Slowly but surely the implications for real people of hacking £18bn out of the annual budget are beginning to dawn
There are words that exert a disproportionate grip on the political imagination. One is “reform”. Yes, there are elements of rationalisation in the social security changes the government took through the Commons tonight, but the overriding aim is curbing state expenditure. It has to be a consideration in these times, though not one anyone away from Westminster would dignify with the term reform.
Pundits and too many MPs on all sides initially welcomed the welfarereform bill with generalities about taming the tentacles of a monstrous system. In the end, however, the truth has power – and numbers speak louder than words. One number, in particular, is catching up with the legislation: the staggering £18bn being hacked out of the annual budget. Slowly but surely the implications for real people are starting to dawn. Some forensic spadework by the Labour frontbencher, Karen Buck, has uncovered the dismal consequences for parents who rely on subsidised childcare. In a commanding Commons performance which drew a line under a miserable week, Ed Miliband today pinpointed another vulnerable group, by speaking up for thousands of cancer patients who will soon have their income cut off cold. The prime minister looked out of touch with their concerns as he tried to sweep all detailed questions away with a broad brush.
There are other horrors that have thus far been spared the spotlight: the arbitrary punishment of children in large families, the cleansing of central London’s poor and a half-written policy on council tax rebates with echoes of the poll tax. Together, these things create a context that will overwhelm any good done by Iain Duncan Smith’s eminently decent plan to integrate various benefits into a single credit. This will be true even if today’s encouraging headline figures on unemployment set a trend for the coming month, but it will be doubly so if the rising claimant count proves the more informative statistic and the economy fails to provide opportunities that might compensate for the handouts being snatched back.
That vulnerable people are being made to pay down the deficit is now clear, but not so the political fallout. Much centrist opinion holds that the priority is making sure somebody pays the debt, and it is half-inclined to imagine an army of scroungers who could easily do so. A cowed Labour party initially abstained on the bill, but Mr Miliband’s speech this week moved the argument on by linking welfare dependency with boardroom excess. Tonight the opposition steeled its nerve and voted against. For the future, it talks of a something-for-something welfare deal. For the moment, many claimants can expect to go from something to nothing.