The welfare ‘reform’ programme implemented in England, Scotland and Wales is an ideologically-driven attack on the welfare state, aimed at undermining the social safety nets which working class people fought long and hard to win. It is part of an agenda – supported by the right-wing media – of demonizing those on benefits as ‘scroungers’ and scapegoating some of the poorest and, often, most vulnerable in society for the economic disaster created by the bankers and super-rich, as well as the government’s own austerity policies.
Around 1.75 million households have been affected. The programme includes across-the-board cuts to benefits which already barely allow people to live, caps on payments which have pushed 100,000 children into poverty, increased harassment of the disabled and those unable to work, and accelerating the increase of the retirement age. The impact of welfare reform has added to the shocking explosion of people reliant on foodbanks just to get by.
Perhaps the most hateful part of this assault on the welfare state is what has become known as the ‘bedroom tax’. People in social housing who are deemed to be ‘under-occupying’ their accommodation ie. who have a spare bedroom – have their benefits cut with the aim of forcing them from their home. Disabled people who need space to store equipment and separated parents who share custody of their children have been penalised. Tragically, last year Stephanie Bottrill (53) took her own life, citing fear of being forced from her home due to the bedroom tax.
As we go to press, there is a stand-off over the implementation of welfare ‘reform’ in Northern Ireland. While the DUP, UUP and Alliance openly support its introduction, Sinn Féin is refusing to pass the necessary legislation. However, this stance is not born out of principled opposition. Sinn Féin has happily implemented cuts and privatisation alongside the other Executive parties since the Assembly was established. Alex Maskey previously stated it was not his party’s intention to “kill the bill”. It’s clear that a deal had been done to introduce welfare ‘reform’, albeit without the bedroom tax and with a few minor tweeks, after the May elections.
Sinn Féin’s reneging on this deal reflects their fear that welfare ‘reform’ – which would have a disproportionately large impact in Northern Ireland – could spark huge anger and opposition, damaging them here but also critically in the South, where they have made dramatic advances posing as a left-wing, anti-austerity party. However, they have no strategy to actually defeat the cuts. The Westminster government is now fining the Executive for failing to implement the measures – £100 million this year, £1 billion over the next five years. The cuts are simply being carried out in different areas, including health, impacting on the lives of workers and young people in other ways.
We cannot rely on this kind of ‘opposition’. It is likely that a deal will be done to introduce welfare ‘reform’ in some form in the near future. Trade unionists and community activists must prepare the ground for a mass campaign of protests and civil disobedience, like the campaign which forced the scrapping of the bedroom tax in Scotland. We need to take the fight to Stormont and Westminster and demand that the necessary funding is provided to maintain our current welfare system. But this must be only the start of a fight for benefits which guarantee a decent and dignified standard of living for all.