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Getting welfare rights back on the agenda

Kate Green warns that otherwise Labour risks missing its anti-poverty targets.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the Child Poverty Action Group. Perhaps Chartist readers remember the intense interest in issues of family poverty at that time: the publication by Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith of “The Poor and the Poorest”, the letter to Prime Minister Harold Wilson demanding increased support for children, and the bitter campaign that followed CPAG’s memorandum to Richard Crossman in 1970 arguing that the poor had got poorer under Labour. But what may be less well-remembered is that CPAG was set up in a wider context: as part of the burgeoning civil rights movement that had swept the US in the 1950s and in the UK found its expression in the formation of a number of pressure groups in the early 1960s concerned with citizens’ rights.

Whilst over the intervening 40 years, and especially through the 1980s and early 1990s, when recession wrought economic havoc and CPAG’s efforts were focused simply on seeking to alleviate the worst effects of the shocking levels of income poverty that resulted, arguably the significance of welfare “rights” was less to the fore. But today, under a third successive Labour government whose language is all of “rights and responsibilities”, it seems more pertinent than ever. For whilst we have now a government that has invested substantially in the welfare state, it has also quite casually dismantled and undermined the notion of citizenship and citizens’ rights which should lie at its heart. This edition of Chartist seems an apposite opportunity to ask what risks lie in this particular example of Labour's notorious carelessness with checks and balances on the authority of the state.

At first sight this may seem a churlish question. Labour has after all invested substantially to increase the incomes of our poorest children, turning the tide of growing income poverty, which had left Britain by 1997 with the highest rate of child poverty of any country in the EU. Labour since then has done well, achieving a reduction of 700,000 children growing up in poverty, and even more commendably, having set itself the bold and ambitious target of eradicating child poverty by 2020. It should be acknowledged too that the agenda of “rights and responsibilities” has been the ideological bedfellow of “progressive universalism”, Labour’s means of building an inclusive and non-stigmatised system of financial support for families with children, which has seen the introduction of new tax credits to which most families are entitled, increases in universal child benefit, and the widely-welcomed welfare-to-work agenda.

Such an approach was important for New Labour: it cemented the notion of a “deal” between the citizen and the state which sought to move away from the disrespected and stigmatising perceptions of dependence on social security benefits. Indeed, in the field of welfare reform, it was perhaps especially essential for Labour to demonstrate that it was fit to govern, that its competence, prudence and respect for hard-working values could be guaranteed. But the application of the policy has been disastrous in practice for the concept of a welfare state founded on citizenship and rights. Policies to support progressive universalism and responsibilities coupled with rights have proved in practice to be discriminatory, discretionary and judgmental. A fragmented system of financial support and lack of appeal rights and accountability lead to poor understanding of what support is available, and can lower take-up as a result.

Take first tax credits: a system of such staggering complexity that neither claimants nor HM Revenue and Customs officials can be clear about individual entitlements at any given time, with claimants facing eye-wateringly large clawbacks of sums “overpaid” by the Revenue, a system so uncertain and uneven in its application that of the £13bn paid out last year in tax credits, over £2bn turned out to be for the wrong amount. Lack of clarity about entitlements would be indictment enough in the context of citizens’ “right” to an effectively administered and objectively determinable tax credit entitlement. But in all sorts of ways, the Revenue’s attitude to dealing with these problems has made things worse. There is no right to appeal against recovery of an overpayment (contrast social security overpayments which have always been subject to a right of appeal). The Revenue has refused to allow the publication of the independent Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) advice to Ministers on tax credits regulations (contrast benefits payments where SSAC advice to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is routinely published). And the automatic recovery of overpayments follows a model which may work fairly enough for a tax collection system – where substantial sums are most likely to be owed by those who can afford professional advice first to understand and then if necessary to challenge or negotiate with the Revenue – but this is an approach that impacts remarkably harshly on low income families facing tax credits recoveries.

Second, take welfare-to-work. Welcome investment has gone into the new deals, but it has been accompanied by alarming levels of discretion and conditionality. Today British jobseekers face the most demanding regime of any country in Europe. And this conditionality is spreading fast to so-called “inactive” claimants – lone parents on income support, the long-term sick and disabled claiming incapacity benefit. No-one faults the Government for its investment in helping those who want to work to do so, and the flagship new deals have been successful in moving hundreds of thousands of claimants into paid work. But entitlement to benefits is increasingly being made dependent upon compliance with a set of ever more onerous work-related requirements, with ability to comply assessed and enforced by quite junior staff in Jobcentre plus. Yet it’s far from clear staff are remotely equipped to make such judgements.

Meantime, a range of additional in-work incentives, emergency payments and work-search premiums are doled out too often at the discretion of advisers (sometimes not even employed by the state but under contract as third-party “providers”), and patchily across the country. The notion of a single national provision of entitlement is quietly being broken down.

Does this matter – or might a more tailored approach, and the balancing of rights and responsibilities, seem justifiable? CPAG believes it does matter. Increasing use of discretion allows for an approach to the application of welfare rights which seems to take us more and more towards the division into a “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, whilst heightening the divide between the poor and the better off. The notion of "no rights without responsibilities” is weighted against those reliant upon state support, with no equivalent income sanction for those not reliant on such support. No voter observing Labour’s campaign in the last general election can have failed to miss the emphasis on “hard-working families" - with the concomitant notion that parents not in paid work were somehow making a lifestyle choice in favour of languishing on benefits. The Government’s latest proposals for incapacity benefit claimants to participate in work-related activity as a condition of receiving benefit, and likely harsher demands on lone parents, seem set to reinforce this approach, with highly damaging consequences as parents who are unable to comply find themselves penalised through a direct cut to their income - with their children suffering as a result.

Against this backdrop of discretion and complexity, what has happened to the independent rights sector? How strong is the voice on behalf of the citizen as the state proceeds to judge and undermine citizens’ rights in this way? Here too is cause for concern – for the Government - again perhaps for well-intentioned reasons – has been steadily “nationalising” the provision of frontline advice, whilst funding for the independent sector is squeezed. So the Community Legal Service, Personal Advisers in Jobcentre plus, “joint teams” made up of Pension Service and local authority social services staff, all seek to provide advice to the citizen to enable her/him to assert her/his rights to support from the state whilst at the same time ensuring that the state underwrites ultimately what advice is provided and available. The independent advice sector is under threat as a result.

All this is worrying, but surprisingly little debated. Welfare rights have become the Cinderella of the social justice agenda. Lifechances are what are fashionable now, with programmes to attack inequality and disadvantage (Sure Start, schools standards, neighbourhood renewal) holding centre-stage. Little attention is paid to citizens' right to financial support and to ensuring that we embed the fundamentals of a welfare state that can guarantee this. Yet lifechances can only be improved if income poverty is first eliminated, and to seek to do so when complex benefits are applied on a discretionary or subjective basis is highly risky. We urgently need clear political recognition that the right to an adequate income on which to raise a family lies at the heart of the modern welfare state. A rights-based approach to welfare provision which ensures our poorest families receive their full entitlements is after all the prerequisite for achievement of that boldest and most commendable of the Government’s ambitions – the eradication of child poverty forever.

Kate Green is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group - www.cpag.org.uk