Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Crying into my porridge

I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard there were street parties in Glasgow celebrating the long-awaited death of Maggie Thatcher last Monday. If I wasn’t living in England now I would have been there in a heartbeat, joyously joining in the celebrations.
However, after being exposed to just some of the endless bickering in the media about who she was, what she did and what it meant, I started to question my unbridled glee, and wonder where it came from. After all this is a human being we are talking about, and I’m rarely so callous as to celebrate people’s deaths.
So why celebrate her death? What makes her different?
I was only a toddler when Thatcher lost power, but my father – a socialist in his day – made sure I knew all about this wicked woman, this rich and snobbish bogeyman who greedily privatised Britain whilst the working man suffered and lost everything. My father was working-class and the first of his family to go to university, purely as a result of Labour government funding. He did well, and my childhood was comfortable, but our lives could have been very different under a Conservative government, and I never forgot that.
I grew up to become a young socialist, listening to inspiring speeches by the then-leader of the Scottish Socialist Party – Tommy Sheridan – who was a key figure in the anti-poll tax campaign that eventually lead to Thatcher’s demise. Graffiti from the riots can still be seen in central Glasgow.
I went on to study Social Policy at University in Scotland (paid for by the Scottish Government). A fundamental theory in Social Policy was the importance of equality in society – and my fellow Scottish students seemed so like-minded that when Thatcher was mentioned in lectures, a near-audible boo would shoot round the room.
Over time it became clear to me that left-wing (anti-Thatcher) ideals and Scottish Nationalism were inextricably linked. Thatcher thrust her unwelcome right-wing policies on a mostly left-wing Scotland, who –without a Scottish Parliament - was too small to defend itself against this Westminster imposition. This dynamic closely mirrored all the patriotic history lessons I had growing up about the English invasions in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries, in which the underdog Scotland bravely fought back but, outnumbered, were ultimately defeated.
The imposition of Thatcherism in Scotland therefore paved the way for the Scottish Parliament and greater independence – as Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond explains "What Margaret Thatcher did was turn the Scottish Parliament from being a nice idea - democratic advance to being something absolutely essential".
So when I heard that Glasgow was having spontaneous street parties to celebrate her death, I got a little rush of patriotic pride and a feeling of belonging and understanding that made me laugh – although a little sad as I was no longer living with my ‘kin’. The bogeyman was dead – and therefore so was all that she stood for to me; the imposition of unfair right-wing policies from England on an unwilling but outnumbered left-wing Scotland.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

We're happy to help George

So from Monday 1 April this Coalition Government's welfare reforms kick in - kick being the operative word. They are back to their favourite activity; kicking the poor, the needy and those in social housing.

Some MPs, I am certain, will have spent the Easter weekend rehearsing their spiteful and vitriolic attacks on the feckless benefit scroungers. They will have been itching to get their comments broadcast or published anywhere they can.

Now I am sure most of us are aware that the welfare bill is huge. It is generally thought to amount to very near to a third of Government spending. Out of work benefits are generally held to make up 3% of the welfare bill.

The population is getting older, living longer; so how much of that bill is going on people who are drawing a state pension?

According to the Pensions Policy Institute, in 2011 - the most recent figures available, there were a shade over 12 million pensioners living in the UK.  As regards how much this costs, the most recent figures the PPI were able to provide related to 2009. Pensions cost £68.9 billion, if you added on housing related benefits, disability living allowance and attendance allowance the figure rises to £84.5 billion. The government is saying that it will protect pensioners from welfare reform, apart from DLA which it is reforming across the board.

So the first welfare reform, which does start Monday 1 April, is this ludicrous spare bedroom tax. It is widely agreed that this will affect 660 000 people across the UK. This means that if you live in social housing and you have a spare room your housing benefit will be reduced and you will have to pay the difference. For one spare room this will mean 14% of your housing benefit costs, if you have two or more spare rooms this will mean 25% of your housing benefit costs.

The sort of people this will affect are:
  • couples who for medical reasons cannot share a bedroom. From radio phone-in programmes I heard over the weekend this is not uncommon
  • divorced couples who need a spare room so their children can come and visit, which is going to put a huge strain on family relations
  • siblings of the same sex, who, irrespective of the age difference will be compelled to share.
The last group I want to mention is people with disabilities, who may need to have to have a carer stay overnight but not every night or may be living in accommodation that has had adaptations to enable them to live there. Here the answer is as clear as mud as to whether they will get an exemption. Some councils are saying yes, you are exempt, some are saying it will require you to pay part of you housing benefit costs. The Government are yet to give a definitive answer.

So the man from the council or the housing association comes round and says you've got to pay more rent. Bear in mind we are talking about people who are either living on a low wage or indeed on benefit. Do you think he's going to say don't worry we can offer you alternative accommodation? The social housing supply is under enough pressure as it is.

This "spare room subsidy" as I believe Mr Cameron prefers to call it, which is just semantics, is clearly unworkable and unfair.

Then there is the council tax benefit which the government has given responsibility for to local authorities and cunningly renamed council tax support. Local authorities have had their budgets cut by 10%. So they are now going to be asking people to make a contribution where they previously had been exempt.

Last week, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report said the new system would leave 1.9 million claimants who are currently not required to pay council tax needing to find, on average, an extra £140 per year. Another 150 000 households would be required to pay £300 more per year.

To quote the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: "This will push people into poverty or cause more hardship for already very poor households."

Then there is the much vaunted Universal Credit system, diligently researched by Iain Duncan Smith who spent several years in the Tory wilderness stalking council estates up and down the land, so that he came to understand the problems faced by the poor and disenfranchised all over the UK so much better.

His answer is Universal Credit. His idea was to run four pilot schemes before he introduces it nationwide in October 2013. Before the pilot schemes have started they've put three of them back to July and now there's only one that will start on time. We are told this won't affect the outcome.

Next we come to the Benefit Cap, this has been set at £26 000 - councils are already renting properties on the outskirts of London and other cheaper areas of the country so that they can relocate their more expensive housing benefit claimants.

So this Government seems determined to hound the poor and make them poorer.

This is the same Government that acquiesced to multinationals such as Amazon, Starbucks and Google. These incredibly wealthy companies offered to make voluntary payments to the taxman, having studiously avoided paying what was due by their skillful manipulation of their books. All quite lawfully, of course.