London, United Kingdom – Britain’s government is facing mounting criticism as it rolls out controversial elements of a radical overhaul of the country’s welfare system, including a so-called “spare bedroom tax”.
The right-wing Conservative-led coalition says the new measures, some of which came into effect this week, will simplify the existing system, provide greater incentives for those living on unemployment benefits to find jobs and leave most working families better off.
George Osborne, the British finance minister, also argues they are necessary to reduce an annual welfare bill of more than £200bn ($300bn) as part of wider efforts to tackle the UK’s budget deficit.
But critics, including the opposition Labour Party, trade unions, charities and church leaders, say the changes strike hardest at the poorest and most vulnerable even as the government has reduced the top rate of income tax, putting thousands of pounds into the pockets of the country’s top earners.
Even Frank Field, the government’s own poverty adviser, has spoken out against the imposition of benefit cuts for those living in public housing with a spare bedroom, calling it “social and physical engineering on a scale that Stalin would have been proud of”.
Opponents of the policy say it will cost more than 600,000 tenants an average of £728 ($1,100) and that two-thirds of those affected are disabled.
Public dissent over the measures also appears to be growing.
Challenged by a market trader on a BBC radio programme over whether he could survive on the £53 ($80), which the trader said was his weekly living allowance, Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions minister responsible for many aspects of the new system, replied: “If I had to, I would.”
By Thursday more than 400,000 people had signed an online petition calling on Duncan Smith to live on the weekly amount for one year to prove it was possible.
But those living at the sharp end say worries over reductions to their benefits payments are the last thing they need as they face a day-to-day struggle to survive.
At a job centre in the east London borough of Hackney, every phone and computer terminal is occupied by those going through the motions of seeking work. But with London-wide levels of youth unemployment running at 25 percent, there are few vacancies to be found.
|Justin Steven, a trained electrician, has been claiming benefits for 6 months [Simon Hooper/Al Jazeera]|
Already jobless and claiming benefits for six months, 24-year-old Justin Steven, a trained electrician, said he feared for what the future might hold.
“If I don’t find a job I don’t know what’s going to happen. At the end of the day, everyone’s got bills to pay, they need clothes to wear, they need food to eat, and without money it’s impossible,” Steven told Al Jazeera.
In a speech on Tuesday, Osborne, defended the welfare shakeup, saying it would reward those who “get up in the morning and work hard”, rather than relying on benefits.
“The benefit system is broken; it penalises those who try to do the right thing; and the British people badly want it fixed. We agree, and those who don’t are on the wrong side of the British public,” said Osborne.
But Catherine McDonald, a Labour councillor in the London borough of Southwark, said the welfare changes would only cause further misery for those worst affected by previous austerity measures and by the UK’s faltering economy.
“People are struggling already and what the government is doing will only make it worse,” McDonald told Al Jazeera.
Southwark has already seen its own funding cut by £90 million ($136m) in three years, the equivalent of £250 ($378) per resident. Nonetheless, the Labour-run council had introduced a scheme to serve free school meals in a borough where almost a quarter of children live in poverty, McDonald said.
“We are trying to offset some of the terrible effects of what the government is doing. They seem to want to undermine our very notion of the welfare state which, for me, is a sign of a civilised society.”
Martin O’Neill, a political philosopher at the University of York, agreed that the motivation for welfare cuts appeared to be ideological, rather than a reflection of the country’s economic fortunes.
He said that the reduction from 50 per cent to 45 per cent of the top rate of income tax for those earning more than £150,000 ($227,000) meant that the country’s richest people were being handed back tens of thousands of pounds even as the state was withdrawing a helping hand for those most in need.
“It is hard to resist the conclusion that these cuts are not a reluctant response to tight government budgets but an ideologically motivated campaign to shrink the state,” O’Neill told Al Jazeera.
But some at the job centre in Hackney told Al Jazeera they backed the government’s efforts.
“[The government] doesn’t care about what’s happening. They’re going around the world, talking about human rights and criticising other countries, but they are killing people right here through starvation and poverty.”
– Nora, unemployed Hackney resident
“I think it is a good thing what they are doing. You’ve got to try something radical, rather than pussyfooting around all the time,” said Daniel Edney, a 25-year-old who recently quit studying with plans to start a business selling doughnuts.
“A lot of people will get their benefits and will go and buy weed – I used to do it. In the end you just end up in this trap where you’re not doing anything with your life.”
But Edney was challenged by Hamza Omar, a 20-year-old economics student. He said raising salaries and reducing taxes on low wages were better ways to encourage those seeking work.
“Something needs to happen. But when the government lowers benefits no one says ‘I’m earning 10 pounds a week less now, I’ll go and find a job’. They aint going to change up. They just carry on but they’re even more deprived,” he said.
Nora, a 50-year-old woman who asked that her full name not be used, told Al Jazeera she was the sole carer for her 25-year-old son who suffered from severe epilepsy.
She said she had regularly had her unemployment benefit suspended because she had not been able to apply for jobs or attend interviews. Her income had been further reduced by changes that meant she would now also have to make a contribution to her council tax bill, a locally collected tax to pay for public services.
“I haven’t got food to eat,” she said. “[The government] doesn’t care about what’s happening. They’re going around the world, talking about human rights and criticising other countries, but they are killing people right here through starvation and poverty.”
Hackney was the scene of rioting and looting during several days of social unrest in London and other English cities in August 2011.
Though sparked by the fatal shooting of a black man, Mark Duggan, by police, some linked the subsequent violence to a sense of alienation, frustration and lack of opportunities felt by many young people in deprived neighbourhoods of the capital.
Nora said she could feel the same anger building once again.
“If people are starving and desperate anything could happen. I wish I was 20 years younger. I would have been rioting too. I’m not a thief – all those things in the shops, I’m not interested in them. I just want to live a half decent life.”
Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper