Saturday, December 13, 2008

Welfare Reform: Injustice Alert

I've posted a critique of the Governments welfare reform proposals, announced during the week, at the Wardman Wire. You can read the full article there, but here's some of it.

Lone Parents and Families.
The proposals for lone parents are that they will be on conditional benefits by the time their children are 7+, and whilst their children are 3-7 they’ll be taking steps back to work. The legislation “will enable advisers to require lone parents with a youngest child aged 3 or over to undertake work-related activity, a skills health check and training…” (para 6.68, my emphasis). If they don't comply, benefits can be stopped.

Why is this? Because the paper has “an emphasis on tackling the underlying causes of poverty rather than just treating the symptoms” (para 7.9), and if lone parents are working, their children are less likely to be in poverty.

But that’s not the only cause of child poverty. The governments own figures (see tables in chapter 4) show that children are twice as likely to be in either absolute or relative poverty if they are in lone parent households, compared to households with 2 parents. One underlying cause of poverty is family structure, yet this is an issue the government consistently refuses to address. The best thing you can do for your kids is wait until you’ve got a faithful partner to have them with. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a start.

There are two other injustices here:

1. Parenthood is work. Even with a 7 year old, you are on call 24/7, and if you put together the work involved in looking after them, creating a good home environment, and doing all the mundane things which need going when you’ve got kids, then that is a full time job. Yet the implicit message here is that it’s not, we would rather you stick your kids in ‘wraparound childcare’ (which may well be substandard in the first place) so that you can do paid work.

Good, attentive parenting can do more for your kids than a few hours on the checkout at ASDA, or whatever other McJob you’re forced to accept by your personal job trainer. What stuns me is that parents of 3-6 year olds will get coaching and training offered in work skills, but nothing whatsoever in parenting skills. Once again, there is no value or support given to their primary occupation. An investment in the parenting and relational skills of parents of under-7’s will do a lot more for their children’s wellbeing than forcing them to return to work once their child hits 7.

2. It singles out the poor. There may be a small army of lone parents desperate to get back to work, and they’ll get more support to do that through these proposals. But there is also a small army of non-working parents who will escape government coercion. These are the partners of working people who don’t qualify for benefit, so the government can’t wave a big stick at them to get them back into the labour market. Actually it can, it’s called Child Tax Credit, but there is nothing here about stopping CTC (or Child Benefit) for middle class mums. Why pick on lone parents? Because they are easier to coerce through the benefits system, and, if you’re cynical, it might just be about the votes too.

Let me be clear: I don’t think that any full-time parent of children under 16 should be coerced into the labour market, and it is unjust and unfair that only the poorest and most vulnerable parents are going to be coerced in this way.

Work and Mental Health
The White Paper notes, almost in passing, that “Mental health conditions are now the single biggest cause of absence from work and of claims for incapacity benefits” (para 5.83). Yet in a 210 page document there are only 6 paragraphs on mental health, which basically say “we’re not sure we know enough about this.”

Despite that, those with mental health problems will also come under the regime of ‘job consultants’ to help them back into work. How on earth the government plans to train up thousands of Job Centre employees to do this isn’t explored. There is a bewildering range of mental illnesses, and understanding everything from anxiety disorders to seasonal depression, OCD and anorexia will require a big input of training.

My worry is that the training just won’t happen, so decisions about benefits will be taken by people who simply don’t know what they’re talking about. The very process of seeing your benefits at risk will heighten stress and anxiety for some, and what safeguards are there? “We would not put in place sanctions against anyone without first contacting them, their carer or their health professional” (para 5.85). Well that's reassuring. Not. It's a commitment to inform, nothing more. How is placing the mentally ill under more pressure going to help them?

Again, this is symptoms and not cause. There are a nest of cultural, economic and social reasons for the epidemic of mental illness, but there is nothing here that proposes to tackle any of them.


  1. Really good post, thanks.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.