When Iain Duncan Smith walked out of the Cabinet last year, his resignation letter seemed to confirm the suspicions many of us had long held regarding the old-school-tie cabal of Cameron and Osborne and the contempt with which they viewed outsiders – i.e. the majority of people in this country. But let us not attribute an abundance of heroic honesty to IDS; after all, he knew the EU Referendum was imminent and was already positioning himself towards his role in the campaign. Moreover, his post as Benefits Tsar in the Coalition had seen him inflict appallingly punitive punishments on those in society least capable of standing up to the regime he represented.
After justifiably carrying the can for a relentlessly visceral assault on the sick and the poor, IDS realised the shit that was poised to rain down on him following Osborne’s latest proposals to crush the same demographic and headed for the exit door before he could receive the blame for it. However, within a few months, Dave had fallen on his sword, Gideon had been banished to the backbenches, and Theresa May had moved into No.10, promising a Government that would cater for everybody with a compassion sorely absent from the administration of her predecessor.
The man who inherited the old IDS role in May’s team was Damian Green, which was something of an unenviable task considering how tarnished the job of Work and Pensions Secretary had become in the wake of the whole Atos affair. But despite an apparently promising start in which he appeared willing to address some of the worst crimes committed in the name of Austerity re the disabled, Green has reverted to Tory type by burying bad news when nobody was looking.
With Parliamentary business last week dominated by the ongoing Whitehall Farce between the Commons and the Lords on the subject of the Brexit Bill, Green sneaked through one of Gideon’s discredited proposals late Friday afternoon while the House wasn’t sitting; the proposal in question was the move to axe Housing Benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds, something initially unveiled in Osborne’s 2015 Budget and subsequently shelved due to vociferous opposition. How ingenious of the current Work and Pensions Secretary to announce this not in a grandstand press conference, but at a moment when he knew media attention was focused elsewhere in Westminster. Although the plan will be debated by MPs, the nature of the way in which the news was placed back on the agenda speaks volumes.
An estimated 11,000 under-22 year-olds will be affected by the move if it becomes official Government policy, no longer eligible for assistance with their rent should they require it. For all the Prime Minister’s hollow words about ‘a country that works for everyone’, this is a throwback to the worst elitist elements of the brief all-Conservative Cameron Government, whose appetite for reserving the sharpest edges of its scythe for those residing on the bottom rung of society’s ladder was no longer restricted by the Lib Dems. Not only does it have the potential to increase rather than reduce the plague of homelessness among the young, but it makes a mockery of any promised Government initiatives to tackle the problem.
As a pre-emptive strike, the DWP claims there will be exemptions to the new rules proposed – such as youngsters who cannot live in the family home due to the threat of domestic abuse, those with children, or those working at Minimum Wage level for at least 16 hours – but housing and homeless charities like Crisis and Shelter have condemned the move and labelled the exemptions inadequate, as has the National Landlords Association. Shadow Housing Minister John Healey says those targeted are ‘young people (who) are old enough to fight for their country, but in Theresa May’s Britain not old enough to get the same help with housing costs as everyone else.’
Yet again, it seems the coordinated demonisation of those who don’t slot into a favoured demographic such as the so-called ‘Jams’ is afoot, with a revival of that old chestnut, ‘preventing a life on benefits’ being tossed back into the ring as justification for the policy. It merely reinforces a lazy stereotype that fails to acknowledge the reality of needing a little leg-up in that tricky transitional phase between leaving home and making it on your own if you can’t raise a loan from the Bank of Mum and Dad. Few can afford to buy a house now, but this move even rules out renting.
Another exemption promised concerns any 18-21 year-old lucky enough to have been working six months prior to claiming Housing Benefit. Considering even the most soul-destroying of what are laughably called ‘careers’ – call-centre work, for example – are inundated with hundreds of applications from degree-heavy hopefuls when one poxy position becomes available, the likelihood of a youngster having found a job before applying for Housing Benefit is extremely limited, which is (of course) the point.
‘Vulnerable people will continue to be protected’ is the DWP’s response to criticism, but the phrase ‘will continue to be protected’ is troubling; it implies the DWP has already been protecting the vulnerable, which is debatable; and what does it define as protection – providing a sleeping-blanket for shop doorways during the winter months? And is not a jobless and potentially homeless teenager confronted by the consumer society and all its unattainable riches vulnerable? If so, this latest change to the benefits system will offer precious little protection to that particular class of the vulnerable.
Once more we are witness to the unnecessary punishment of individuals, each with their own unique set of circumstances, who are not in a position to fight their corner. The pavement and the food-bank – is that the legacy of the twenty-first century? Discarding so many members of society at such a young age is a short-sighted recipe for future disaster; today’s books may be balanced, but there seems to be little thought being given to tomorrow’s.
© The Editor