people like Byrne panders to it. If, for example, the public were to be asked to give their views on capital punishment, especially just after an emotive murder case, I feel quite sure there would be a majority in favour of restoring it. Similarily, I suspect a majority of the public would withdraw from the EU. This puts people like Crudas in a difficult position: it is highly unlikely Labour would reintroduce capital punishment, but all those who “wanted” it would feel ignored and frustrated.

        I should imagine if a great number of people told Crudas or any other senior Labour figure, they wanted to see execution reinstated, they would make a good attempt to argue that it is inhuman and merely makes state killing legal. But Byrne’s arguments against the Coalitions welfare reforms (and this time last year he “supported three quarters of it” [the bill] are highly qualified, as witness yesterdays “World At One” nonsense where he was still arguing with Grant “Green” Schapps that there are “strivers” and anybody unsucessful is finding work is therefore not striving.

        Ed Miliband had a great opportunity to dismiss Byrne this time last year when he announced that he would step down from Westminster if he could become a candidate for Mayor of Birmingham. in the event Birmingham said no to a Mayor, but to give credit where it is due, at least Sion Simon, who I personally can’t abide, had the courage to resign from Parliament BEFORE throwing is hat into the ring. Byrne didn’t have that couraged, and hung on like dirty glue. When you have a minister so uncommitted that he could be so easily lured away from one of the most pressing briefs in the Shadow Cabinet, it tells us that he is the wrong man in the job.

        • johnmclarke

          I don’t think Liam Byrne is necessarily the problem here. I think this is another instance of Labour’s policy vacuum. The party doesn’t have a rigorously defined position and this leads to shadow ministers jumping about all over the place on certain issues. The position Miliband took on welfare payments was a big step, but he was bounced into it without having a fully formed policy.

          • Monkey_Bach

            Liam Byrne is a problem. Period. Eeek.

          • johnmclarke

            Good use of “Eeek”.

    • Monkey_Bach

      I really wish Eric Pickles had mooted docking the benefits of overweight claimants if they refused to diet and exercise appropriately as ordered by their local authority.

      Eeek.

      It would have been funnier coming from Eric, I reckon, for very obvious reasons.

      However, as far as parity and equality amongst Westminster’s citizenry goes, if the Council – which we all remember was once ruled imperiously by that disgraceful arch-Tory villainess Shirley Porter – is serious about forcibly whipping the overweight poor into shape by threatening to cut their benefits, shouldn’t rich fatties at the other end of the income scale, face tax increases and/or fines if they refuse to lose weight and “go for the burn” at a leisure centre or gymnasium once found guilty of the crime of corpulence and sentenced to “hard labour” on a fitness regime by their local authority?

      Even from increasingly deranged, desperate, and drowning Tories this really is truly bonkers stuff that could easily have been lifted straight off the pages of a script for an episode of “The Thick of It”.

      It’s hard to believe that these idiots don’t drag their knuckles along the ground when they walk, just like some of my relatives (although every one of my simian brothers and sisters is far too evolved and intelligent to be stupid enough to vote for a shower of sh*t like David Cameron’s Conservative Party).

      Eeek.

  • Amber_Star

    IDS is screwed. His universal credit IT system doesn’t work; & it isn’t ever going to work.

    • aracataca

      I’m not sure it is meant to ‘work’ Amber. The new system humiliates the unemployed and makes shed loads of money for Capgemini (French IT giant)- whether it ‘works’ or not is irrelevant ( as far as IDS & co are concerned).

      • Amber_Star

        Good point. I was just hoping that the whole thing would be abandoned & IDS would get sacked.

    • http://www.facebook.com/paul.phoenixnovarebirth Paul Phoenixnovarebirth

      But yet they are still pushing ahead. This is an all out class war.

  • aracataca

    ‘But let’s be frank about it, what sort of opposition does Duncan-Smith’

    How about every Labour MP opposing the disastrous Housing Benefit cap or opposing the 3 year 1% cap on Benefit?
    Forget about Byrne Alan. Labour is clearly opposed to these measures and the recent voting record demonstrates this.

  • Amber_Star
    • aracataca

      Presumably this has the full support of shapely Communities Minister Eric Pickles?

  • Pingback: What the Dickens are the Tories up to on welfare reform? « John Clarke()

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.phoenixnovarebirth Paul Phoenixnovarebirth

    The shape of things to come.

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