Recently I wrote an article about the new benefit cap which parodied Conservative ideology, traditional class prejudices and subsequent justification narratives for their welfare “reforms”, likening the latter to nineteenth century character divination – phrenology in particular. Sometimes, it’s easier to highlight the ridiculous by simply ridiculing it.
A lot of my work is themed around serious and rational critique of Conservative shortcomings when it comes to the whole process of policy-making and research, from the “theories” that inform the process, to the ideologically-driven impacts and narrow neoliberal aims and outcomes, which have led to some catastrophic social consequences. This is because austerity has been aimed exclusively at those citizens who had the very least to start off with. Sick and disabled people have been systematically and disproportionately targeted for cuts to their support.
I’ve written previously about the government’s increasing use of secondary legislation to push through controversial and highly partisan policies without an adequate degree of parliamentary scrutiny and debate. The public are entirely excluded from this process. This is one way that the Conservatives have been getting away with highly prejudiced, ideologically-driven policies that have not been analysed in terms of safeguarding citizens, impact, compatibility with our international human rights obligations and are neither adequately justified nor evidenced.
The Strathclyde review and Conservative authoritarianism
Secondary legislation is unamendable and is allocated 90 minutes debate in the Commons at best, by the Conservatives. Secondary legislation in the form of Statutory Instruments was only ever intended for non-controversial and small tidying up legislative measures. A Tory aide admitted that the government are trying to get as much unpopular legislation in through the secondary route as possible. But this has been very evident anyway. The government is intent on dismantling any inconvenient piece of the constitution.
In a democracy there is always a responsibility and need to ensure additional checks and balances against incumbent governments and for extending opportunities to review and improve the quality of legislation. There is always a need to broaden the political participation and democratic inclusion of particular groups in society; to explore ways by which under-represented groups may be identified and included in political decision-making processes.
Statutory Instruments are the principal form in which delegated legislation is made, and are intended to be used for simple, non-controversial measures, in contrast to more complex items of primary legislation (known as Bills.) The opposition has frequently complained that the government uses Statutory Instruments to pass complex and controversial legislation which should have been subject to full Parliamentary scrutiny. Universal credit, the legal aid and tax credit cuts are clear examples of the misuse of secondary legislation, each with far-reaching and detrimental socioeconomic consequences for many people.
The steep rise in the use of Statutory Instruments since 2010 is an indication of how the Conservatives are politically managing pre-legislative scrutiny, stifling healthy debate, curtailing opposition, and side-stepping essential democratic transparency and accountability. It’s also an indication that much Conservative legislation is ideologically-driven rather than needs-driven: the use of secondary legislation as a means of avoiding scrutiny demonstrates that the government are aware that much of their planned programme won’t stand up to close Parliamentary examination and rational debate.
Lord Strathclyde was asked in October last year by David Cameron to undertake a “rapid review” that considered how to secure the decisive role of the House of Commons in relation to its primacy on financial matters and secondary legislation. Of course, Strathclyde’s report was published by the Government on the 17 December, 2015, which marked the final sitting of Parliament before Christmas. Nonetheless the media did actually cover the contents of the report and some of the implications of the recommendations made.
Strathclyde concluded in his report that the House of Lords should be permitted to ask the Commons to “think again” when a disagreement on proposed legislation exists, but should not be allowed to veto. MPs would ultimately make a decision on whether a measure is passed into law. The review focuses in particular on the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, in relation to the former’s primacy on financial matters and secondary legislation.
The key problem is that Statutory Instruments (SI) are being over-used and are under-scrutinised in the Commons. SIs have become a major form of law-making activity in the UK. In 2015, the UK Parliament passed 34 Acts, whilst 1,999 Statutory Instruments were made. (In fact, 2015 has been a relatively light year for SIs: in 2013 and 2014, 3,292 and 3,486 SIs were made.)
The government ensure they have a majority on any SI committee and MPs are chosen by Whips. The Hansard Society estimate that SIs currently account for as much as 80 per cent of the Government legislation that impacts citizens. However, they are given substantially less Parliamentary time than Bills, enabling government to push through their ideologically designed legislative programme with very little scrutiny, exacerbating a lack of democratic transparency and accountability of the Executive (the government).
Further presented justification for grotesquely unfair policies from the Conservatives is based on a claim that “we have a clear mandate to do this.” The concept of a government having a legitimate mandate to govern via the fair winning of a democratic election is a central component of representative democracy. However, new governments who attempt to introduce policies that they did not make explicit and public during an election campaign are said to not have a legitimate mandate to implement such policies.
In order to keep his promises on further future tax cuts for higher earners, George Osborne made even more cuts to public services, public sector pay and the social security safety net that are so deep they will severely damage both the economy and potentially, the fabric of our society. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) have criticised Osborne’s proposed tax credit cuts, because it is “at odds” with wider Conservative stated aims to “support hardworking families”.
Research conducted by the IFS calculated that only around quarter of money take from families through tax credit cuts would be returned by the new National “Living Wage”.Tax credits are payments made by the government to people on lower incomes, most of whom are in work.
Cameron effectively ruled out cutting the benefit before the election, telling a voter’s Question Time that he “rejected” proposals to cut tax credits and did not want to do so. The cuts are part of £12bn cuts to the social security budget that the government is to make – the details of which the Conservatives refused to announce before the election.
However, in an unprecedented move, the Conservatives have threatened a constitutional “showdown”, and have refused to engage in dialogue with peers that want kill off the proposed Tory cuts. The government warned the House of Lords it would trigger a full-scale constitutional crisis by pressing ahead with their plans.
The review by Lord Strathclyde, commissioned by a rancorous and retaliatory Cameron followed the delay and subsequently effective defeat of government tax credit legislation in the House of Lords, and it has, of course, recommended curtailing the powers of Upper House.
Strathclyde proposed that the House of Commons is given the final say over secondary legislation (in particular, Statutory Instruments), which are, as previously stated, frequently being used for political manoeuvring to edit the details of Acts, and ensure rules, regulations and even changes to legal definitions are made by ministerial order, rather than by the rather more open and democratic process of primary legislation: it’s being used as a way of bypassing Parliamentary scrutiny.
The view from the Social Security Advisory Committee
More recently, the Chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has also concluded that “pressure from the Treasury” resulted in welfare changes being pushed through parliament “without meaningful analysis of impact or interactions with other parts of the benefit system.” He also raises the same issues that I previously have regarding the government’s increased use of secondary legislation.
In a very damning report on how the government develops welfare policies, SSAC Chair Paul Gray says top-down pressure from the former chancellor, Osborne, to meet Budget deadlines meant legislation was being rushed without proper analysis or scrutiny.
In a foreword to the report, Gray writes: “On the basis that primary legislation was to be debated in some detail in Parliament, the Government was not required to bring the majority of these provisions to SSAC.
Consequently, the amount of secondary legislation presented to us in the first few months of the reporting year was lighter than usual.
By contrast from September onwards a number of sets of regulations were presented to us for scrutiny – most with their origins in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget proposals for reducing benefit expenditure.”
He goes on to say: “The Committee has observed that legislation required to deliver policies announced by the Chancellor during his Budget or autumn statements is often developed at pace to meet challenging deadlines set by HM Treasury.
This has regularly resulted in secondary legislation being presented to us without meaningful analysis of impact or interactions with other parts of the benefit system.
The absence of evidence underpinning some of the Government’s policy choices has been a significant concern to us over the past year, and we hope that the Government will adjust this aspect of its approach to policy-making in the coming year.”
He added: “The committee has noted in the past the absence of analytical material on the cumulative impact of welfare reforms.”
Gray also draws attention in particular to tax credit changes proposed in the summer budget highlighting “the lack of available evidence to support the policy changes being presented to us”.
Gray concludes: “There can be no question that this committee is hampered in its role of scrutinising proposed changes in cases where the supporting explanatory material and evidence is scant.”
It’s a point I have made myself many many times. However, unlike the government, I do tend to include evidence and analysis in my ongoing critique of Conservative policies.
The ideological drive to dismantle the welfare state
Despite the relentless Conservative attacks on social security since 2010, (which is funded by the citizens that it supports when they experience hardships), Theresa May will not rule out delivering yet more brutal welfare cuts if the economy suffers a downturn because of Britain exiting the EU. The prime minister refused to offer any guarantees that she will spare struggling families if Whitehall savings are needed in the coming months.
May has made it clear there will be no end to Tory austerity, she said: “What I’m clear about is we’re going to continue as we have done in Government over the last six years – ensuring that we’re a country that can live within our means.”
I’m just wondering how awarding millionaires £107,000 each per year in the form of a “tax break” in 2012 at the same time as introducing the radical cuts to social security can possibly be construed as an act that ensures “a country that can live within our means.” It seems to me that the Conservatives want to completely dismantle our welfare state, along with all the other gains of our social settlement (social housing, the NHS, legal aid and public services) but fear public opposition.
So rather than be honest about their intention, the Conservatives have chosen to stigmatise people needing welfare support to disperse public sympathy, to create scapegoats and generate moral panic. The public gradually come to accept the anti-welfare narrative as “fact”, despite the lack of evidence and analysis. Moral and rational boundaries will be pushed, prejudice will advance stage by stage. The incremental cuts will continue until there is nothing left to cut.
Earlier this year, the chancellor was forced to try and defend his decision to use the cuts in disability benefits to fund tax breaks for the wealthy. Controversially, the cuts benefitted the top 7% of earners. The Chancellor raised the threshold at which people start paying 40p tax, in a move that saw many wealthier people pulled out of the higher rate of income tax.
Osborne callously claimed that the Conservative government was “increasing spending on disabled people”, he said: “Controlling welfare bills is part of what you need to do if you’re a secure country confronting the problems in the world.” It was an utterly ludicrous comment.
The cuts to ESA and PIP show an intended substantial reduction on government spending to essential support for disabled people.
In a wealth transfer from the poorest to the very rich, we have witnessed the profits of public services being privatised, but the losses have been socialised – entailing a process of economic enclosure for the wealthiest. The burden of losses have been placed on the poorest social groups and some of our most vulnerable citizens – largely those people who are ill, disabled and elderly. The Conservative’s justification narratives regarding their draconian policies, targeting the poorest social groups, have led to media scapegoating, social outgrouping, persistent political denial of the aims and consequences of policies and reflect a wider process of political disenfranchisement of the poorest citizens, especially sick and disabled people.
That the cuts are ideologically driven, and have nothing whatsoever to do with economic necessity, was demonstrated only too well by the National Audit Office (NAO) report earlier this year. The NAO scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The report indicates how public services are being appropriated for purely private benefit.
The audit report in January concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments conducted by private companies than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill.
From the report:
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending.
This summary reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payer’s money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work”and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Private companies like Maximus are paid millions from our welfare budget, yet they are certainly not “helping the government” to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.
However, private companies serve the private needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government, and making lots of private profit whilst it does so. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist, antidemocratic, profoundly uncivilising prescriptions and longstanding class-based prejudices.
When the Conservatives say they are going to “tackle poverty”, what they mean is that they intend to rigidly police the poor, rather than alleviate poverty. Meanwhile, the new right’s economic enclosure act – austerity – will continue to impoverish many more. The state will respond to each crisis with more authoritarianism and psychopolitical techniques of persuasion, amplified via the media. And the wealthy and powerful will become wealthier and more powerful.
Unless we collectively fight back.
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