Building fences at the top of the cliff, rather than providing ambulances at the bottom was the rationale for the work that was led by the Legal Services Commission to provide better access to quality assured advice and assistance under the banner of the Community Legal Service (subsequently totally dismantled by Brown’s Labour government and the ConDem Coalition). The theory (espoused most eloquently by Prof Richard Susskind at the time) was that it was better (and cheaper) to prevent people from injuring themselves by falling off the cliff in the first place, than it was to provide a world-class ambulance service to pick them up from the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. It’s a philosophy which still seems to be fundamentally sound
It is, however, an approach that appears to have been completely ignored in the welfare reforms that are being driven through by the Coalition. Reforms to housing benefit will drive people out of their homes and communities and into smaller units (if they’re available – and they won’t be available in sufficient numbers everywhere, as the Welsh Select Committee has reported today : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-24556552) or into temporary shelter or onto the streets otherwise. Removing housing benefit on a sliding scale from people who find themselves in a house that is marginally too big for them seems like a perfect example of fence destruction
Equally, pressure on Job Centres and the Department of Work and Pensions to reduce the number of people in receipt of benefits is leading to a significant increase in families who suddenly find themselves without any money at all due to some technical breach of the claimant rules. Examples include those who are unable to sign-on on their designated day because they are attending a job interview, then being refused their job seeker’s allowance. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the number of individuals and families dependent on food banks has increased threefold in the past 12 months. The government suggestion that this is because there are more food banks now than there were is so ridiculous as to be almost laughable. As was pointed out by a Twitter commentator, it’s like blaming the growth in Red Cross services around the world for an increase in earthquakes!
The problems that are now starting to become more and more apparent in terms of the impact of the welfare reform programme are compounded by the fact that a small number of private sector organisations are doing very nicely thank you from the privatisation of the services that are meant to be supporting the most vulnerable people. Atos generates a handsome return for shareholders by running disability assessment centres that are difficult to find, hard to access and which reach decisions that are often flawed in fact or based on very partial interpretations of medical information (see Private Eye editions for pretty much the whole of the past year for specific examples). The government response to the increase in the number of successful appeals against Atos assessments is to make it more difficult to appeal – remove the fence and then remove the wheels from the ambulances!
Frustratingly, it seems that neither the Lib Dems nor the Labour party feel able to offer any meaningful alternative to the current, dysfunctional, destabilising and inherently unfair reforms. Almost unbelievably, the Milburn Report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24553611) published today suggests that one way of creating space to support those struggling to cope on low wages is to remove universal benefits from pensioners. Leaving aside the fact that the amount paid out in the few remaining universal benefits amount to less than 2% of the total budget for pensioner benefits, it is almost impossible to conceive of a Labour politician in opposition proposing the abolition of ANY universal benefit. It seems that more than ever before, there is no point in voting in the next general election – whoever wins, the government still gets in!