Is it fair to freeze benefits? Many union members are getting pay increases of less than three per cent, so is it fair for people on benefits to get an increase of 5.2%, which is what the policy of uprating in line with inflation would mean?
A good starting point is to look at the latest rumour emerging from journalists “usually well-informed sources”: it looks as though the government will exclude pensions from the freeze, if they go ahead with this plan. Let’s leave aside the fact that over half of benefit spending is on State Pension and Pension Credit. What I want to concentrate on is the reason why the government is flagging up this exclusion: it’s because even they can see that this would be unfair. It would be unfair because many pensioners have paid for their benefits through National Insurance Contributions and many would be forced into ever-deeper poverty as prices rose and their pensions didn’t.
Perfectly true. But those arguments apply just as strongly to non-pensioners on benefits. People on contributory Jobseeker’s Allowance and contributory Employment and Support Allowance have also paid for their benefits through their NI Contributions. And people on means-tested benefits are already on very low incomes, whether they are above or below pension age. There is a project, called Minimum Income Standards, that tries to establish the cost of a basket of goods that has been based on surveys and other evidence about what the public thinks would be a minimum acceptable standard of living. This year’s report from this project says that
basic out-of-work benefits provide well under half of the minimum income (net of rent and council tax) required for an adult with no children, and somewhat less than two-thirds for families with children.
And don’t forget that the government is already squeezing a huge amount out of poorer families. All benefits – including pensions – are already going to be lower than they should have been because the government has switched from increasing benefits in line with the Retail Price Index to the Consumer Price Index – this will cut benefits by £6 billion a year by the time of the next election.
If the government goes ahead with this, the number of children in poverty – already due to rise 200,000 by the time of the next election – will rise even further. I hope the government will decide that forcing children into poverty is as politically risky as doing the same to pensioners.
If anyone doubts what this could mean, it’s worth looking at this story from today’s Coventry Telegraph: an ex-serviceman and his wife, who have committed suicide after being denied benefits. Sometimes commentators on my posts take great pleasure in telling me how worthless people on benefits are, that most of them are fraudulent and that we give them too much. This story from Coventry may be extreme: but so are the stories about fraud that dominate media coverage of social security.
Trade union members should support 5.2% for people on benefits even when we’re getting less. We should do this for the same reason that we sometimes negotiate pay increases that benefit our lowest paid members more than other people: they are in the weakest position and are the least able to cope with austerity.
It’s called solidarity.