Socialist Worker

As the sharks circle it's time to defend universal benefits

by Louise Harrison
Issue No. 2171

All of the main political parties have said they want to make cuts to universal benefits, such as child benefit, winter fuel allowances, bus passes and TV licenses for the over 70s.

For me, this conjured up the image of a shiver of sharks taking part in a feeding frenzy. Even before I could catch my breath, children’s secretary Ed Balls had snatched it away by declaring that he would cut the education budget by £2 billion.

As I have three children, work in a school and my mum’s just become a pensioner, you could forgive me for feeling a little miserable.

Not to worry, voters like me were informed by Peter Mandelson, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, these proposals are necessary to avoid further economic meltdown and are moral and fair.

Their argument is that the old mantra of “from cradle to grave welfare” I grew up with is outdated and inequitable. This is the view of politicians who have bailed out banks and spent billions on unpopular wars.

So to attack one of the cornerstones of public life, they must be confident their argument appears sound. Yet let’s not forget that one in three children suffer hardship and pensioner poverty is crippling. These benefits are essential to millions.

A cabinet aide explained that it’s time for “distributional politics”. They want to remove universal benefits paid to people regardless of what they earn and move towards means-tested benefits, which are only for the poorest.

A former cabinet minister elaborated by saying. “I’ve just been sent my claim form for winter fuel allowance. Do I really need that?”

Well, that depends on which house they are claiming for. On the surface they may have a point. After the expenses debacle, who wouldn’t agree to cutting MPs off from the public purse?

And that’s exactly what they want us to think, especially now Labour’s core voters are moving away from the party.

Insulting

But it is just surface politics, and it’s insulting. I remember asking my nan why Winston Churchill didn’t win the election after the Second World War.

She said it was because of means-tested benefits, which had blighted the lives of so many in the 1930s. Churchill represented an era that no-one wanted to return to.

The welfare state that grew up over the next 30 years, with council houses, university grants and the NHS, enabled people to feel protected for a short while.

Now people talk about being only two pay cheques away from homelessness.

One thing the politicians don’t tell us is how and why the universal benefit for children was introduced, and why it has been such a success. It was originally paid to the mother, in recognition that women often had less access to the family finances or were the lowest paid out of a couple.

This benefit has achieved a 99 percent take-up rate, which means it is much more effective at reaching those in greatest need.

There is no stigma attached to those who apply for it, unlike free school meals – a benefit desperately needed but less used due to the fact that it is means tested.

Means testing means that people feel stigmatised for being poor, so would rather do without. This is a story told time and again by campaigners who state that pensioners are too embarrassed or worried to claim benefits that they are entitled to.

New Labour has become adept at stigmatising people, with its attack on the single parent and disability living allowances, and vile adverts attacking benefit fraudsters. At the same time it has presided over a growing gap between the rich and poor.

There is a battle taking place throughout the world over universal benefits. It’s something that millions of poor people can’t afford to lose.


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Tue 29 Sep 2009, 18:27 BST
Issue No. 2171
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