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PCS Call For Radical Reform of Social Security

Our social security system requires radical transformation. For over forty years there has been a concerted attempt by governments of all colours to attack the welfare state, the principles that underpin it and those who rely on it. We need a Labour government that is willing to restore it into one we can be once again proud of.

The social security system was founded upon the principle that it should be there for us all, regardless of circumstance or ability to pay. It was a system that would provide everyone with dignity, whether in work, retirement, unemployment, disability and illness, from the cradle to the grave. Those same principles are virtually non-existent today and have been replaced with ones more sinister, callous and destructive. 

From the days of Thatcher to the present, a war has been waged on the welfare state. Thatcher’s government set about changing the debate and warping people’s attitudes on welfare and the state’s ability to provide it. Chancellor Geoffrey Howe even went so far as to say that “the provision of the welfare state was corrupting not only of the national finances but of society itself”. What Thatcher’s government set in motion was a relentless campaign of division and demonisation of the social security system and the millions of people that it supports. 

Sadly, this campaign of destruction wasn’t an ambition limited solely to the Conservative party. It is to New Labour’s eternal shame that they so willingly capitulated to right-wing rhetoric on welfare. Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell was one of the first proponents of what we now know as the sanctions regime.

With the two main parties willing to target the social security system and with the coalition government, from 2010, successfully establishing the austerity agenda, the language on social security deteriorated rapidly, as did the amount of funding available. Since 2010 alone, £34 billion has been slashed and a further £22 billion more is expected by 2022. 

The effects of these cuts have been devastating: 14 million people are in poverty – including 4 million children and over 1 million foodbank parcels were handed out in 2017. We are now even seeing a return of rickets in our nation’s schools - an illness more akin to poverty-ridden Victorian Britain. Shamefully, disabled people have faced cuts up to 9 times more on average than non-disabled people and this figure is 19 times higher for those with higher support needs.

The backdrop to the rapid escalation in the dismantling of the welfare state in recent years has been the characterisation of claimants as lazy, feckless scroungers. You only have to take a glance at tabloid headlines in recent years to get a flavour of the disproportionate coverage given to benefit fraud, despite a far greater amount going unclaimed than claimed fraudulently. It should come as no surprise that we don’t see similar front-page splashes on the £120 billion that is lost through tax avoidance and evasion each year. 

Universal Credit (UC) encapsulates the massive shift towards individual responsibility in the social security system. The combination of the in-built five week delay, the pooling of previously separate payments into one lump-sum and the benefit freeze have been catastrophic. In areas where UC has been rolled out, foodbank use, rent arrears and evictions have soared. Universal credit has heaped misery upon misery on to millions of people and as a union, we are calling on it to be scrapped alongside a radical programme of reform.

The social security system pledges put forward in Labour’s 2017 election were welcome but the election result should give them confidence and we are calling on them to be bold and go further. In particular, Labour has to restore the principle of universality, rethink the way in which social security is funded and start to reframe the debate about claimants’ rights. 

In Parliament, in January we launched our new pamphlet “Social Security: the case for radical change”, alongside John McDonnell, PCS members and campaigners. As the union at the sharp end of social security delivery, we believe that now is time for radical reform. We hope that the launch of our new pamphlet and our continued campaigning can kick-start a much needed conversation on the need for brave and bold action.

By Mark Serwotka, PCS General Secretary