Private Members’ Bills

31/01/2013

Private Members’ Bills can be great tools in the right hands. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act came into being this way, as did the Acts abolishing the death penalty and legalising abortion.

Some of them, however, are put in the hands of less progressive individuals. Take Alec Shelbrooke’s attempt to pay social security benefits by cash card so that the government can ban the sale of alcohol, cigarettes, gambling and other such vices to benefit claimants.

The Welfare Cash Card Bill was introduced by 10 minute rule in December 2012. It was due for second reading last Friday, but was so far down the order that it was never debated. It probably never will be. It hasn’t even been printed yet.

You can read Mr Shelbrooke’s speech in Hansard, or you can watch it on Parliament’s website.

Aside from the laughable amount of ignorance shown by the MP about the lives of poor people, the issue was taken seriously across many of the news outlets. Like any good polemic Private Member’s Bill, it got people talking and raised awareness of a particular issue. It’s one that is dear to the hearts of many British people, and has been throughout history. In return for the “gift” of social security, should the donor expect a certain level of behaviour from the recipient?

Shelbrooke mentions Beveridge in his speech. If he had studied his history more closely, he would realise that one of the biggest issues the pre-1948 welfare state faced was “stigma”. Not the stigma he insultingly brushes off of “being seen in a Jobcentre”, but the stigma of having to go cap-in-hand to the Poor Law Guardians and state the case for why you deserved to receive the money so that your family could eat.

Welfare payments are a right as citizens of the United Kingdom. Some are the result of National Insurance contributions, which are as “something for nothing” as the free money companies throw at insured people whose homes have been robbed. Others are targeted at particular groups who need the money – parents, disabled people, older people in poverty.

It may gall some to see people on social security paying for luxury items while “thrifty” workers cut back on essentials in a time of austerity. Yet there is a much more equitable solution if the genuine concern of the right-wing is “welfare dependency” and the injustice of unemployed people getting more money than the employed.

Pay workers more money.

For the past 500 years, the British government has sought to make “welfare” less appealing than work by cutting the rate of payments to the bone. This idea of “less eligibility” meant that it was always supposed to be more gruelling in the workhouse than providing for oneself. These Victorian ideals were rejected in 1948 when the horrors of the inter-war depression showed everyone the inhumanity of such an attitude.

Yet there’s only so far you can cut benefits before they cease to do what they were supposed to do – i.e., provide people with a dignified standard of living. If, given how low benefit rates are, wages are STILL lower than benefits, then something is wrong with the wages, not the people claiming support.

Ultimately, this bill will go nowhere. It’s political suicide for any Tory minister who backs it, and I doubt Mr Shelbrooke’s career will ever progress beyond the back benches. Still, it’s more fodder for the centre-right who will take the more reasonable, paternalist elements of the Bill (“oh, we’re just trying to protect claimants from themselves”) while ignoring the wider picture.

If welfare claimants want to spend their money on legal luxuries, we have no right to stop them. It’s their money, not ours. If we really think that working people are having a hard time compared to benefit claimants, it’s time to start treating workers better; not benefit claimants worse.

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