Nigel Bowness on the end of social security and the challenge for Liberal Jews
THE COALITION GOVERNMENT’S huge, complex and highly controversial Welfare Reform Act is the biggest shake up of the Welfare State in more than 60 years.
It is also a very significant move away from the inclusive British system of ‘social security’ to American style ‘welfare’.
As a disabled person living with a lifelong chronic illness, and someone with direct experience of what is happening, I hope to be able to persuade you why we, as Liberal Jews, should care.
The Government’s raison d’être for these changes is eliminating the deficit. As part of this process it is reducing the amount spent on benefit payments, with a disproportionate amount of the £18 billion of cuts it intends to make falling on those of working age. This is the case regardless of whether or not they can actually work and whether or not there is suitable work available.
Rising unemployment does not bode well for those trying to find or hold on to a job. The proposals themselves reflect the prevailing ideology of our times and populist notions of what is ‘fair’. But what is considered to be ‘fair’ is not necessarily ‘just’. Many people find the reforms themselves to be mean-spirited and bound to make inequality worse.
Should the most vulnerable in society really be the hardest hit, especially in light of recent scandals about huge corporate salaries, MPs’ expenses and a pervasive air of corruption among our elite?
The Jewish community knows and appreciates the importance of hard work. For most people the right kind of work – for which they are paid a decent living wage and given a sense of purpose and validation – is a very positive thing for both themselves and society at large. But ‘work’ per se is not always good for you and we rightly oppose exploitation.
Regardless of what one thinks of the reforms, there are also some very serious problems with the reform process itself. The Torah commands us “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut 16:20) and, especially for Liberal Jews, this means ‘social justice’.
It is unjust to be economical with the truth to make the case for change – this is about cuts, not helping people.
It is unjust to take part in and collude in stigmatising people, creating a climate of fear further marginalising those already excluded in society.
It is unjust for consultation to be meaningless, as Ministers persistently ignore legitimate, informed and constructive criticism.
It is unjust to rush changes through before everyone has had time to consider or care about their impact.
It is also unjust to put vulnerable people through a chaotic, incompetently-managed process in a constant state of flux, while seeking to restrict their rights of appeal.
Many people have no idea of the extent of the changes underway, others are confused or frightened, some look ahead with grim determination.
It’s better to face things together, which is why Kulanu – the initiative set up by Leon Charikar aimed at ensuring our communities are inclusive of disabled people – is so vital.
There are many barriers to inclusion. Some can be remedied through kindness, consideration and creative thinking, while others like stigma present greater challenges. Poverty is the biggest challenge of them all and this welfare reform is systematically impoverishing so many in our society. It requires a response from us all.
If you’d like to find out more then log on to www.disabilityalliance.org/ welfarereformact.htm for a summary of the Act and a regularly updated timeline of the changes.
For an excellent and comprehensive resource, giving disabled people’s own views on welfare reform, go to www.wearespartacus.org.uk