It may have been April Fool’s day but while Twitter announced it was going to begin charging for the use of vowels and Virgin launched a glass bottomed plane, big changes to the British welfare system began to bite in what is far from a comical prank.
One of the most high profile of these changes, which began to kick in on Monday 1 April, is the bedroom tax. If a claimant’s house is defined as having one spare bedroom or more they will lose 14 to 25 per cent of their benefit money. 660,000 people face losing hundreds of pounds a year and the threat of eviction if they can’t pay the rent. Two thirds of people hit by the tax are disabled, and single parents and foster families will also be among the hardest hit.
Opposition has been vocal: MP Frank Field has called for landlords to brick up windows and doors or knock down walls to help tenants facing the tax which he describes as ‘grossly unfair.’ Bedroom tax protests have already been held across the country and UK Uncut has promised ‘mass civil disobedience’ on Saturday 13 April, ‘bringing the cuts home to millionaire misery-makers.’
Also part of the welfare overhaul is the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance and major changes to legal aid which means thousands may lose access to legal services and be forced to represent themselves in court.
On 15 April the welfare benefit cap will be introduced to four London boroughs and is expected to be rolled out nationwide by the end of September. It is predicted that 80,000 households will be made homeless as expensive cities like London see a deepening of social cleansing.
There are now more billionaires across the world than before the global financial crash. But while the ‘feral rich’ get wealthier, 20 per cent of children in Britain already live in poverty and families increasingly need to use foodbanks to sustain themselves.
Meanwhile the ‘workers and shirkers’ demonization of benefit claimants, immigrants and disabled people by the government and the media has taken hold among those who feel that while they are working as hard as ever and getting less in return, somebody should be made to pay.
A 2012 poll by the Trades Union Congress found that while people mistakenly thought that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently (the government’s figure is 0.7 per cent), the most hostility was among those who knew the least about the benefits system.
In this climate, newspapers like the Daily Mail can publish a front page (3 April 2013) calling a man found guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children a ‘product’ of the welfare state and still sell plenty of copies. Claiming benefits does not make people more likely to cause the death of their family.
Where do we go from here? Local and national anti-austerity groups have been campaigning relentlessly across the country – networks like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut have mobilized thousands. Some mainstream media are trying to counteract the propaganda machine. But people need to be presented with more than the facts and protest; they need to be truly convinced that blaming benefit claimants and immigrants for their problems is not helpful, fair, or accurate.
However, the deeper austerity goes, the more people will see those close to them affected. Anti-austerity Britain is growing in size and anger. Over 380,000 people have now signed a petition to challenge Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 ($80) a week after he said on national radio he thought he could do it while defending cuts to benefits.
What’s key is a cohesive, accessible and communicative groundswell from the grassroots. Party politics is enough to leave people in despair as politicians jump aboard the blame train conducted by UKIP. Initiatives such as the People’s Assembly may be part of this, as long as they reach further than the usual suspects.
We also need to tell people’s stories, not just in the media, but to our friends and family, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. And while we fight to keep what we have and strengthen community resilience to austerity, we need to show that we will stand by our neighbours when the blame game comes knocking at their door.