The single mother of all battles

5 Dec 08
MELISSA BENN | This week’s announcements of stringent welfare measures have just a whiff of Groundhog Day about them. Those ministers with longer political memories, including the prime minister and his deputy, Harriet Harman, are surely alive to the dangers.

This week’s announcements of stringent welfare measures have just a whiff of Groundhog Day about them. Those ministers with longer political memories, including the prime minister and his deputy, Harriet Harman, are surely alive to the dangers.

In late 1997, the still green New Labour government cut single parent benefit, in line with pre-set Tory spending limits. Harman was forced to defend the measure in terms of a quasi-progressive agenda of getting women out to work, and lost her job for her pains.

A newly tough approach to single parents is only one element of the welfare reform measures announced this week, part of a skilfully presented programme of Fairness for All, apparently taking in both bankers and benefit recipients.

Some of the welfare measures were already laid out in a green paper published last summer, No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility. These included tougher tests to qualify for benefits, a larger role for private providers and moves to encourage single parents to work. New rules in force from late November require those with children of 12 or over to seek advice concerning job opportunities.

Perhaps mindful of the 1997 debacle, a powerful coalition of anti-poverty and carers’ organisations, trades union leaders and influential social policy academics have lobbied against the proposals. In an open letter to the Observer, published last week, they argued: ‘Many of the plans were unacceptable when they were first published and the worsening economic situation should lead to a fundamental rethink. Parents with young children, carers, the sick, the disabled, people with mental health problems and other vulnerable groups face tougher tests to qualify for benefits. If they fail they could be cut off with no support.’

Others have objected to the idea that those seeking work should be paid the Jobseekers Allowance, currently less than £10 a day.

The government has shown no sign of compromise. In fact, in the days leading up to the Queen’s Speech, the press and public were drip-fed details of ever bolder proposals. Single parents of children aged one or over will now have to make themselves work-ready, or face possible sanctions. Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell endorsed a report by an academic at Bristol University arguing that unemployed people should do a nine-to-five day looking for work.

And on the morning of the Queen’s Speech, the government announced that it would introduce lie detector tests, officially known as ‘voice risk analysis technology’. Those found guilty of cheating could lose benefits for a month. The press was suddenly full of speculation about Brown’s return to Blair’s Respect agenda, apparently ditched following Cameron playing up his ‘broken society’ idea.

In fact, New Labour themes remain fairly consistent. Cost remains a big concern, as Brown made explicit in his introduction to the July green paper on welfare reform. ‘In a globalised world, we simply cannot afford the high price of large numbers of people on benefits.’

There remains, albeit in diluted form, the deep fear of appearing to be soft on poor people at the expense of the all important ‘hard-working families’ of middle England who must on no account be asked to subsidise benefit recipients.

Add to this a strong current within Labourite feminism, most publicly represented by Harman herself, a long-time mainstream feminist crusader, that believes work is good for mothers: it increases both their self-esteem and standard of living.

This argument hit problems back in 1997 and is likely to do so again. Government support for single parents in their voluntary return to meaningful employment is highly laudable. Compulsion and benefit sanctions are not. And, as the Observer letter pointed out, with dramatically rising levels of unemployment, this is probably the worst time in years for under qualified and low-skilled people to be forced into the labour market.

What gets lost in the cut and thrust of daily politics are alternative ways of addressing welfare, such as increased benefits, high-quality childcare and greater public recognition of the role that carers and parents play in the quality of civic life.

Higher benefit levels aside, few Labour politicians would, in private, dispute the power of these arguments; they genuinely recognise the load on single parents and the contribution they make to social stability. But once taxpayers’ money and dispatch box in-fighting enters the picture, a much harsher tone inevitably creeps in to the debate.

Tougher talk plays well across the floor of the House or in overheated television studios, but it might be harmful in the long term as New Labour learned to its cost back in December 1997. From that emerged one clear message: governments, especially Labour governments, penalise poor and vulnerable people at their peril.

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