Conservative Party Conference: The view from the library next door
I’m writing this blog from the brand new Library of Birmingham, a £180 million project which is central to the regeneration of Birmingham. Happily, the library is right next door to the ICC venue of this year’s Conservative Party conference, and it’s the perfect place to reflect on the announcements being made.
Interlocking circles cover the entire façade of the library, making it quite a stunning building. People’s interpretations of these interlocking rings vary somewhat: for some their steel construction harks back to Birmingham’s industrial past, for others they are symbolic of the interdependent spaces inside the library itself. For me – with my head firmly in party conference season – they remind me of the theme of Ed Miliband’s speech last week: that we should work “together” and make sure no one is left on their own. Alone, any one of the rings would be fairly unremarkable, but together they create something much greater than the sum of the circular parts.
Next door to the library, the Conservative Party are setting out their own vision of how to “secure a better future” for Britain. As was widely predicted, many of the biggest announcements concern social security – an area that we at Community Links have spent much time thinking about.
Here are some initial reactions to the main announcements.
Probably the most headline-grabbing announcement so far is Chancellor George Osborne’s promised two-year freeze on tax credits and working-age benefits, excluding maternity pay and disability benefits. The expected savings of £3bn are part of a wider promised £25bn of further cuts. The Chancellor described this as a “serious contribution to bringing down the deficit”.
One problem with this announcement is the approach which it embodies: “one-size-fits all” everyone’s benefits are to be frozen, no matter what their circumstances. Community Links research into the cumulative impact of welfare reforms in east London shows the devastating impact this has had on local people, eroding their resilience. The Chancellor’s two-year freeze on benefits will increase the pressure on people who are already struggling to make ends meet. In fact, as the policy is expected to hit 10 million households, 5 million of whom are in work, it is likely to push many more people into difficult financial situations. Further squeeze on the incomes of people who are already struggling introduces stress and chaos into people’s lives and could be counterproductive to getting people into work.
A related policy is the proposed reduction of the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. The stated aim of the benefit cap is to increase work incentives – and indeed, as working households are exempted from the cap, it does indeed impose large financial pressure for people to get into work. But this policy doesn’t properly take into account the varied reasons why the vast majority of people want to work – financial incentives are just one part alongside people’s desire to develop personal skills, to feel valued by society, and to be good role-models to their children. Furthermore, our report Tipping the Balance showed how people affected by the cap, although keen to work, often didn’t get the support they need. We and many other organisations are seeing how transitional support via Discretionary Housing Payments is not being used effectively to help people to overcome their personal barriers to employment. A further, dramatic reduction in the incomes of people affected by the benefit cap won’t address these issues.
These policies are presented against the backdrop of a rising cost of living and the fastest rise in house prices, for decades. Taken together freezing benefits and reducing the cap within this context seem likely to hinder peoples opportunity to progress – rather than support them into sustainable work.
Moving on to Iain Duncan Smith’s announcements, the news is more mixed. The stated ambition of completing the roll-out of Universal Credit by 2015/16 is welcome: as I’ve argued previously the current state of incomplete welfare reform is leaving too many people in a damaging no-man’s land, and UC could, if implemented properly address some of these problems. One other proposal from the Secretary of State is to send Jobcentre Plus coaches into schools to work with children as young as age 15. This is one of those policies where the impact will depend completely upon how it is delivered. If the advisors support young people in a way that focuses on, and encourages, their strengths the policy could could help tackle youth unemployment. But if support is punitive and antagonistic – as far too much support from the jobcentre currently is – the impact could be disastrous – turning already disengaged young people further away from available support.
Alongside this announcement was the news that young people’s benefits will be further restricted after six months of any claim, it remains unclear whether this includes cutting housing benefit for under 25-year olds. However such a policy – which may push many young people into homelessness – would not do anything to help young people into work.
The final big announcement from Iain Duncan Smith’s speech is a commitment to trial paying some people’s benefits via payment cards. People who “have fallen into a damaging spiral – drug or alcohol addiction, even problem debt” would receive their benefits via these cards, and would only be able to spend on certain items. This policy seems to go completely against the grain of the coalition’s welfare reforms. IDS and Lord Freud frequently emphasise that Universal Credit is all about getting people ready for the world of work: monthly payments, digital applications and strengthened conditionality are supposedly ensuring that people on benefits are – in IDS’s words – “in work to find work”. But paying benefits on pre-paid cards and controlling expenditure goes completely against this sentiment. That’s quite apart from the wider ethical and practical problems of such a scheme.
While writing this blog, I’ve been trying to think about how it links back to the metaphor of the circles with which I began. It’s clear that the focus of the Conservative-led Government is on the individual circles, rather than how they fit together. Conservative Party ideology is keen to make sure that each individual circle is working on its own; some policy announcements – earlier support for young people and rolling out Universal Credit to smooth out some work disincentives in the system – will help to ensure this is the case. But the more brutal cuts to benefits are likely to further push people into chaos rather than supporting people into work, and the idea of paying benefits via a card is morally dangerous.
Many of the policy details of how some of the announcements will work remain to be clarified – such as what will be included the allowance that young people will receive after six months, or how the benefits payment card will work. It’s crucial that when they are clarifying these points to put before the electorate next May, the Conservatives remember that we need a system which focuses on encouraging people’s strengths, rather than controlling their weaknesses.
This post originally appeared on the Community Links website and is cross-posted here with permission.