The Common Good

When It Comes to Welfare Reform, Britain is Not So Great

Gandhi once said that "a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable." Today, it strikes me that the "Great" in Great Britain should probably be quietly dropped, and replaced with "Abject," "Inadequate" or something equally disparaging.

For that is how the UK is currently treating its most vulnerable — the young, the elderly, the disabled — inadequately, abjectly and without compassion. For the last few weeks, a battle has been raging between the government, the legislature, the Church, organizations, and the general public over a piece of legislation called the Welfare Reform Bill.

The bill is wide ranging in its ‘reforms’, covering a myriad of social security measures — from disability benefits, to welfare offered to the unemployed and their families and children. At a time when austerity and budget cutting is front and center of the government’s agenda, ‘reform’ is a by-word for ‘cutbacks’.

The crux of the legislation is an attempt to distinguish between different categories of "the poor," to weed out the “undeserving” from the “deserving.” Sadly, as can be seen from the uproar that the Bill has caused, this attempt has failed.   

There is certainly nothing wrong with proposing legislation that encourages and creates an expectation that all who can work should, or designing processes to ensure that the total amount that workless households can receive in benefits cannot be more than the average wage for working households.

The outrage has come from the focus of this legislation on the most vulnerable in society.

Two aspects of the bill that have provoked opposition  from across the country, and indeed the political spectrum, concern the young and the disabled, two groups that most can agree had very little to do with the current economic situation the UK finds itself in.

Families with children under age 16 in the UK are able to benefit from tax-free payments to help with child-related costs — whether that is childcare, extra-curricular activities, or in the most severe cases, feeding and clothing them.

Last week, the government proposed new policies that would make it far more difficult for families who receive other welfare benefits (unemployment, disability, etc.) to receive Child Support. While the measure was approved by the House of Commons (equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives), it was defeated in the House of Lords (equivalent of the U.S. Senate), a body that includes 26 Church of England bishops. Indeed, it was the efforts of a large collection of these bishops that defeated the proposed legislation, which could have had a negative impact on more than 250,000 children.

And this week, similar cuts were proposed to the benefits offered to people with disabilities, including children. The government benefits that many disabled people (and their families and caregivers) rely on are being scaled back by more than 20 percent. Further opposition to such measures were seen in the ‘Upper House’ of the UK Parliament, and the government was once again defeated, with members of the House of Lords unwilling to place financial burdens on the back of the disabled.

Sadly, despite opposition from the legislature, informed organizations that work with and for children and the disabled, and countless public petitions, today (1 February) saw the government press ahead with its original policies, which will almost certainly add more financial hardship to those who are already struggling to keep their heads above water.

What positives can be taken from this rather depressing analysis? Thankfully, quite a few. These measures have awoken an anger that has not been seen for some time in British politics. Many, regardless of party political loyalties have voiced their objections to these budgetary cuts, first and foremost from a moral standpoint.

The Church (represented in the legislature by the Bishops) has been vocal in its opposition to balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable and are fighting with millions of others to protect these groups.  

Financial responsibility is vital at such a difficult time. But what is the point of financial responsibility if politicians are not being morally responsible? It serves no purpose. As one Member of Parliament posted on Twitter earlier this week: “I didn't come here [Parliament] to take money from disabled children and people with cancer.”

My hope is that, thanks to courage and action from the church and others in the UK, the government will realize that there is more to governing that simply balancing the books.

They must do so in a way that stands with the most vulnerable. It is only through that sort of governing that Britain will justifiably call itself ‘"Great."

Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88.

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