Black and White Issues: Red Versus Blue

by richardhutton

It’s often claimed that complex issues are not black and white – that is, they cannot be neatly delineated into right or wrong, good or bad. However, this does not mean that it’s impossible to break something down into specific points of comparison.

Heading into the general election this week, there are only two parties contesting the leadership of government: the Conservative Party and Labour. The legacy of the Conservative and allied Liberal Democrats period in office is incontestable:

90,000 children were homeless in Britain last Christmas. There are 300,000 more children living in poverty than in 2010. 6,508 people were seen sleeping rough in London during 2014. There was a 64% rise in prison suicides during the same period. 700,000 people are waiting for incapacity-benefit assessments – and a lot of these people will be very ill. 300,000 people are waiting for disability-benefit assessments. 70% of people who lost housing support due to the Under Occupation Penalty were disabled. Disabled people have lost c. £28 billion in support under the coalition; and they comprise at least four sixths of the 600,000 people who fell into absolute poverty between 2013-14.

Over 900,000 food parcels were distributed to people, from one charity, in the space of one year – and this charity is only one which provides this form of help. c. 500,000 people were subject to benefit sanctions per annum since 2012; at a minimum of four weeks each time. Over 3,000 people with mental health or behavioural problems attached to the Work Programme are sanctioned each month, when the government knows these people cannot work. At least 49 benefit-related deaths have been investigated by the DWP, despite repeated denials.

All of this happened without any real reduction of overall government expenditure on social security occurring, as cuts to these benefits was offset by increased expenditure on others. This is the legacy of the coalition government. It is one of unparalleled incompetence and cruelty. It needs to change.

Will Labour do this? It’s questionable. Labour have pledged to improve the quality of work capability assessments “by getting tough on failing contractors with penalties if they get assessments wrong”; and to “give disabled people a real say in how Work Capability Assessments are improved”; they have also said they will “get a grip of the huge Personal Independent Payments backlog”. For people who are young, they have pledged to replace workfare with paid – albeit compulsory – employment. Labour also intends to abolish the Bedroom Tax, to end targeted sanctions; and to provide “a new specialist Work Support programme of locally contracted support to help disabled people who can work to get jobs”.

These are good policies; but they fall far short of being ideal. For instance, they have not said they will reverse the 20% cut in disability support which PIP conversion intrinsically entailed; nor have they explained what – if anything – will replace the Independent Living Fund, which will end in June 2015.

Labour have also not opposed the potential abolition of housing benefits for people aged 18-21, as proposed by the Conservatives; and in 2012 stated their support for the continued imposition of a benefit cap, plus a regional (i.e. more severe) version of this. What’s even more problematic, they have not stated that they will end sanctions for disabled people in the Work Related Activity Group. Labour are not above enacting welfare reforms which cause people serious harm, either – in fact, the blueprint for the Coalition’s Welfare Reform Act of 2011/12, was Labour’s Welfare Reform Act of 2009; which introduced Workfare, for example.

It’s important that people know what they are voting for, if they do vote for Labour. There are real, problematic short-comings to Labour’s policy pledges on social security, especially for disabled people who are dependent on benefits. However, it is wrong to be defeatist about the chances of improving or remedying these if Labour are in government. No – a simple change of governing party will never be enough to guarantee dignity, independence, and decency for those who struggle in society the most; but victories were gained against the coalition by very ordinary people – sometimes, at high cost; but they were successful all the same. It can be done. What’s more, Judicial Reviews played a key role in some of these cases; as did legal aid. Legal aid for benefit appeals was cut by the Coalition government; while the Conservatives have stated their intention to end judicial reviews: these are the Parliamentary facility which ensures governments can not abuse their powers. The Conservative Party are also planning another £12 billion of cuts to social security; and will not admit which ones they will reduce.

There are compelling reasons to vote the Conservatives out of office; and Labour are the only plausible alternative. Even so, it remains important that voters make an informed choice. If people would like a more in-depth overview of this, DisabilityRights provide an outline of each parties’ proposals which will affect disabled people. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has also provided its estimate of the various parties ‘ tax and benefit proposals.