On Welfare Reform with Baroness Molly Meacher
On Thursday 4th April 2013 an interview was conducted with Baroness Molly Meacher at the House of Lords where questions were put out to her with regards to the welfare reforms introduced by the coalition. Baroness Meacher is an independent crossbencher in the House of Lords as well as the chair of the East London and City Mental Health Trust.
- With regards to the new welfare reforms, which sections of society do you feel will be affected? Who will be the beneficiaries and who do you feel will be adversely affected?
The people probably most affected are I would say families with a disabled child. For example, where the child addition used to be something like £57 a week for a disabled child, for all those except the most severely disabled children that need care at night, that sum will just go down to just £26 a week I think it is. Massive drop really for a family, if you’re used to a certain income and you’re used to therefore afford certain things like taking this child out and maybe using the taxi whatever it is you do or pay for a few hours of child care or something like that. So those sorts of families where anything other than the most severely affected you’re going to be quite severely hit by these reforms. And following our debates in the Lords, the government did promise to review the impact of that particular change because they accepted that it was a tremendous sort of step. That’s one group.
Another group I think single parents who have really been able to claim benefits, haven’t they, when their child is young but through these welfare reforms once the child is one year old as a single mother you’re going to have to start going to interviews to think about returning to work. And certainly by the time the child is three and having some access to some child care, some free child care, you are going to be expected to look actively for a job and be ready to take a job. Now that is a big change and having had four children I am aware that when you have young children and if you’ve certainly got more than one, but even one they get ill they get all the little diseases they get colds they get this they get the ear ache and so on, they’re forever, do you take them to play school don’t you. So to get a job you have to look at it from the employer’s point of view, how many employers are going to take on a single mother with one or two children or three? They’re not going to be interested. So this mother is under pressure to get back to work and the benefits will be conditional, they’re going to feel a lot of stress, I would say, and yet they’re trying to look after their children and be looking for these jobs and so on. So, I think there are going to be a lot of single mums or the fathers and there are more and more single fathers to, who find life extremely stressful. And that’s what bothers me because I think all these groups, the particularly hard-hit groups, they’re going to be susceptible to depression, anxiety. I’ve worked in mental health for years and my assumption is there will be a lot more mental health problems around and GPs’ surgeries will be packed out with people who just can’t cope.
- It’s often claimed amongst certain people in society that the benefits system is a means for work-shy people to just stay at home and claim benefits. Do you feel that this is an unfair stigma attached to benefit claimants?
I think it’s a very complicated question because there are certain pockets in the country where parents and maybe even grandparents, certainly parents, have been out of work for years and years and years, children grow up and it’s a sort of norm. And therefore you may have streets in places like Birkenhead I think where most people don’t work actually and you’re regarded as a bit silly if you go to all that effort and going out to work and earning when actually you could be picking up benefits. I think there is an issue there, I don’t think we should pretend there’s no issue at all, but I would say (I don’t know the numbers, probably nobody does actually) but for every one person who‘s really just a scrounger you’ve got very large numbers of people who are desperately wanting to get to work or are really disabled and cannot get work and maybe they’ll never work and they’re desperately depressed about that and unhappy. I worked in mental health for many years as I mentioned, and people with mental illnesses they would love to get a job but you try and find an employer who will take you on, it is not easy. And they could be seen as scroungers. People who look alright they walk down the street and they seem to be alright and yet they’re not working, you see them going to the job centre. So I would say there’s tremendous amount of hardship, great deal of unhappiness, and we know that unemployment creates depression. Unemployment is not a good state at all, people don’t like it and those who become scroungers it’s an adjustment I would think to this feeling that it’s just so hard to get a job so you make the best of claiming your benefits, human-beings do adjust. So I think it’s complicated.
- Do you feel that these welfare reforms which have taken place are fair or imbalanced?
I think it’s ruthless, I really do think it’s ruthless. And nobody yet fully understands the impact there will be on certain households. If you happen to live say in London, so you live in an area with rents a little high, so you are subjected to the benefit cap, so suddenly your benefit income is reduced by however much. Then actually you’ve got an extra bedroom because one of your children’s grown up and gone away, they sometimes comeback but actually they’re not there most of the time so you’re not allowed that extra bedroom so you have to pay some of your rent out of your basic income. So that is yet another reduction in your weekly income. You may say we better move but we know that actually there are nothing like enough one-bedroom, two-bedroom flats for the numbers of people who are going to have to move in order to avoid being penalised. So that’s another cut.
Then you’ve got benefits now, each year, going to rise by the Consumer Price Index rather than the Retail Price Index that again is going to reduce the value of your benefits. As prices go up inflation is certainly going to go up and it’s certainly already quite high and it’s going to get worse. So your benefits are again going to be reduced in real terms and so on.
Then you’ve got council tax, lot of people, millions of people are going to be paying council tax for the first time, people who would have been exempt from paying council tax. Now out of their basic income they’re going to have to pay council tax. Now if you think about people on Jobseeker’s Allowance, £71 a week, if you’re starting to take bits of money off to pay rent, bits of money off to pay council tax I mean I can’t imagine living on that sort of money anyway assuming ones rent is paid. So you’ve got £71 for your utility bills, travel, clothing, food everything I don’t know how people will do it but start shaving some money off that and I think there will be a massive explosion in debt, that’s what I actually think. So we talked about the disabled and families who have got a disabled children and single mothers but actually anybody who lives on benefits in future which under these reforms once they are fully implemented is going to be in terrible trouble I think. So there will be a huge pressure either to work on the side, (of course we haven’t mentioned that one) the more you squeeze benefits the more the pressure is there to work on the side which is I suppose you could say is the scrounging bit. But if people literally can’t live on their benefits well what are they supposed to do? Because they won’t get what one would call a proper job. There will be a million people perhaps who will not be able to get a proper job. So it’s in a way generating fraud. I think it will generate fraud.
- How would you compare these current reforms to the times of the eighties and the Thatcher-era where the ideology of the welfare state was challenged?
I always described Mrs Thatcher as a little pussycat compared with this lot. We were very critical of some of her reforms but they were negligible compared with what is going on today. But of course since Mrs Thatcher we’ve had ten years of Labour Government and the whole tax credit thing grew tremendously under the Labour Government in an attempt to make work pay in a gentle way. In other words, when you move from unemployment into work, you didn’t suddenly lose your benefits, what happened was you got working persons tax-credit, children’s tax credits and these continued as you went into work and would only be reduced as your income increased over and above the benefits level. So you had a levelling out and the idea was as I say to have an incentive to work. But of course, what we’ve got now is an incentive to work being created by a massive reduction in benefits for people out of work. So it’s a complete opposite of what the Labour Government did. You could argue that working persons tax credits were an incentive to employers to keep down wages. Why increase your wages for low paid people if actually the state would pick up the tab and subsidise those wages so I think there is a debate to be had about the amount of tax payers’ money going into subsidising low pay. So you could argue, this is just an idea to debate really, that what a government should be doing is raising the minimum wage towards a living wage, a better wage which of course we’ve got in London a living wage and public services tend to pay the living wage. If you up the basic wage then you don’t have the tax credit costs, that would be a better way to go I think though you might price some people out of work. So nothing is straightforward at all really. So you can’t push it too high is what I’m saying.
- Going back to the beginning of last year (2012) the House of Lords defeated the government on the Employment and Support Allowance, defeated three times. You emphasised that the amendments were introduced to protect the entitlements of the severely ill and disabled. Could you elaborate on the amendments which you proposed to the government?
The one that stands out for me related to the severely disabled children who in the switch from DLA to PIP the new disability benefit will have the benefit for a disabled child reduced form £56 a week down to £27 a week. A really major cliff-edge benefit change and so we put down an amendment to reduce that and to enable families with severely disabled children who just didn’t happen to need care at night also to get a higher benefit to compensate for the inevitable costs that those families are going to experience. Under the government’s plans, the most severely disabled children will continue to have a high benefit and a slightly higher benefit actually then previously, but to qualify for that you do need to have to need night time care. There are lots of severe disabilities where the child will be able to sleep at night and if you think about it you’re only talking about only those where the parents have to go in and turn the child over a very limited number of families will be entitled to the higher benefit. We did win that, a pretty effective and impressive majority but there are other amendments also one on housing because of the bedroom tax. We won votes on those issues but of course they were overturned in the Commons but it’s not irrelevant. Because when an amendment is won in the House of Lords with a good majority then ministers listen. They go off and talk to ministers in the House of Commons, they think about what they ought to do and there will be reviews, there are going to be lots of exceptions to some of these rules. Another amendment that I won I think was won on the payment of benefits monthly and the payment of rent to the claimant rather than to the landlord. And it seems to me that when you’re putting through all these cuts why make it ten times harder for people to cope month by month or week by week. Many of these people on benefits have never been paid monthly it’s the sort of thing that have ministers never thought about that? A lot of people are paid weekly, people in the building trade and other trades, they are used to a weekly wage. So why have you got to train them up to being paid monthly. You know it is not fair in my view so they have now introduced, not on the face of the bill, but exceptions and special provisions for vulnerable people who will probably not be able to cope either with their rent being paid to themselves rather than to the landlord or being paid monthly they will continue to be paid weekly. So all will have special help in enabling them to manage, don’t know quite what that means. The government have tried to, I would say, meet us half way (maybe that’s generous), so our work was not waste of time (or perhaps I’m needing to persuade myself on that) but I don’t think it was a complete waste of time. We did make quite an impact actually at that time through those amendments.
- The Disability Living Allowance has received a lot of attention because now it has changed to the Personal Independence Payment. There have been critics, whereas the Government has said that more easily comprehensible for people who are claiming. What do you feel the pros and cons are of this transition to PIP?
It may be a bit easier to understand but the main driving motivation has to be cuts doesn’t it? Because there will be cuts in these benefits. My main concern has to do with the assessments and those people who fail those assessments fail to qualify for PIP and who are therefore on JSA and needing to look for work and get out to work and in many, many cases I would suggest people will simply not be able to get a job because employers won’t employ them apart from anything else. A lot of these people would love to work but if employers have got a good market as they have at the moment, high unemployment the last people who will get jobs are people with disabilities and in particular I have to say mental health problems and learning difficulties. So it’s a very tough number for them I think, I really do.