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Where is the backbench revolt?

Labour's welfare reform programme owes more to authoritarianism than enlightenment says Kate Green

When New Labour came to power in 1997, it soon set about reforming a welfare state which it argued was 'failing to provide security for those who cannot work', 'failing to encourage work for those who can' and 'failing to ensure support goes to the right people'. A raft of proposals were put in place to resolve this situation: they included abolishing lone parent benefit and reforming incapacity benefit. At that time, these ideas provoked a storm of protest among organisations that represented disabled people and lone parents. In the House of Commons speaker after speaker pointed out that the budgetary savings from the cuts were insignificant and that they could not support income cuts to the poorest children in Britain.

Ten years later, the situation is very different. Provision of benefits that provide a financial safety net for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to work is under threat. Incapacity benefit - the mainstay of financial support for disabled people - is being abolished, and replaced by a new benefit called Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Plans to transfer many lone parents from Income Support onto Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) are also well under way. Access to benefits like ESA will be more difficult, and henceforth, most benefit claimants will have to prepare for employment or risk having their benefit reduced. These latest proposals are part of an ongoing programme of reform that draws heavily on a model formulated in the USA to push disadvantaged groups (primarily lone parents) off social security and into work.

But while proposals outlined in the White Paper on Welfare reform are much more extreme than those outlined in 1998 there has been scarcely a squeak among backbenchers. Indeed on Radio 4's 'Today programme' on 10 December, when James Naughtie observed that had these proposals been published under Mrs Thatcher's administration in the 1980s 'Labour MPs would have been having demonstrations in the streets' James Purnell MP asserted that 'I have Labour MPs coming to me asking me to do this ..' Many organisations that opposed less punitive proposals have expressed support for these ideas. So what has changed?

Back in 1999, the Government committed themselves to the eradication of child poverty within a generation. They set about defining poverty - a difficult concept in an affluent society - and put in place a number of measures to assess and monitor progress. Economic stability and paid employment were placed at the heart of the government's child poverty strategy: by moving off benefit into a buoyant and expanding labour market, poor people would lift their children from poverty and participate in the country's rising prosperity. 'Rights and responsibilities' became an integral part of Government rhetoric: in return for tax credits, childcare, improvements in financial support for children, improvements in health and education services, benefit claimants had a much increased responsibility to look for work.

Ten years on and progress on child poverty is faltering, research shows educational and health inequalities remain a source of concern and the quality and availability of childcare within a vulnerable mixed market remains erratic.

And yet, while the economic crisis has provoked a volte face on a range of government policies, proposals that were put in place in a very different economic climate, and attack the heart of the social security system, remain firmly in place. But why has there been so little opposition to plans that caused outrage when first mooted in 1998, and how can they be adapted so that they better reflect the current crisis?

Lack of concern about the current proposals among parliamentarians and from some organisations is perplexing. However, the ways in which they have been presented provide some insights. On the one hand, endless consultations and access to ministers have created the impression of a listening and inclusive government. On the other, the sheer range of stakeholders involved in the design and delivery of 'welfare to work' programmes has perhaps stifled wider debate. Many voluntary sector organisations that were previously up in arms now receive statutory grants to deliver public services - including 'welfare to work programmes'.

Meanwhile, the academic community - which has monitored progress on child poverty and evaluated employment programmes to within an inch of their lives - has generated an enormous range of sometimes contradictory research findings, the subtleties of which often get lost in translation, and the range of which facilitate a good deal of political cherry picking when it comes to spinning them to providers and public alike. Differing results and the qualified way in which complex data is often presented have not inhibited either Government or Opposition from making categoric statements about the merits of 'conditionality' that will introduce a system in which - in the words of James Purnell - 'virtually everyone will have to do something in return for their benefits' - including some of the poorest and most vulnerable people who face significant barriers to work in a contracting labour market.

Ironically, given the current economic crisis, these punitive proposals have been presented and paraded in parliament and the press as an effective way of getting poor people to behave more responsibly, and a commendable attempt to safeguard taxpayers' money. This has resulted in a world in which the poorest groups are being forced to jump through hoops in order to access pitifully weak 'rights' - to inadequate benefits, poor housing and one of the most unequal education systems in the world - whilst city bankers have gained unfettered and irresponsible wealth in ways that the whole of society is now paying for. And yet James Purnell's recent statement that 'We can't afford to spend taxpayers' money on people who play the system' was aimed at benefit claimants and not bankers.

There are other inconsistencies. Stringent sanctions and conditionality have been emphasised in some arenas, the promise of Danish and Dutch style support programmes in others. The orthodoxy that 'dependency' must be avoided at all costs and 'work is a route out of poverty' has enabled the government to dismiss caveats and criticisms as regressive and damaging. But while the talk is of empowerment, rights and support (none of which require the threat of benefit sanctions to make them attractive) the reality is very different. Despite massive government subsidies, in-work poverty remains stubbornly high and is rising. For lone parents, moving in and out of poorly paid jobs generates constant changes in income and benefit and tax credit entitlement. For their children, moving in and out of erratic and often inadequate childcare provision damages wellbeing. This renders work stressful for parents and damaging for children. And yet parental choice about whether a job is viable or childcare appropriate is being eroded - but only for low-income parents.

Despite endless consultations, extensive and exhaustive responses from CPAG and others about the negative - and counter-productive - impact of imposing benefit sanctions on the poorest groups in the UK have been ignored by DWP. Nor do the most recent proposals reflect the concerns and reservations of the Work and Pensions Select Committee and the Social Security Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the Secretary of State's recent commitment on the Today programme not to impose financial sanctions on households with children, but 'to start to penalise people in terms of their time so requiring them to come in and do more in return for their benefits.' will be reflected in law. While the promise of individualised support is being used to justify increased conditionality, the notion that poorer groups need to be compelled to access support, services and training opportunities that more affluent people take for granted is both patronising and stigmatising. (James Purnell recently explained that the provision of Pilates would be an integral part of welfare to work services.)

Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether hard pressed public, private and voluntary sector providers of employment programmes will be able or willing to focus on helping 'hard to reach groups' access jobs when their rolls are swelled with more recent applicants who may be more desirable to employers in terms of experience, skills and availability.

Most worrying of all, this programme of reform has been accompanied by a media campaign - often fed directly by politicians - that has shamelessly stigmatised the poorest people in society as benefit fraudsters and workshy shirkers.

Although benefit fraud is low and falling, yet another massive advertising campaign by the DWP about benefit fraud has hit the television screens. It is strange indeed that a Government that is keen to generate public sympathy and support for its bold plans to eradicate child poverty has put so much effort into language which vilifies benefit claimants - an approach that may well have reduced benefit take-up and had a negative impact on the attitude of service providers.

It is - in the words of Alistair Darling - truly too perverse to stick to policies formulated in a different economic world. The Government has shown that when it comes to the crunch, substantial economic packages can be found to plug gaps in the economy. They must now find the wherewithal to support real people - who after all are the drivers of the real economy. Backbenchers should be up in arms about policies that risk damaging the poorest groups - and hardly constitute a good use of taxpayers' money. Policies that penalise parents undermine the impact of expensive initiatives designed to enhance child wellbeing and reduce child poverty. Proposals to sanction the income of benefit claimants while bailing out bankers are immoral, unworkable and undeliverable. They should be abandoned.