‘The answer is “no”, to both: this is the same week in which Osborne announced offshore tax reform that will cost £840m, with no return except to create a more favourable environment for people who don’t want to pay tax. There has been no move to reduce tax breaks on private sector pensions, or plug the myriad leaks of the DWP and HMRC, whose errors dwarf all benefit cheats combined.
‘The coalition’s narrative – we go this way or we end up bankrupt – cannot be sustained by even the most cursory glance at the rest of their policies, and yet it’s the only one that works. They’re the ones with no alternative: the rest of the nation, looking at an open attack on the mentally ill, the terminally ill, and the partners who support them, will be able to think of plenty of alternatives.’
‘That can’t be right,” Nadine Dorries said, when I asked her about the overall benefits cap in the autumn. Specifically, I wanted to know why a government so besotted with marriage would make changes to social security that essentially incentivised couples to split up. “I know Iain well,” she continued. “He wouldn’t do anything to make the family less secure.” Sadly, it’s not enough, in the business of protecting the institution of marriage, to just be Iain Duncan Smith; you also need to avoid policies that will make it financially impossible for some couples to stay together.
In policy circles they would call this a perverse consequence, while in normal life we would call it the screamingly obvious consequence: if you cap benefits by household – as the government has pledged to do by 2013, at around £500 a week – then those who are worst affected will find it cheaper to live in two households. And that is putting the best possible gloss on it. There are charities warning that this won’t just be a case of some larger families opting to split up to gain a marginal income boost; rather, this is families who simply won’t be able to afford to live together.
You think that’s bad? You think that’s a Ken Loach film waiting to happen? Consider the proposals in the welfare reform bill for employment support allowance (ESA) – the social security payment replacing incapacity benefit. If, after a year, you’re still unfit for work and your spouse or live-in partner earns £25,000 or more, you will no longer be eligible. After that, you’ll get jobseeker’s allowance, but only for six months: thereafter, you may get housing benefit but you won’t get any other financial support.
In this case the incentive for couples to split up is so powerful that it’s not so much an incentive as a necessity. And the damage such a split would cause is even more drastic – most people who are off work long-term for health reasons are mentally ill. Mental health charities are astonished by how shortsighted this is, since partners and families are the stuff resilience is made of. The potential social care costs for a council that didn’t contain legion spouses quietly doing things for nothing boggle the mind.
There’s a bullish senselessness to this that is puzzling to the observer but terribly stressful to those whose benefits are under threat. The charity Rethink told me about one man who has already approached Dignitas; he didn’t want to split from his family and live alone, but felt guilty about the burden he would present if he didn’t.
This bill reaches its report stage in the Lords on Monday. My hunch with the more outlandish coalition ideas – where they want the victims of domestic violence to pay the government for chasing their child maintenance payments, or, as reported by the Guardian this week, want people undergoing chemo to be actively looking for work – is that this is a devilishly simple political manoeuvre.
They present something jaw-dropping, encounter a wave of disgust, then row back from the brink of awfulness by 30% (George Osborne probably has a little rowing-backwards calculator, which multiplies the strength of the public backlash by the amount he doesn’t care). We all throw back our heads in relief, yelling a lusty “Thank goodness! You only have to work two days a week when you have terminal cancer, and not five!”, and “Children in poverty won’t have to pay commission on their parental support!”. The mood has been assuaged; the saving made. It’s genius, really, because even as I’m describing it, that doesn’t dent my susceptibility. I still think of the forestry U-turn as a victory for the little guy, rather than an outrageous idea, canned because it was stupid.
However, campaigners and charities don’t have any sense of the ESA cut being a tactical exaggeration. Jane Harris from Rethink remarked: “You could make any case on human costs, on practical costs, on long-term costs, and you get a hand in your face, basically, saying ‘we need to do this for the budget’.”
The government hopes to shave £2bn off the ESA spend, having never satisfactorily shown that the budget was unwarranted. It’s a public-sector, private-sector argument in microcosm: clearly, they hope that by withdrawing the support of society the individual’s plucky spirit will be reignited. I suppose it has a certain homespun credibility, so long as you don’t have cancer or clinical depression, and so long as there aren’t five applicants for every job.
We’re back to the same argument: are we so broke that moral and humane considerations no longer count? And are we so economically unstable that any short-term saving is worth making, even if it racks up huge long-term costs?
The answer is “no”, to both: this is the same week in which Osborne announced offshore tax reform that will cost £840m, with no return except to create a more favourable environment for people who don’t want to pay tax. There has been no move to reduce tax breaks on private sector pensions, or plug the myriad leaks of the DWP and HMRC, whose errors dwarf all benefit cheats combined.
The coalition’s narrative – we go this way or we end up bankrupt – cannot be sustained by even the most cursory glance at the rest of their policies, and yet it’s the only one that works. They’re the ones with no alternative: the rest of the nation, looking at an open attack on the mentally ill, the terminally ill, and the partners who support them, will be able to think of plenty of alternatives.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010