by Adrian Holmes, Green Party Norwich North candidate.

Following the economic slump in 2009, the incoming coalition government announced an austerity program to tackle the budget deficit. Since 2010 the main thrust of these austerity measures has been to cut public spending and, in particular, to reduce the welfare budget. People on benefits including the disabled and those with chronic illness, are being targeted by the government in an attempt to get them into work and off the benefits system.

The Work Capability assessment (WCA) was introduced by the last Labour government, creating a new bureaucracy to test the right of welfare recipients to continue receiving benefits. The assessments, carried out by private contractors, have placed stress on people with disabilities to justify their right to help. The cost in wasted resources in holding the assessors to account is also high; with an increasing number of appeals being found against the companies used to carry out the assessment.

Since coming into power the coalition has added to the pressure on claimants by introducing sanctions for those on job seekers allowance for minor infringements of rules. A recent report commissioned by the Church of England and Oxfam, links cuts to benefits with a massive rise in food bank use. The report finds: “At least half of all food bank users are referred because they are waiting for benefits to be paid, because they have had benefits stopped for alleged breaches of job centre rules or because they have been hit by the bedroom tax or the removal of working tax credit”.

The government has sought to put the blame on individuals for being in poverty rather than the structural problems of the UK economy

Despite all the hardship being unleashed on those in society least able to cope with it, the savings made have fallen well below the government’s target. A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that welfare spending over the course of this Parliament has fallen by just £2.5bn despite reforms aimed at saving £19bn. A particularly worrying result of the government’s focus on targeting the poorest has been the hardening in attitude of people towards those on benefits.  A recent report from the University of Sheffield finds “society becoming increasingly intolerant of unemployed and disabled people”.

The government has sought to put the blame on individuals for being in poverty rather than the structural problems of the UK economy with low pay and lack of skills. We are seeing a return to the idea of the undeserving poor creating ever deeper divisions in society.

Some years ago I remember debating welfare with a Conservative MP. The MP was a proponent of the US Work Fare program which forces people to accept any work, however inappropriate to their abilities or family responsibilities.  I was putting the case for the Citizens Income which guarantees everybody a minimum income and allows people to take up appropriate work or education based on the individual’s abilities and needs. Although the MP could see some merit in my argument he could not accept the idea that most long term unemployed were anything other than lazy and needed a metaphorical kick up the backside. I pointed out that few people would wish to remain on a minimum level and so guaranteeing a minimum income would not stop people working; but would take away the fear and stress from the unemployed; enabling them to seek suitable work without threats to their welfare. I was not able to convince the MP who stuck to his undeserving poor argument, which takes such a bleak view of human nature.

worrying result of the government’s focus on targeting the poorest has been the hardening in attitude of people towards those on benefits

Introducing a Citizen’s income in the long term would do away with the burgeoning bureaucracy surrounding welfare administration. At the last General Election, Citizen’s Income was part of the Green Party manifesto offering a radical alternative to the other parties’ policies on welfare.

Given the current state of finances the Green Party would first introduce a Citizen’s Pension as step in the right direction. Our present pension system is a disgrace. The system pays an inadequate state pension, the level of which is still not linked to average earnings.  As many as one in four pensioners live in poverty and are reliant on means-tested Pension Credits. Pension Credits discriminate against anyone with very modest savings, creating a massive disincentive to save to provide for yourself.

The Citizen’s Pension would be paid unconditionally to all pensioners in the UK, independent of contribution record, at the rate of the official poverty line and would be linked to average earnings. It would provide every pensioner with a decent basic income by right. The new pension would be paid for by abolishing tax relief on pension contributions and employee National Insurance rebates associated with pension schemes.

The Green Party is committed to a more generous Carer’s Allowance

The plight of carers is one that both Labour and Coalition governments have ignored. A vast proportion of social care in the UK is provided by unpaid family carers who save the NHS £87bn a year. Carer’s Allowance (CA) is an income-capping straitjacket paid to family carers aged 16 and over which is well below the minimum wage for a 35-hour week minimum commitment. Child carers under the age of 16 receive nothing at all. They are perhaps our most vulnerable child labourers, often working very long hours and bearing emotional burdens far beyond their years.

These children receive no financial support and in many cases work longer hours than their older counterparts. The Green Party is committed to a more generous Carer’s Allowance, increased by 50% while offering support to people who want to give care, recognising their pivotal position while increasing the amount of care available.

We need to move to a fairer, more decent society that recognises and deals with inequality by changing the system, not targeting the disadvantaged. The current attack on welfare is fueling the rise in intolerance towards the unemployed, disabled and migrants, which bodes ill for the future well-being of everybody in our society.

Adrian Holmes has previously been a city councillor with the Green Party in the Wensum and Mancroft wards of Norwich. As the Green Party Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Norwich North, he is keen to focus inequality and climate change.

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