No option but resistance

The ConDem coalition’s attack on state welfare is not working. Despite savage benefit cuts, the overall cost of state welfare has not fallen. However, the government’s response – a mixture of lies and threats to slash eligibility and benefit levels even further, especially those for disabled people – shows that austerity is not about economics, but politics. The coalition is determined to shift the balance of class forces decisively against the working class, and the absence of significant resistance only encourages it to intensify the onslaught. But where people do come together and challenge the cuts, victories can be won – collective, community-based organisation is the key to resistance. Robert Clough reports.

The overall benefit cap

Employment Secretary Ian Duncan Smith claimed in May 2013 that the mere threat of the benefit cap limiting overall benefits to £26,000pa had pushed 8,000 claimants into finding jobs before its introduction. There was absolutely no evidence for this claim – it was just made up. However, the estimated savings of £270m per year will not be met, as the number of capped households is far lower than the coalition thought – 19,276 at the end of September rather than 40,000 or 56,000, depending on when the government made the estimate. Based on these figures, the annual saving will be only £60-£70m.

At present councils are mitigating the impact of the cap through the use of discretionary housing payments, but this will run out from April 2014. There are about 80,000 children living in capped households. Councils will have a statutory responsibility for re-housing families who are evicted – at great expense, and usually in sub-standard accommodation. Figures also show that, contrary to media propaganda, the number of families receiving benefits worth £50,000 or more is tiny: only 17 households across the country are having their housing benefit cut by more than £400 per week to keep within the £26,000 limit.  

The bedroom tax

Again the predicted savings of £480m per annum through bedroom tax will just not happen. 522,900 claimants are subject to the bedroom tax, paying £390m per annum towards their rent. To avoid paying the tax, many tenants have been forced to downsize into one or two-bedroom accommodation in the private rented sector since there are so few smaller properties in social housing. Rents in any given area are greater for one-bedroom private accommodation than for three-bedroom social housing which means that those few tenants able to downsize will need more benefit than if they stayed put.

Meanwhile thousands of three-bedroom properties are being left empty with social housing landlords seeking ways of selling them off as surplus to requirements. On 6 November Housing Minister Kris Hopkins repeated the government lie that there were one million ‘spare rooms’ in the social housing sector. With 429,000 out of the 522,900 tenants paying bedroom tax on one bedroom, it would mean that the remaining 93,000 tenants would have 571,00 spare bedrooms – an average of over six bedrooms each. There are only 13,500 five-bedroom properties or bigger across the whole of social housing.

Councils are using discretionary housing payments as a sticking plaster for the mounting problems faced by tenants unable to pay the bedroom tax. They are refusing to use their statutory powers to limit its impact. The 1985 and 2004 Housing Acts stipulate that a room cannot be a bedroom if it less than 70sqft. Yet, under challenge, Labour-led councils are refusing to use the inspection powers that local housing authorities have under the 2004 Act to enforce this minimum standard and ensure that tenants do not have to pay the tax on such rooms.

Indeed, these councils are so cowardly that they are not even prepared to challenge the government when it issues patently unlawful guidance such as the DWP’s U6/2013 which told local authorities that ‘when applying the size criteria and determining whether or not a property is under-occupied, the only consideration should be the composition of the household and the number of bedrooms as designated by the landlord, but not by measuring rooms’. Yet it is only by measuring rooms that local authorities can determine whether a room breaches crowding and space standards set by the 2004 Housing Act. The government is saying that social landlords can breach these standards with impunity – and they are doing so.

Housing benefit: more lies

The government repeatedly claims that the budget for housing benefit is out of control. Hopkins claims that the coalition ‘inherited a bill that had doubled to some £24bn by the time we came to power’. This is a lie. The budget at May 2010 was £20.88bn. The truth is that the bill is still rising – because there are more and more claimants. In May 2010, 4.75 million tenants claimed housing benefit. By August 2010 this had risen to 5.05 million. Over a million people (1,013,000) have to claim housing benefit because their wages are so low. This is a 50% increase since May 2010 when 650,551 HB claimants were in work.

The government said that it would cut the cost of housing benefit by £2bn by 2014/15. With the current cost standing at the £24bn, it is at present £6bn off target. This explains recent suggestions that a future government will remove all housing benefit from under-25s – even if this act of pure vindictiveness only shaves £1bn off the overall cost.

Attacking disabled people

Disabled people are now the government’s main target for cutting benefits. Three-quarters of those affected by the bedroom tax are disabled people. They also have to pay for the cut in council tax benefit. From October 2013, changes to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) regulations mean that anyone failing the Atos ‘work capability’ test can no longer immediately appeal to a benefit tribunal but must first ask the DWP to ‘reconsider’ the decision. Previously, not only could a claimant go direct to a tribunal, but he or she continued to get ESA until the appeal was heard. Under the new system, ESA payments will be stopped during the ‘reconsideration’ period, which may take several months. Meanwhile they will be entitled to JSA only and are therefore bound by the Jobseeker’s Agreement, subject to regular sanctions and destitution.

330,000 out of an initial 560,000 claimants of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) will either lose their benefit altogether or have it reduced when they move to Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) by October 2015. This change has been deferred by two years because of the problems with the Universal Credit system of which it forms part. However, Employment Secretary Ian Duncan Smith wants to move faster and abolish the ‘Work Related Activity Group’ – those receiving ESA but who are seen as capable of work in the future. This means that the 550,000 claimants in the group will move straight on to JSA and be subject to the ever more punitive regime for the unemployed.

Resistance – the only option

The government responds to its failure to cut the overall cost of state benefits by coming up with all sorts of ideas about slashing them further. It is encouraged to do so because it sees no organised resistance. Labour councils undermine and frustrate the fight against the bedroom tax. Wages have fallen below inflation for every month but one since the coalition came to office. Casualisation and under-employment is all that is on offer to larger and larger sections of the working class – nearly a fifth of those working part time want a full-time job, 1.46 million workers.

Unite’s capitulation at Grangemouth shows how isolated trade unions are from the mass of the working class. Trade union membership is more and more confined to a privileged minority. Unions also organise amongst those who manage and directly enforce the government’s punitive regime against the poorest sections whether in local councils or in jobcentres. A key lesson from the miners’ strike nearly 30 years ago is that any trade union struggle has to have organised community support if it is to sustain a serious challenge to the ruling class; in today’s conditions this is less and less likely to happen. Unite the Union’s establishment of community branches is not the answer since it is not possible to organise against the onslaught of austerity on the basis of monthly branch meetings governed by a union rule book.

However, nothing comes out of nothing, and where resistance starts victories are possible. This is the lesson of the Focus E15 Mothers’ campaign. Threatened with eviction, the campaign they have organised with FRFI has forced the utterly reactionary Newham Labour council to backtrack and reinstate the Supporting People funding, and the housing association to withdraw their eviction notices. The women’s fight is by no means over,but they show that not only is struggle possible, it is the only option for those with their backs to the wall. If they had not stood up, the likelihood is that now they would have been forced to move to towns like Hastings or Birmingham, far away from their families and friends. FRFI salutes their determination, and urges people to support them and follow their example.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014


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