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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