This week, a Tory think tank called Policy Exchange advised the government that that the £26,000 benefit cap should be lowered outside of London and the South East, to reflect the lower cost of living. The purpose of the Policy Exchange report (due to be published later this month) is to advise Westminster in implementing George Osborne’s £12 billion worth of welfare cuts in the two years following the 2015 General Elections. This think tank is also reported to be examining plans to block parents from claiming Child Benefit for more than four children. The theory behind this proposal is that people who cannot afford to have children should not be reproducing.
The Tory/Lib Dem Coalition has already cut out-of-work benefits by a reported £2.5billion. Over the next four years, the goal is to increase this figure to £12billion. In the last General Election, the Scottish vote returned 41 seats to Labour, 11 seats to the Lib Dems, 6 Seats to the SNP, and one to the Tories. This is what the Yes camp refers to when it talks about an independent, democratic Scotland: the voting of the Scottish electorate is not reflected in the complexion of the Westminster Parliament.
A major problem with the current Coalition government, propagated by the Better Together campaign also, is the suggestion that Food Banks are a positive phenomenon. The argument, generally, is that the spike in Food Bank usage is an example of ‘Supply-Led Demand’. In other words, the recent spike in Food Bank usage is caused by an increase in the number of Food Banks available rather than an increase in number of people finding themselves forced to rely on Food Banks. It speaks volumes that the Better Together campaign’s response to the Yes Camp condemning recent welfare reforms and the rise in Food Bank usage is to dismiss and deny the link between welfare reform and Food Bank usage. To be clear, the Trussell Trust’s statistics are unequivocal about the causes for referrals to Food Banks in 2013 – 2014: an astronomical 30.93% are caused by Benefit Delays, 20.29% by Low Income, 16.97% by Benefit Changes.
The most slapstick summary of this Tory-Lib Dem/Better Together approach to Food Banks was provided by Neil Couling – a senior member of the Department of Work and Pensions – who appeared in front of the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee earlier this year. The Committee was looking into the link between the increase in Food Bank usage and Westminster’s welfare reforms. Couling denied the connection, claiming that the growth in usage is caused by both poor and rich people lying to ‘maximize their economic choices’ (“supply-led demand”), dismissing the Trussell Trust as a cynical ‘evangelical device’, and claiming that sanctioned benefit claimants often send thank you cards to the Job Centre after being sanctioned! My pal wrote a summary of some of the most ridiculous points at this evidence session, or you can read the full transcript on the Scottish Government’s website.
It is a positive thing that the Scottish Government, its committees and the wider Yes campaign are paying attention to the findings of the Trussell Trust and openly conceptualise the spike in Food Bank usage as a negative phenomenon created by Westminster welfare reforms. However, Scotland is powerless to legislate about this and, as the 2010 General Election Results for Scotland indicate, powerless to change the complexion of the Westminster Parliament by voting. This sits uncomfortably alongside these current rumblings of a reduction in the benefit cap outside of London and the South East.
Furthermore, the Trussell Trust has published figures breaking down Food Bank usage by region for the year 2013 – 2014:
South East: Adults – 58,095; Children – 33,897; Total – 91,974
Population on most recent census day (27 March 2011): 8.6m
London: Adults – 58,315; Children – 37,324; Total – 95,639
Population on most recent census day: 8.2m
Scotland: Adults – 49,041l Children – 22,387; Total – 71,428
Population on most recent census day: 5.3m
While these figures may initially appear to support the suggestion that higher costs of living in London and the South East are causing greater numbers of people relying on Food Banks, if you look at the numbers of people forced to rely on Food Banks relative to the approximate population of each area, it tells a different story.
South East: 91,974 of 8.6m using Food Banks = 1.07%
London: 95,639 of 8.2m using Food Banks = 1.17%
Scotland: 71,428 of 5.3m using Food Banks = 1.35%
So, relative to population, a higher percentage of people in Scotland are forced to rely on Food Banks than in London or the South East. Tory think tanks are condoning slashing the benefit cap outside of London and the South East. So in Scotland – an area with a higher percentage of its population using Food Banks than down south – benefits will be slashed to reflect a lower cost of living. The Trussell Trust statistics show that 20.29% of Food Bank referrals throughout the UK are already caused by low income. Does this policy seem fair to you?
Westminster is clearly in the process of dismantling the welfare state. The policy that would see the benefit cap slashed in areas of higher proportional Food Bank reliance is the product of a government that is in denial about the causes of Food Bank usage and the nature of Benefit claimants. The whole concept of people getting trapped in a ‘cycle of dependency’ and needing the motivation of extreme forced poverty – benefit sanctions and delays – to force them into a minimum wage job with poor conditions is nonsense. Westminster is propagating this trash because they want to save money to, superficially, cut the deficit. The same people who embezzled tax payers money in the parliamentary expenses scandal and who oversaw the banking collapse are now targeting the very poorest members of society to reduce the deficit.
Food Bank usage IS a product of benefit sanctions and delays and low income. I have volunteered this past year with an advice casework charity, specialising in benefit and debt issues. Job Seeker sanctions come thick and fast as a matter of policy. Perhaps the most noxious example of austerity measures is the money saving exercise that is ‘mandatory reconsideration’. People in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance are subject to regular delays in benefits called ‘mandatory reconsideration periods’, where their eligibility for the benefit is re-assessed. While this masquerades as a measure to ensure the benefit it not being abused, it has a tremendously negative effect on the people in receipt. While their benefit is frozen, the only option is to live on no money or to sign on to Job Seeker’s Allowance. The correct thing to do is to sign on to JSA but take a doctor’s note with you and explain that you are signing on because you are in a period of mandatory reconsideration and, although claiming JSA, are in no way suggesting that you are capable for work.
The majority of people do not know that this is the case. They are forced to use Food Banks and borrow off friends and families, or – far, far worse! – get into debt with toxic pay day loans companies who mercilessly pursue impoverished people to sequestration. This is one thing for the ESA claimants that are capable of handling their own benefit cases and keeping up to date on the rules and regulations and landmines scattered about the place. It is a different issue entirely for more vulnerable ESA claimants who are for whatever reason unable to take charge of their own affairs. I insist that these mandatory reconsideration periods are a money saving exercise.
Yet Westminster insists and insists again – and the Better Together campaign with them – that the spike in Food Bank usage is unrelated to welfare reform. It is an extremely positive aspect of the Yes campaign and the Scottish Government that they openly recognise the true nature of Food Bank usage. It is an extremely positive aspect of the Scottish electorate that a vast, vast majority voted against the current Coalition government at the last General Election. However, it is all for nothing in the event of a No vote. Things are going to get much, much worse under London rule.