Women don’t know anything about poverty, obviously

Scottish Women's Convention manifestoThe Scottish government has appointed four well-off men to advise on poverty issues:

The members of the new expert group are: Darra Singh, a former chief executive of Jobcentre Plus now working for Ernst & Young; Martyn Evans, chief executive of the Carnegie Trust and former head of Citizens Advice Scotland; Douglas Griffin, a former finance director at NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde; and Mike Brewer, a professor of economics at the University of Essex and a research fellow with the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies.

The four, who are expected to make an initial report to ministers by May, will advise on a “fairer welfare system” outside the union.

It is, after all, not the Scottish Government’s fault that Iain Duncan Smith has succeeded in associating his mantra on “fairness” with the reality of making the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the unemployed so much worse off than they need to be.

My Sunday column for the Backbencher was about how austerity is bleeding the economy dry, and Labour’s folly in adopting the Conservative view that the recession is caused by paying too much for welfare and lazy poor people – and Labour’s refusal to attack inequality or the causes of inequality or even to contradict the Conservative, LibDem, and right-wing media misinformation about welfare.

Tory defense of the Work Programme and other “fairer” welfare reforms has been characterised by its dependence on lies and misinformation. We expect Conservatives to enact policies hurtful and discouraging to poor people.

If you are poor, sick and disabled, whether you work or are unemployed, Iain Duncan Smith regards you as a shirker and a scrounger (and a cheat):

Sarah McGuiness would not strike many people as a shirker or a scrounger. The divorced 40-year-old nurse, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has two children, aged four and nine, whom she feeds and houses using her £15,000-a-year salary and the £1,000 she receives through working tax credit, child tax credit and child benefit. She doesn’t drink or smoke. “I don’t have any kind of extravagance,” she insists, unless you count the £400 a year she pays to someone to look after her children while she works.

But McGuiness is in the government’s firing line. One in three pounds spent on benefits, screamed the Daily Mail last week, with some prodding from figures provided by Tory chairman Grant Shapps. The chancellor is acting out of fairness, the government and the Daily Telegraph insist, by capping the rise in benefits at 1% a year for the next three years in a crackdown on those living off the state.

Even if you are dying, the UK government has decided that a patient who is deemed by Atos assessors to not be due to die in the next three months can be “fit for work”:

Since 1st.December, all WRAG claimants must engage with whatever the DWP adviser tells them to do. This means immediate Work Programme, with “training” and compulsory indefinite work “experience”.
If you sign on for JSA, any workfare is limited to 6 months – if you are sick, it’s indefinite. Failure to comply attracts a sanction of £71 which means you will have £28 or less to live on each week.
11,000 WRAG claimants have had benefits sanctioned since 2011 for this reason – people who even DWP and Atos agree are not capable of work are being sent to work, and when they prove their tormentors correct, they are punished for being right. Kafka would be proud.

That, to Iain Duncan Smith, is “fairness”. And unfortunately, the Labour Party see this as an electorally successful tactic and want to join in:

Labour will move to protect itself from the politically damaging charge that it is soft on welfare claimants, by proposing that every adult aged over 25 and out of work for more than two years should be obliged to take up a government-provided job for six months, or lose benefits.

The “compulsory work or lose benefits” announcement by the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, and the shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, comes ahead of what threatens to be a fraught second reading debate on Tuesday over Labour’s refusal to back a government bill restricting increases in benefits and tax credits to 1% a year for the next three years – which is likely to represent a 4% cut in real terms.

Labour’s version of workfare is not to apply to sick or disabled people, but by the time they could win in 2015, indefinite workfare for people accepted as sick and the brutal practice of finding ill people fit to work and cutting them from benefits, will have been continuing for several years:

All her benefits had been stopped, Eileen explained, and she was in arrears with her rent. She was assessed by Atos, a private company employed by the government to carry out what it calls the “work capability assessment” to decide whether people receiving incapacity benefits should be sent back to work. Eileen found the form she was asked to fill extremely long and bewildering. The assessment is a tick-box exercise, with points scored depending on the patient’s replies. The assessors do not ask GPs like me to provide any medical information about patients to help them make their decisions, even though someone may have received incapacity benefits for many years.

Later, Eileen was sent a letter. She was fit for work, she was told, and so she would no longer be receiving benefits. Instead, she would need to go out seeking work. She had no money and soon fell behind with her rent and bills. She told me she didn’t understand why all this was happening to her, but having no money, she decided to leave London to look for work elsewhere. But she had nowhere to stay, and ended up sleeping on the streets. Nor could she find work, despite the government’s mandate that she do so. She eventually returned to London to seek help. She has no insight into her mental illness and doesn’t believe she is unwell.

From the Sunday Herald, Nicola Sturgeon says:

“The only way to guarantee social justice in Scotland is to have control of the powers needed to deliver it.

“With a Yes vote in 2014 we would begin work to establish a welfare system that better reflects Scotland’s values and ensures fair and decent support for those that need it most – a system that protects the vulnerable and supports households rather than seeing them be subjected to unfair ideological benefit cuts from Westminster.

“The announcement of the expert group is the first step in the journey towards creating a welfare system which will support the economy and society of an independent Scotland.”

However, Sturgeon did not identify any specific policy initiatives in the event of Scottish independence.

However, the slant of the panel doesn’t look promising for anyone hoping a vote for Yes in 2014 will ensure social justice in the Scottish welfare system.

No woman was appointed to this “expert panel” – yet consistently, analysis of the UK government’s cuts has found that the damage to the social security network and other budget cuts has fallen disproportionately on women. The Impact on Women of the Coalition Spending Review 2010 from the Women’s Budget Group found that: as well as the benefit cuts falling disproportionately on women’s finances:

  • Lone parents and single pensioners – most of whom are women – will suffer the greatest reduction in their living standards from public service cuts. Lone parents will lose services worth 18.5 per cent and female single pensioners will lose services worth 12 per cent of their incomes.
  • Overall single women will lose services worth 60 per cent more than single men as proportions of their incomes, and nearly three times the amount lost by couples.
  • Women are also likely to be the biggest losers from public sector job cuts. The main reason for this is the fact that women make up 65 per cent of the public sector workforce while 53 per cent of the jobs in the public sector services that have not been protected from the cuts are held by women. Just under 40 per cent of women’s jobs nationally are in the public sector, compared to around 15 per cent of men’s jobs. Women’s employment in the public sector is strikingly high in some regions.

In May 2011, the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick, with Coventry Women’s Voices, produced a joint report on Unravelling Equality? A human rights and equality impact assessment of the public spending cuts on women in Coventry. While focussing on a single city, the report co-author, Dr James Harrison, said:

This assessment is a projection of what the spending cuts might mean to women. It uses Coventry as a case study but the findings relevant to the whole of the UK. It shows how a range of different cuts will all disproportionately impact on women. Public authorities both nationally and locally have legal obligations under the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act to promote equality and protect human rights. They need to take these obligations very seriously when making decisions about budget cuts.

Mary-Ann Stephenson, also co-author of the report and Chair of Coventry Women’s Voices said:

Many of these cuts will make life harder for women. Taken together the affect will be devastating, particularly on the most vulnerable. Women who have been raped or abused may find it harder to get justice or the support they need. Some women and their children (particularly lone parents) may be pushed into poverty. The pay gap is likely to get worse. Women did not cause this situation, but we are paying the price.

A second report, published in July 2012, Getting off Lightly or Feeling the Pinch? A Human Rights and Equality Impact Assessment of the Public Spending Cuts on Older Women in Coventry challenged the myth that

older people have ‘got off lightly’ from the public sector spending cuts because benefits for pensioners have not been reduced to the same extent as benefits for some other groups. This is flawed for two reasons:

  • Cuts to public services will have a disproportionate and significant impact on older people and older women in particular. Cuts to public services including health, social care and transport will all have a significant impact on older women.
  • Significant numbers of older women are already living in poverty. Therefore the overall effects of cuts upon them will be particularly severe. The poorest older women are currently struggling to meet rising living costs particularly the costs of food and fuel which have risen faster than inflation. Cuts to their benefits and reduced support from public services and the voluntary sector will make their situation significantly harder.

The report concludes that taken together the combined impact of cuts to spending on health, social care, welfare benefits, transport and the voluntary sector will exacerbate existing inequalities between older women and other groups and pose a serious risk to some older women’s human rights. Among older women, the poorest women as well as disabled women, carers and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women are likely to be particularly badly affected.

Mary-Ann Stephenson said:

Older women are approaching Age UK Coventry for a referral to the food bank in increasing numbers, older women are waiting longer for hospital appointments, older women are taking on more unpaid caring work and unemployment among older women has increased dramatically. Far from getting off lightly older women are finding that the spending cuts are bad for their health.

So why does the Scottish Government think that only men could be experts on delivering a fairer welfare system? Are they thinking “fairer” in the Iain Duncan Smith sense?

Update: On Monday, Nicola Sturgeon announced that Lynn Williams, policy officer at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, had been invited to join the panel. While the update is welcome – it’s good to note that Nicola Sturgeon explicitly acknowledged that the objection about there being no women on the panel was valid – it’s still a shame that it didn’t occur to anyone responsible that they had a skewed panel.

Lynn Williams wrote in October 2012:

I lived through the 1980s and remember the deep cuts, industrial restructuring and welfare reform which devastated communities across Scotland.
…..
Here we are in 2012 and it is happening all over again. Don’t let the Coalition Government tell you otherwise. Iain Duncan Smith’s “epiphany” in Easterhouse seems long forgotten. Meanwhile I cannot imagine George Osborne or David Cameron ever truly understanding what it’s like to have no choice but to leave your dignity at the door of the ever-increasing number of food banks to feed yourself or your family. …..

Unfortunately, this is the reality of welfare reform and now it is to take a new twist. The planned cuts will affect those who are able to work. There are thousands who have disabilities but are able to live the lives they want, to work and contribute thanks to Disability Living Allowance, access to the Motability scheme and a combination of other funding and social care support. ….

Whole swathes of the third sector are picking up the pieces when people fall foul of the transfer to Employment Support Allowance, when more and more people face an endless cycle of appeals, and the challenges of simple day-to-day living push families to breaking point.

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Filed under Benefits, Equality, Poverty, Tax Avoidance, Women

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