Social security cuts poised to worsen inequality

By Ellie on May 26, 2016

The Welfare Reform and Work Act received royal assent on 16 March 2016. Quaker Peace & Social Witness, alongside many individual Friends and Quaker meetings, actively campaigned against the bill. Suzanne Ismail, Economic Issues Programme Manager for Quakers in Britain, discusses what the act means and how we might continue to challenge economic inequality.

The Welfare Reform and Work Act was presented as a key part of the government’s plan to make another £12 billion in social security cuts. Unfortunately, for the most part, the government succeeded in pushing through its desired reforms. These include further cuts to the household benefit cap and restrictions on key benefits for people who are unable to work because of sickness or disability. As a result, hundreds of thousands of individuals and families will, very soon, find it even harder to make ends meet. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on the fact that without a strong campaign from anti-poverty groups, trade unions, churches and other faith groups, things might have been even worse.

Campaigners helped to dilute the government’s plans on the so-called “two-child limit” for Child Tax Credits (CTCs). From next April, most households starting to claim CTCs can only do so for a maximum of two children. Alongside other churches and faith groups, Quakers in Britain argued strongly that the entire premise of the limit should be rejected. [See www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/nov/10/uk-faith-leaders-unite-to-challenge-welfare-penalties-on-larger-families]. An amendment initiated by the Bishop of Portsmouth succeeded in exempting kinship carers and some adoptive families from the new rules. Whilst the concessions do not go as far as we wanted, they are nevertheless welcome.

The government was also forced to continue reporting on the number of children living in poverty, although it will not be required to submit a formal report for parliamentary scrutiny. Its initial proposal was to replace an internationally recognised measuring system with one that only considered two criteria: educational achievement and whether a child’s parents were in paid work. The changes would have completely ignored the growing problem of “in work” poverty, as well as the fact that a lack of money is the defining feature of poverty.

Although not strictly part of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, the House of Lords stopped the government from making considerable reductions to the value of Working Tax Credits. These are an important source of support for people who are in paid work, but don’t actually earn enough to live on.

Whilst in the overall context of the bill these changes are relatively small, they will make a significant difference to many households in difficult circumstances.

Thank you to the many Friends who engaged with their MPs on this issue. We know that many of you found it a frustrating process. But in a climate where social security cuts remain relatively popular, it is vital that political representatives are reminded that large sections of the population believe our social security system could be structured in a more just and equitable way.

Of course, engaging with the political process is not the only way we can work to challenge inequality. We can continue to campaign and raise awareness of issues like the need to pay the Living Wage, we can get involved in projects that directly support people suffering the worst impacts of inequality, and we can continue to challenge the assumptions and negative stereotypes that are all too prevalent in our divided society.

Need some ideas for taking action on inequality?

We have recently produced a mini-guide called Taking action on inequality. You can download it from www.quaker.org.uk/our-work/economic-justice/inequality. Or contact Suzanne at suzannei@quaker.org.uk or on 020 7663 1055 for paper copies.

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