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 There are echoes of this in the idea that idlers will be more likely to work if they face having benefits withdrawn and also in the idea of ‘no booze’ cards for those on benefits.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

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