Our failing and disempowering benefits system is dominating some of the main news headlines.
Once again our focus is on the ideologically driven policy direction chosen by the current UK Government. 2013 was a peak year for sanctions being applied – with tens of thousands of people having to deal with adverse decisions each month. This doesn’t just mean a minor cut in the benefits you receive – for some 80,000 people (and more) this is not the first time they had been sanctioned. They faced yet another cut in their already limited income, which is likely to have pushed them towards deeper destitution. For many others, the application of a “high level” sanction meant losing most or all of their only income.
Over 200,000 people affected had a disability or ill health. People on Employment and Support Allowance also receive disallowances or cuts – yes, disability benefits are not as protected as Mr Osborne would have us believe. Add to that planned cuts to Employment and Support Allowance, and it is quite clear that no one is safe from a pervasive ideology which tarnishes every benefit claimant with the “feckless scrounger” label.
“The lack of public concern about the ongoing destruction of social security is disturbing”
And whilst these DWP figures demonstrate a high level of sanctions decisions overturned, this hides the deep impact on individuals and families. The money has already gone from your income – a retrospective decision to overturn a sanction will not change that fact or that you may have been pushed into debt or towards a food bank as a result. The damage has been done.
The lack of public concern about the ongoing destruction of social security is disturbing. Attitudes to benefit claimants remain ambivalent at best. So, it’s no wonder that many of us who are part of the current benefits system look to the planned transfer of new powers under the Scotland Bill with some hope. Is it any wonder that charities supporting people affected by a criminal sanctions system see some positives in Scotland having control over the benefits system? But hang on a minute……. this would mean benefits being under the control of the same Scottish Parliament which voted against having the principle of choice being applied to crisis support under the Scottish Welfare Fund – if you are poor, you get a “hand-out” and by goodness, you will be grateful for it.
We have no guarantees that Scotland would take a more compassionate approach to social security. Warm words about having a more caring approach are just that – warm words. They won’t heat your house or feed your children.
Turning the current destructive narrative around is the main challenge which Scottish Ministers will face if they really are dedicated to creating a system which is better and more empowering than the current approach. And those of us in the voluntary sector who believe passionately in strong safety net for all must not shirk from the task of holding Ministers and parliamentarians to account. Social security is not just an add on – it’s the foundation of a strong economy and a supportive society.