What flavour of government have we here? Amid this week’s drama at the eviction of Suella Braverman, there has been too much talk of a U-turn back to the “centre”. The sound and fury of her poison-pen letter and the ranting from her backbench supporters accuse Rishi Sunak of abandoning true Conservative values. The resurrection of David Cameron as foreign secretary is heralded, for reasons beyond comprehension, as an indication of Rishi Sunak’s new moderation.
Next week will show if this is anything more than a vacuous shift in style: chillaxing Cameron always got by with a breezy Etonianism that disguised the true brutality of his austerity project. But the substance of any government is judged by how it gets and spends the nation’s money: character is exposed in Treasury numbers. Next Wednesday’s autumn statement will be the great reveal of its priorities, values and political nature.
Don’t hold your breath for some Damascene conversion that abandons the fiscal meanness of 13 years, pinching and squeezing those with least. The expectation, already much trailed, is for yet more benefit cuts. This is when benefit and pension rates are set for next April, according to inflation and wage rates last September. The word is that Jeremy Hunt, with a little sleight of hand, will fail to uprate them fairly. He will use joyous headlines that inflation has halved, and as it falls so of course benefits can too: nothing will be said of how benefits lagged when inflation was on the way up as well as on the way down. No one will feel this inflation “fall” when prices still rise by 4.6% (considerably higher still than the US or EU). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) says prices are 20% higher than in April 2021, food prices are up by 30% and energy prices are two-thirds higher. Benefits fell well behind. A third of poor families have had to sell something in the past year to buy food.
Is work the answer? The Institute for Employment Studies says pay has all but stagnated since 2008. Every report in recent years points to the UK’s shortage of workers, every public service short-staffed, employers desperate. Although the numbers not working shot up after Covid, the problem predates that crisis. NHS waiting times are one reason why more than a million struggle to work.
Taking a whip to them will do no good, though the government seems to think it can save £4bn by forcing people in severe pain waiting for operations and those with mental health problems into work by denying them the £390-a-month universal credit. The work capability test, already a torment, is to be replaced with something that can surely only be tougher. Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, told the Commons that more than 2.5 million people were on benefits and inactive due to a long-term health condition, and work coaches in job centres would now judge how much effort they made to find a job. Hunt has confirmed that claimants will face sanctions if they “refuse” to engage with jobcentres or take work offered to them.
“Strivers not skivers” talk is preparing the ground for this: “Hunt wages war on the work-shy,” says the Mail, and the government must tame an “out-of-control welfare-state”, according to the Telegraph. Benefit levels best define the kind of country we are. The basic social security rate (now universal credit) is the lowest for 40 years. Unemployment pay is the lowest in western Europe, at just 17% of previous income, while France and Germany pay 66%. Benefits have lost 9% of their real value since 2010, and here we go again.
Breaking Through the Barriers, a report by Action for Children, the Children’s Society, JRF, Scope and other authoritative charities, offers an alternative to punishment and sanctions for getting people into work. People do want jobs, with hours and conditions they can cope with. The report shows impoverishing claimants with sanctions simply paralyses them, leaving them spending all their time surviving, visiting food banks, with no money for a bus fare to look for work, and no spirit but despair. Childcare, which would allow them to work, is unaffordable, carers need help, job centres need to offer training and genuine support. Investing in carrots will end up saving far more by getting people into work, than sticks that only drive people away. There are also many missing from the workforce because they’re dead: the BMJ shows tens of thousands of unexpected extra deaths since 2010 linked to austerity.
Before plunging the knife into benefits, Hunt should study an alarming Health Foundation report out today that finds 3.7 million working-age people who do have jobs have a health condition that is “work limiting”. This has increased by 1.4 million over the past decade. These are people at risk of falling out of work, and already doing less than they could. The failure of the NHS to treat everyone in time is a major cause of Britain’s economic and productivity failures. The NHS, treated by the Treasury as an economic dead loss, often called a “black hole”, proves to be an economic necessity. Benefits, well administered, help people into work, not incapacitate them with sub-survivable poverty.
For maladministration, the UK has seen nothing like the government of the past 13 years. Chasing employees away with Brexit or grinding them into unemployability with hardship, has turned out to be a disastrous economic strategy. Cutting support next week will shrink, not grow, the workforce. And is this cruelty a vote winner? Not according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, which finds people far more generous of spirit these days towards those needing benefits, and they believe the state should fund them.