The Poor: The new enemy within

John Curran 

Image © The CBI

Liberalism, that all encompassing doctrine is alive in today`s coalition government.  However, the philosophy that prevails has more in common with Gladstonian liberalism than the doctrine associated with either Beveridge or Keynes.

In the era of `Workfare` no one should be surprised by the DWP announcement, that working tax credits will no longer be paid if recipients go on strike.

This is not news. But, Iain Duncan Smith MP is bringing something new to the agenda. His statement is a declaration that the UK is heading for full blown austerity (no surprise here) but he is informing his core support base that the low paid are the coalitions `enemy within`.

It is 1984 all over again. Mr Smith MP is preparing for a wave of industrial action that will be a likely response to his government’s programme of cuts and redundancies.  As John Cruddas MP has explained we are only 10% into the projected expenditure cuts and while many are feeling the pain a hard rain is about to fall.

The announcement from the DWP concerns workers earning less than £13,000 a year. The `enemy within` in 1984 the National Union of Miners was a worthy adversary although eventually vanquished in a yearlong battle. The government in 1984-85 arranged the resources of the state to defeat them but at least it was bordering on a fair fight. The battle ahead is a case of David v Goliath, as the recent report into poverty commissioned by the Guardian (18 June Amelia Hill) indicates:  

 7 million working-age adults are living in extreme financial stress, one small push from penury, despite being in employment and largely independent of state support.

The pinpointing of those on low incomes by the DWP indicates the areas of the economy the actual cuts are likely to come and the profile of the workers due to suffer. Of course we are all in this together but some of us are perhaps more in it than others.  

Nicholas Watt writing on this subject in the Guardian argues that Ministers consider the paying of tax credits to those who strike as:

Unfair and outdated because it is based on a system first introduced as part of the National Assistance Act in 1948.

Beveridge`s concept of the `social citizen` is imbedded in the post war welfare reforms and actually sprang from his own report. The concept of the `social citizen` is unlikely to appeal to any Lib/Dems sitting around the cabinet table.  As `Orange Book` Liberals make common cause with a Conservative Party that has changed little despite the cuddly rebranding by the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron MP.

Lest we forget Labour also did a good job of undermining the notion of the `social citizen`, the low paid in Britain are no more protected after Labours years in power, an easy scapegoat for those pursuing an austerity agenda. While working tax credits were introduced by the Labour administration the employment legislation, a hallmark of the 1980s, is in place making the job of defending workers a difficult one.

Perhaps this will be Mr Blair`s most abiding legacy. His advice to Greek voters to accept austerity was painful to hear. The head of the IMF’s recent chastisement of Greece as a nation of tax avoiders was undermined by the fact that her own massive salary is officially exempted from tax, this is of course no fault of hers, she does not set her terms and conditions.  But it all sheds more heat than light on the situation.

Jonathan Freedland`s observation that the raison d’être of European government is now denying rather than providing assistance has credence. This pessimistic analysis suggest  difficult times ahead for social democracy but the overview is not consistent with political developments in France, where the new government is pushing “Europe toward growth”. One wonders what the results of an unfettered Greek election would have been if Greek sovereignty had been as honoured in the observance as French sovereignty was over the last five weeks.

However, back in the UK we see a sovereign government without a mandate in the process of introducing a massive programme of cuts without precedent in modern times. There is a democratic deficit as well as a financial one at the heart of the UK government and it needs to be addressed as it is seriously undermining social democracy.

How is the UK economy to grow when gripped by an austerity agenda?  As Irish Economist David McWilliams said some time ago, growth through austerity is akin to putting a severe anorexic on a diet with the hope they will put on weight. It will not happen and is a counsel of despair all the more insidious when aimed at a section of British society, the poor who are without the means to articulate their grievance.

The cuts are undermining important rights of citizenship that underpin the rule of law. This is evidenced by the cuts to the Legal Aid Scheme set up in 1949 (a projected cut of £350 million from a budget of £2 billion).

Legal Aid was initially designed to cover claimants undergoing civil disputes (covering 80% of UK citizens). In 1964 it was permitted in criminal cases. Such legal provision was an extension of the post war welfare state whose demolition began in 1979 and is about to be completed by a coalition that has been hobbled together without a mandate.

As Michael Mansfield QC writing in the Guardian last month points out, the implementation of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act spells virtually the end for legal aid:

From now on, there is an extensive and formidable list of exclusions from legal aid:, importantly for clinical negligence, personal injury, welfare/benefits claims and criminal injury compensation. The act empowers the Lord Chancellor to remove more categories and allows a newly appointed civil servant, the director of legal aid and casework, to apply a merit and means test to cases.

This is a worrying development, because the legal system in the UK (including Scotland) is based on the adversarial principle, Europe adopts an inquisitorial approach. Legal representation is a vital component and denying it is comparable to denying justice, a point made by Mr Mansfield QC:

Criminal legal aid has already been severely hit by the threshold of contribution expected from a defendant. Amounts of £6,000-£8,000 are not uncommon, and there are instances of individuals considering pleading guilty simply because it’s cheaper. This is particularly disturbing in the wake of the case of Sam Hallam whose murder conviction was quashed last week after he had spent eight years in prison.

The coalition government has attempted to overturn the surveillance state associated with the Labour years and have cleverly linked themselves to the civil liberties agenda. The Freedom Bill is good example of this. However, such measures mean nothing if the right to legal representation is denied to the poor of this country.

Further the idea that a government in an advanced society is readying itself for a fight with the poorest workers while simultaneously undermining legal aid suggests they are bristling for a fight while intent on fixing the encounter.  As Amelia Hill reports in the Guardian on the 18June the cuts in legal aid and welfare are linked, summed up by Frank Field MP:

Recent welfare cuts and policy changes make it difficult to advise these people where they should turn to get out of it: it really is genuinely shocking.

As the Bard of Times Square once sang, “everybody knows the fight was fixed the poor stay poor the rich stay rich, everybody knows that`s the way it goes”.


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