The most acrimonious debates on Twitter are between myself, and a few like-minded libertarians, and a purple-twibbon army of disabled people, about the Welfare reform bill.
When asked what was his greatest political fear, Tony Blair once answered “the disabled”. Sure enough when his administration attempted a similar set of reforms to those proposed at the moment by the Coalition, a passive-aggressive disabled mob chained themselves to railings all over the place and the reforms were defeated. Labour ran scared from an issue at which the leadership was at variance with the activist base, for whom “benefits cuts” are an anathema. The problem is that the Welfare system has become too cumbersome, too bureaucratic and as a result too generous to many, replete with perverse incentives preventing a class of permanent benefits recipients ever getting work, with marginal withdrawal rates in some cases over 100%.
At present the system doesn’t do any of the things a decent benefits system should do. Any redistribution is effectively between the poor, as the low-waged are taxed to pay the benefits of their non-working neighbours. Their income is then topped up from the benefits system in a bizarre and bureaucratic abortion of tax-credits. This bureaucratic leviathan doesn’t protect incentives to work, the very complexity of the system creating a fear, preventing people taking the low-paid, insecure jobs which are a necessary first step on the employment ladder. The poorest are trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, and those with jobs are forced to pay through the nose for it.
Surely no-one denies that the system needs reform?
I have seen two mutually contradictory positions. First that these are the wrong reforms because they won’t save the Government money. All reforms save less than they are supposed to. The other is that these are treasury-led reforms designed to take money from the neediest in society. Of course some people will lose out, most widely publicised being those Households of housing benefits recipients mainly in London who are in receipt of a total amount in excess of a benefits cap of £26,000. That’s the point.
These people should do what cash-constrained working people have to do and move to a grottier part of town. No-one has a right to a £1m pad in St. Johns wood. Exempt from this benefits cap are, of course, the disabled. So far, so reasonable.
Next up seems to be the demise of Disability Living Allowance, a payment designed to help the disabled with increased living expenses. A wheelchair user’s car is likely to be more expensive, everything else being equal. They may need a home expensively modified and so forth. The DWP estimated that this benefit is not subject to fraud, but this is questionable. Overpayment was equivalent to over 9% of expenditure, mainly because “customers'” conditions change over time. DLA’s replacement with Personal Independence Payments or PIPs mainly changes the frequency of assessments, so “customers'” who get better, lose benefits more promptly. Yes, people will lose benefits they’ve come to rely on, but working people lose jobs from time to time. Again. I struggle to see how the changes are throwing disabled people under a bus.
The problem is that being signed off sick has become for some an income in perpetuity, absolving a person of ever seeking any work. It shouldn’t always be. Some people who have become used to generous welfare payments may well have to do without. Again, that’s the point.
Finally the Universal Credit aims to replace Housing benefit, tax credits and various income related benefits. A simpler system is necessary to remove the obscene marginal withdrawal/tax rates faced by many people moving from benefits and into work. Many people will face lower benefits receipts, but as they will also face lower tax rates thanks to a higher personal allowance, this increases the incentive to work, which is the ONLY way out of “poverty”. (The scare “quotes” are to indicate relative measures of poverty, rather than absolute, which simply doesn’t exist in the UK, except by choice). Some form of universal credit represented one of the two main reasons for supporting the Tories (along with the education reforms) at the last election.
Of course a number of people are going to face cuts to income, and are going to have to make choices. But these choices are not materially different from those faced by working people on low wages, who faced (and still face) over a decade of tax-rises. They are not going to see people “on the street, starving” as many of the more hyperbolic purple twibbon army regularly claim. Given the broad thrust of the reforms strike me as being in the right direction, unless anyone can point to people suffering more than a few more assessments or losing a bit of money and facing hard choices, I will continue to confront the hyperbole.
Disagreement isn’t “bullying”. Just because someone’s in a wheelchair, doesn’t mean they occupy the moral high ground.