Last week, eagle-eyed welfare warriors spotted ‘2030 Vision’ by the Fabian Future Spending Choices Commission, an independent analysis of where spending priorities – and indeed cuts – should fall until 2030.
A lot of the report is good. I agree with the emphasis on early intervention, prevention and efficiency savings. But in a sense, they are political memes as ethereal as the more left-leaning ideas of clamping down on tax avoidance, scrapping trident and taxing the rich.
For instance, just how much more “efficient” can an NHS already facing £20bn of “efficiency savings” really get? Prevention is absolutely a better option than reactionary ‘cures’ but as we’ve seen with mental health treatment and early intervention, the up-front costs are rarely budgeted for.
It is encouraging that ‘2030 Vision’ states:
“In the long term, freezing spending as a share of national income will only be achieved by reducing the generosity of entitlements or abandoning universal provision in pensions and public services, which we do not think is desirable. In the next parliament ministers may need to consider reducing social security entitlements further but the acceptable room for manoeuvre is limited, as we do not support measures that will reduce living standards for low income households nor make deep inroads into universal provision.”
Also encouraging is that the report recommends a 1 per cent increase in overall spending. However, as it makes clear, even an increase in spending will still lead to cuts as upward pressures on the NHS and pensions will swallow the bulk of any increase.
But the part that seemed totally without thought, logic or imagination was the section on social security spending. In fact, it lacked compassion in a manner almost identical to that of the present government.
The report made no reference to the great social damage unfolding in Britain today because of this government’s welfare reforms. We simply cannot look at welfare cuts without accepting the enormous pressure they place on other services, such as the NHS and social care.
This government have just confirmed the cavalier slashing of the mobility threshold for disability benefits (DLA/PIP) from 50 metres to 20 metres following a last-minute consultation (won partly by the threat of legal action).
As a result, over half a million people will become housebound and no longer able to travel independently. And as funding shortages and the increased demand from an ageing population prevent social care services meeting “moderate” care needs, disabled people’s needs will rise to “substantial” or “critical”, putting more strain on local authorities and health services.
Disability cannot be airbrushed away. Barriers created by people’s impairments and by an unequal and inaccessible society still exist. The cost does not disappear, it simply shifts, from benefits to social care and from social care to health.
Reversing the cuts in this area must be factored into future spending choices or the results will simply be disastrous, costing so much more than they will ever save. How did the commission not know this?
The Labour Party have already pledged to scrap the Bedroom Tax, but the one year time limit on sickness benefits for those who may have paid into the system all of their lives must also be reversed, or at least follow Labour policy of a minimum of 2 years. 94 per cent of people who become too ill to work drop their claims within two years, so this would avoid suffering and injustice.
And as an absolute minimum, any future Labour government must pledge to again pay ESA for those awaiting mandatory reconsideration. This cost is not great, but leaving people without support for an indefinite period should shame a wealthy nation. These changes will cost around £4bn, but if not undertaken will only cost more from other departmental budgets.
However, the Fabians report suggests:
“We are not making specific recommendations but have identified around £5bn of cuts which we think could be contemplated if a reduction in social security entitlements does become necessary. These include means-testing winter fuel payments and free TV licences; extending recent disability benefit reforms to older people; and treating certain disability benefits as taxable income.”
I would like to specifically ask the commission how many sick or disabled people they spoke to and from what organisations? Evidence was submitted across 8 separate hearings, given by two or three experts in each field. Not one was a disability expert.
Firstly, let’s look at the practical considerations. Not only do those suggestions assume that another £5bn can come almost exclusively from sick and disabled people already facing devastating cuts of £28bn over this parliament, but they also fall almost entirely on pensioners. Even the coalition has not dared to roll any of their reforms out to pensioners. Can you begin to imagine the fallout?
What’s more, it suggests extending a reform (PIP) that is already certain to fail. The commission should have known that the assessments for PIP are catastrophic.
But economically, almost all of the coalition welfare reforms cost more than they save. The room for total redistribution of the spend on services and support is vast. It’s hard to say how much money Iain Duncan Smith is wasting or has already wasted on the disastrous universal credit, the failing work programme and soaring tribunal costs for incorrect Atos decisions, but £5bn is a conservative estimate.
We must start to be brave and innovative. We must take this money away from corporate “providers” failing in their duties and put it directly into the hands of individuals to control and direct their own work support, rehabilitation, treatment and social care.
If these changes are not made, we will pay just the same – probably more – but we will pay over and over in endless crises and failure.