Labour and Tory politicians have been falling over each other to prove that they are the toughest on those who claim welfare benefits.
Work and pensions secretary James Purnell was to unveil a raft of draconian new plans in the Welfare Reform White Paper on Wednesday – details of which were flagged up in last week’s Queen’s Speech.
From lone parents to people suffering from long term illness, the government proposes to cut access to financial support and use increasingly punitive measures to force people into work.
New legislation will include a harsh sanctions regime for those claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) payments.
This will include cash penalties for those who miss appointments or fail to adhere to “contracts” detailing training and other steps to prepare for work.
The new raft of “welfare reforms” follow recent similar attacks on incapacity benefit claimants that were also designed to make benefits harder to claim and to push more people into work.
Purnell has said that lone parents with children as young as one may be forced to look for work or training and report to a job centre every fortnight.
Quite apart from the attacks on parents’ choices and quality of life, the government doesn’t offer free nursery places until the age of three – so most lone parents would be forced to find costly private childcare just to be able to look for work.
And it’s not just parents who will be on the receiving end. The majority of disabled people would be required to actively seek or prepare for work before receiving benefits.
In a nasty attack that panders to the worst elements of the tabloid press, the government says it will roll out lie detector tests at job centres across Britain.
This will feed the myth that people claiming benefits are intrinsically untrustworthy or dishonest.
Some 25 councils already use such tests in relation to assessing housing benefit claims.
The continuing demonisation of people on benefits has become a hallmark of New Labour policy. Headed up by Purnell, “welfare reform” has become a stick to beat and frighten people with.
Both Labour and Tories say they want to stop a “something for nothing” culture of welfare dependency.
But life on state benefits is far from a holiday. On average, over 25 year olds get about £60 per week. This is not disposable income – it is supposed to cover all utility and food bills, as well as money for clothing and household goods.
The government is demanding that people should try harder to get a job.
But with unemployment rising, people with years of experience in skilled jobs are joining the dole queues. In most job centres decent long- term jobs are hard to come by.
The government’s plans will be delivered by expanding the role of private companies contracts.
It is likely to award contracts on the basis of meeting targets for getting people off benefits – increasing the pressure on “advisers” from private firms to push people into work or training, even where it is unsuitable.
Benefits are a vital part of the welfare state. We should defend the idea of a collective responsibility for ensuring people’s welfare.
At a time of economic crisis these arguments can become sharper. We must resist the scapegoating of those in receipt of benefits.