If you had told me in 2003 that one day Iain Duncan Smith would be a political figure to be nervous of I would have laughed at you.
It's funny the memories that stick with you for no apparent reason. I vividly remember coming out of Farringdon tube station and seeing the headlines about the Tory conference: "The Quiet Man is turning up the volume" says IDS.
We couldn't even be bothered to write out his entire name.
On Have I Got News For You Paul Merton feigned confusion over the dull brothers Iain and Duncan Smith. ‘If it isn’t over for the Tories, it is for IDS’ I thought.
What can I say? I was a teenage art student and we hadn’t yet witnessed the incredible rise of Boris Johnson from bumbling idiot of panel games to bumbling idiot of London. I was unfamiliar with the concept of complete political career turn-around.
Recession wasn’t part of my vocabulary and double dip only applied to bad hummus etiquette. Now I know better.
And now Iain Duncan Smith is the Work and Pensions Secretary in the coalition government, not the quiet leader of the opposition. Why is this so unnerving?
This year IDS and his department will be rolling out Universal Credit and a cap on in-work and out-of-work benefits.
Benefits are not going to reflect inflation. Benefits that will be affected or potentially stopped altogether are: Income Support, Income-based Job Seekers Allowance, Income-related Employment Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Disability Living Allowance.
The Department of Work and Pensions say “Universal credit brings together a vast array of in- and out-of-work benefits, and is due to be spread across the UK by 2017. Currently, workers who claim tax credits or housing benefit have no expectations placed upon them to help them reduce their reliance on welfare. Under universal credit, working claimants who could reasonably be expected to increase their earnings will be expected to take action to do so.”
Currently 13 million people in the UK live below the poverty line. According to The Trussell Trust in 2011-12 food banks fed 128, 687 people. This year they expect this number to rise beyond 230, 000, as more people are hit by cuts and benefit changes.
The Fawcett Society has been campaigning against the austerity measures the Government are enforcing, because more women rely on benefits than men: “on average, one-fifth of women’s income is made up of welfare payments and tax credits compared to one-tenth for men. Put another way, benefits make up twice as much of women’s income as men’s.”
The government's assumption seems to be that all these women need is the threat of further poverty to motivate them into finding a new source of income. Considering 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence and on average 2 women a week are killed by a current or former partner, there's a strong chance that a large proportion of the women in question will be highly vulnerable.
I spoke to Ruth at Brighton Women’s Centre, which provides advice and support for women in the city. They are already seeing the ramifications of these changes to benefits and austerity measures: “We've… seen a rise in people requiring benefits advice or financial advice services. We've had a dramatic increase in women attending the drop in service, especially on a Tuesday when we give out Fareshare food parcels. A significant amount of our women are on benefits and are deeply concerned about budgeting with the new monthly payments.”
For vulnerable women with little control over their finances it is easy to see how any changes could isolate them further, as Ruth notes: “For some [women], their child benefit is the only money they have control over and can represent a lifeline in domestic violence situations or where the partner has his or her own issues such as substance abuse.”
If 54.4% of women are to do without legal aid under new criteria, and survive the 31% cut to VAW services then they need to have benefits they can live on. Without the assistance of the Brighton branch of Christians Against Poverty (CAP), a debt counselling charity, one woman would not have been able to leave her abusive girlfriend, simply because she could not afford to. To leave her partner would be to voluntarily make herself homeless.
CAP hopes to have debt centres across the country, the Trussell Trust envisage a food bank in every town. I envisage a country where the vulnerable do not have to seek out such charity in order to feel safe because the Government believed they need ‘motivation’.
By the way, while in the name of austerity some peck away at the crumbs of a 71p increase in Job Seekers Allowance, getting finicky about who in our street has their curtains open in the morning and repeating the hard-hitting rhyme of strivers and skivers, those with an income of over £150,000 got a tax cut. You’ve got until 2015 to think about that.
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