Welfare benefit cuts high on anti-austerity agenda

anti austerity londonPlacards proclaiming ‘Cut War Not Welfare’  are held aloft during Saturday’s Anti-Austerity protest.

Anti-austerity protests and movements have become increasingly popular during the latter half of last year year and again this year.

Mass protests have taken place around the world, notably in Greece, Spain, France, Italy, the UK, Canada and the United States’ commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And opposition to austerity is seen as the force behind the rise of new political parties such as Podemos (We Can) in Spain, Italy’s Five Star Movement and Syriza (‘from the roots’ or ‘radically’) that is now forming the government in Greece.

And on Saturday, thousands of people again took to the streets of central London to protest against government cuts. Banners calling for UK prime minister David Cameron to quit were brandished by protesters as they marched to a rally in Trafalgar Square.

The demonstration, organised by the People’s Assembly, was also attended by the Labour Party’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell who said that a Labour government would end cuts and “halt the privatisation of our NHS”.

Importantly, for people with disabilities, Mr McDonnell pledged that his party would scrap the hated work capability assessments and also target homelessness by building hundreds of thousands of council homes.

While the UK government says austerity measures are key to reducing the country’s deficit, McDonnell described the government as being bankrupt in its political ideas and handling of the economy. He called for Mr Cameron to resign and to “take his party with him”.

“On every front now we are seeing the government in disarray – in terms of the economy we are slipping backwards instead of growing,” Mr McDonnell said.

David Cameron, or Dodgy Dave as MP Dennis Skinner prefers to call him, has previously argued that the government needs to make savings, over the course of this parliament, so that it can “prioritise what matters for working families – schools, the NHS and our national security”.

Labour’s Diane Abbott, a fellow speaker, said that fighting austerity was the “political struggle of our time”. She blamed cuts on “forcing people out of work and into zero hours’ contracts”.

Also there were Len McCluskey, general secretary of the trade union Unite, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and National Union of Teachers’ general secretary Christine Blower.

Speaking for the Stop The War Coalition, which was chaired by Jeremy Corbyn MP from 2011 until he became Labour leader last year, Chris Nineham said: “Austerity is not about economic necessity, it is a political choice.”

Cameron’s Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election pledged to save £12bn from welfare by the end of this Parliament in 2020. However, it has already abandoned one set of proposed cuts to disability benefits although those receiving welfare payments are fearful of the government’s next move.

Don’t be fooled by government’s callous weasel words – disability benefits cuts are still planned

Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb.

Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb.

Mystery still surrounds the fate of the threatened cuts to the UK’s Personal Independence Payment paid to people with disabilities. including Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, blindness and mental illnesses.

Just look at the timetable:

March 11, Justin Tomlinson, Disabilities Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, officially announced plans to make changes, to make cuts, to Personal Independence Payment.

March 16, in his budget speech, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne gave details of the cuts the government was proposing.

Following the budget, and for a further two days, uproar ensued. Not just protests from those likely to be affected but from disability charities too. And the government, which has a majority of just 17, suddenly found itself facing almost certain defeat in the House of Commons when around 20 of its own MPs said they would oppose the move.

Back-peddling was the order of the day, publicly hinted at by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan on BBC Question Time, when she said that the proposed cut was only ‘a suggestion’; with the Chancellor saying that he would look again to get things right.

March 18 saw Iain Duncan Smith resign as Work and Pensions Secretary, calling the planned cuts ‘a compromise too far’.

Prime Minister David Cameron, in his reply to Duncan Smith’s resignation letter, said “Today we agreed not to proceed with the policies in their current form and instead to work together to get these policies right over the coming months.”

Look at that closely, read it carefully. The Prime Minister did NOT say that those policies, the cuts, won’t happen. What he did say was that they would not go ahead in their ‘current form’ and that the policy would be got ‘right’ in the coming months.

Then, yesterday March 19, Stephen Crabb was promoted from being Welsh Secretary to take over at Work and Pensions. And, on his first day in his new post, he said the cuts to disability benefits will “not be going ahead.”

Well, actually, no he didn’t! Let’s look at it carefully.

These are the words that the new Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb really said: “We’re not going to be going ahead with these cuts to disability benefits that were proposed on budget day.

“The prime minister has confirmed that himself. I was very clear when I discussed the offer of the job this morning we were not going to go ahead with the cuts that were proposed.”

Sounds good, right? Well, err, no. The key words in the first sentence are ‘that were proposed on budget day’. Similarly, two sentences later the telling words are ‘that were proposed’.

Now, call me a cynic if you like but I have worked as a journalist, spent time in public relations and been around politicians long enough to recognise this for what it is – the use of prepared phrases, or callous weasel words, designed to trick us into thinking the cuts won’t happen.

The government is just trying to buy time to find a way to get them through in another form and without rebellion from within their own MPs.

Trust me, despite what we are being led to believe, the cuts are still very much on the table.

Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation and government’s benefit cut ‘rethink’ may not change anything

Chancellor George Osborne presenting his 2016 budget to UK's parliament.

Chancellor George Osborne presenting his 2016 budget to UK’s parliament.

Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from his position as UK’s Work and Pensions Secretary gives the government a chance to abandon its planned cuts to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – but don’t hold your breath, it probably won’t happen.

Gone: Ian Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary.

Gone: Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary.

In his resignation letter, Duncan Smith said that while the benefit cuts are “defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they were placed within a budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers.”

Every government has its finances to consider, with so much to gather in, so much to spend, so much to borrow and so on. Then there is the matter of the surplus or, more usually, the deficit that has to be controlled.

It was with all this in mind that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, equivalent to other countries’ finance ministers, presented his budget to parliament on Wednesday.

Of course there were lots of items in it but nothing so controversial as plans to hit disabled people who claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP). And, unlike the recent move to reduce Employment Support Allowance (ESA) from next year for new claimants, the proposed PIP changes will affect those already receiving it when their claims are next reviewed.

There is no need, here, to go into the full details but it could mean anyone affected could lose £55 a week – which is a significant amount to a person with MS or any other disability.

But not everything is smooth sailing as the often turbulent waters of parliament are threatening to get stormier by the minute.

Voices are naturally being raised against the move – and not all from expected quarters. You would count on opposition from MPs of other political parties but, now, a sizeable section of Conservative backbenchers is threatening to rebel against the government.

Maybe they have been alarmed by the massive show of public opinion that has so far led to three MPs being required to stand down from their roles as patrons of charities after voting for the ESA cuts.

Then, on BBC television programme Question Time, government Education Minister Nicky Morgan said that the PIP cuts were just a “suggestion” at this stage and that further discussions were needed.

And, although this has been dismissed by someone described as close to then Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, her views have since been reflected by the Chancellor.

BBC News was told that Mr Duncan Smith was saying that the government is not in “concession territory”, adding: “I don’t know how Nicky is explaining what she said but she doesn’t quite seem to have understood what Iain has been saying.”

Since then, however, Mr Duncan Smith has resigned while Mr Osborne has said he will revisit the £4.4billion cut to PIP “to make sure we get this absolutely right.”

The Daily Mirror newspaper reported:

Government sources confirmed the cuts will now be “kicked into the long grass” and could eventually be scaled right back.

“This is going to be kicked into the long grass. We need to take time and get reforms right, and that will mean looking again at these proposals,” a source said.

“It’s not an integral part of the Budget – it’s a package that came out beforehand. We are not wedded to (saving) specific sums.”

A word of warning, though. It is important not to take this a face value. The planned cuts have not been dropped, “Revisiting them” does not mean they have been abandoned. Even “scaling back” does not mean dropping the cuts.

Like all politicians in a difficult place, they are wriggling, using phrases to encourage us to think the situation has changed while being just as committed to the cuts. Even though Iain Duncan Smith has gone, don’t be fooled.

Lies, damn lies, and IDS’s statistics

Ian Duncan Smith has made unreliable claims about sanctions as well as his education.

Ian Duncan Smith has made unreliable claims about sanctions as well as his education.

Mired in controversy over his handling of what the Government calls welfare benefit ‘reform’ and critics call ‘cuts’, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith (pictured, above) is now being accused of having ‘lost the plot’ after making an incredible statistical claim that 75% of people who have had their benefits stopped under his department’s sanctions regime said it helped them “focus and get on.”

And that is something that Labour is challenging and threatening to report to the UK Statistics Authority – and that civil servants at his department have not confirmed.

Add to that the controversy over his education – and his suitability and qualification for his current role have to be called into question.

Daily-MirrorIn an article in the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper, the sister of ex-soldier David Clapson, who died starving and penniless after having his benefits stopped said: “I don’t think my brother said it had helped him get on.”

The report continued:

After hearing Mr Duncan Smith’s comments, Gill Thompson said: “I think they’re losing it. They’re losing the plot.”

In a string of jaw-dropping claims, IDS dismissed protests against benefit sanctions as “classic buzz from the left” and that protesters were “never going to vote for us. They hate us”.

And he claimed Job Centres were “running out of people” to put back to work. Despite a fall in overall unemployment, there are currently 1.68m people out of work in the UK.

The audacity of the man is unbelievable as he made his comments to local councillor Johnny Bucknell, during a visit to London’s Belsize Park to campaign for Tory Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith.

framework_cnj_logoThose comments may never have been kept private had they not been caught on video and subsequently published by the Camden New Journal local newspaper.

But what of his education controversy? In Mr Duncan Smith’s biography on the Conservative Party website as well as his entry in Who’s Who, it was originally stated that he had studied at the University +of Perugia in Italy.

In 2002, an investigation by the BBC found that statement to be untrue. In response to the BBC story, Duncan Smith’s office stated that he had in fact attended the Università per Stranieri (University of Foreigners), a different institution in Perugia, for a year. He did not complete his course of study, sit exams or gain any qualifications there.

Duncan Smith’s biography, on the Conservative Party website, also stated that he was ‘educated at Dunchurch College of Management’ but his office later confirmed that he did not gain any qualifications there either, that he completed six separate courses lasting a few days each, adding up to about a month in total. Dunchurch was the former staff college for GEC Marconi, for whom Duncan Smith worked in the 1980s.

  • Duncan Smith was educated at what is now St. Peter’s RC Secondary School, Solihull, until the age of 14, then at HMS Conway, a Merchant Navy training school (since closed) on the Isle of Anglesey until he was 18. In 1975 he attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Scots Guards.

No surprise as Welfare Reform and Work bill’s benefit cuts are restored by House of Commons

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson speaking in the House of Lords.

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson speaking in the House of Lords.

UK Government plans to cut welfare benefits still further were, as expected, put back on track last night, Wednesday, when the House of Commons voted 309 to 275 to throw out an amendment passed by the House of Lords last week after an impassioned plea from a well-known former wheelchair athlete.

The bill, when it is finally approved and given the formality of Royal Assent, will hit people with disabilities who are assessed, often wrongly, as being fit enough to work This includes those with multiple sclerosis.

Indeed, a huge proportion of such people who have been judged as ‘fit to work’, under the Employment and Support Allowance’s Work Capability Assessment, have had their assessments overturned on appeal.

Last night, the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was back in the House of Commons as the latest stage of what has been labelled parliamentary ‘ping pong’ with the bill being played back and forth like a table tennis ball between the two Houses that together form the British parliament.

The bill aims to implement a number of changes including lowering the benefits cap, reducing support to low income in-work families through cuts to child tax credits, toughening work-related requirements for Universal Credit, changing Support for Mortgage Interest from a grant into a loan and, most controversially, cutting the Work Related payments of Employment and Support Allowance, for new claimants, by around £30 a week.

Tanni the wheelchair athlete as we were used to seeing her.

Tanni the wheelchair athlete as we were used to seeing her.

Before last night, this had been approved by the Commons, thrown out by the Lords, re-approved by the Commons and delayed by the Lords a second time on Monday this week when the Lords voted to approve an amendment, by 289 and 219, to delay the ESA cuts pending a parliamentary report on the impact on claimants.

Crossbench (unaligned) Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson, a former international wheelchair athlete, made a passionate speech urging the Lords to oppose the cuts.

If allowed to remain, the amendment would have meant that the cut could only be implemented once a full impact assessment had been carried out. The report would then be put before both Houses and they would vote on the legislation.

But the Commons, as the elected House, has rejected this particular Lords’ amendment.