The Guardian August 4, 1999


Britain:
Unions battle Labour over welfare

by Caroline Colebrook 

Britain's Labour Government has announced a series of major welfare 
"reforms" covering benefits to the unemployed, the low-paid, the elderly 
and the disabled.

The package of reforms is supposed to convince the working class that the 
Government is still thinking about them but in fact they all amount to 
thinly disguised attacks on all who claim benefits or pensions.

The newly unemployed and the disabled are targeted by the new "One" benefit 
system, aimed to merge the Benefits Agency with the Employment Agency. It 
will force all claimants to attend an interview with a special personal 
adviser to assess the claimant's job prospects.

Failure to attend, even for the disabled, will mean benefits cut off.

The thousands of partially disabled who could do some work, and would 
probably be more than willing if they could only get a job, but who are 
likely to be rejected by every employer, will come under most pressure.

Those who are suffering from depression and stress will be driven to 
cracking point by this scheme.

Another part of the reforms package is to abolish the housing benefit and 
replace it with housing tax credits. Social Security Secretary Alistair 
Darling has said that the present system of housing benefit "is a 
disincentive" to finding work.

The charity Mencap said: "Benefit cuts which deny people access to housing 
do not constitute reform but are a denial of basic human rights."

Labour does intend to beef up the wage subsidy given to low paid families. 
Tony Blair claims that by the next election, low-paid families will be 
around L50 ($125) a week better off than they are now.

This subsidy would not be needed if the minimum wage  and wages in 
general  were not so abysmally low. The Government has rejected 
amendments from left-wing Labour MPs that this increased subsidy should be 
paid for from a rise in income tax on the seriously rich.

In other words it is going to be a case of most of the working class 
funding this through their taxes  many of them indirect like VAT 
[Britain's GST]  to the ultimate benefit of bosses who pay low wages.

After strong opposition from union leaders and left activists at a Labour 
Party national policy forum meeting, the Labour leadership conceded a new 
debate on welfare before any of these reforms are implemented.

The unions want the link between the basic state pension and average 
earnings restored and also benefit rights to 16-and 17-year-olds.

Chancellor Gordon Brown attacked the union leaders as "clinging blindly to 
policies that had failed in the past".

The culmination of the welfare debate at the next Labour conference this 
(northern) autumn looks likely to present a serious challenge to Blairism 
from those who hold the Labour Party's purse strings and who are growing 
more and more impatient with New Labour.

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New Worker

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