The crisis in government throws the desperation of millions into stark relief
Westminster watchers are becoming exhausted by the twists and turns of our latest political tale of turmoil, and most MPs are also horrified by the damage it is doing to the welfare of our constituents.
Jeremy Hunt was parachuted in to steady the markets and fill some of the £60bn hole that was created by the spending plans of last week’s government. His ominous talk of “very difficult” decisions raises the spectre of benefits rising only in line with earnings next year instead of the higher rate of inflation.
The Home Secretary’s resignation and chaotic events in the voting lobbies yesterday make Westminster look distracted and out of touch
In practice this will be a real terms cut for millions of people who are already struggling, and is forecast to push another 450,000 people below the poverty line. The pensions triple lock may well be protected, but on top of the scaled-back energy support package, the Chancellor’s statement has increased the distress of those who no longer have any idea how to pay their bills or feed their families.
The Home Secretary’s resignation and chaotic events in the voting lobbies yesterday make Westminster look distracted and out of touch with the reality of people’s lives. The crisis in the government throws the desperation of millions into stark relief.
Households and businesses are terrified that they cannot plan their finances, cannot bear the costs of their mortgages and energy bills, cannot afford the weekly shop, and will not be able to live on their pensions.
Millions of people have no savings. They have nothing to cut back on. More than 40 per cent of those claiming benefits are already working – often multiple jobs – and the slightest change in circumstance can drive them from just-about-managing into a spiral of debt and poverty.
The government has steadily been cutting holes in the safety net of the welfare state, and shocking research from Christians Against Poverty has found that 25.4m people – almost half the United Kingdom population – are now struggling financially. Eight million people are estimated to be going without heating or electricity completely and 8.5m are skipping meals.
Mr Hunt said in his Commons statement on Monday that any decisions will “prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable”. But the category of “vulnerable” is constantly expanding. People who felt relatively secure a year ago are now staring into the abyss, distraught at their lack of options as their outgoings outstrips their income.
Given that the Chancellor surely knows this, if he will not commit to an inflation-linked increase for pensions and benefits, it is hard to escape the conclusion that people are being deliberately tipped over the edge.
This would be a heartless approach, prioritising savings to the detriment of human lives. It is also blindly short-termist. Tightening the purse strings on welfare transfers a much wider cost to the whole of society. Poverty is not simply measured in terms of how much cash you have. It is linked to poorer mental and physical health, lower educational achievement, homelessness, increased criminality. So there will be greater and longer term costs elsewhere, as our creaking, underfunded public services struggle to pick up the pieces.
You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Who matters more? Bankers who deserve their bonuses or the poor who deserve to be able to feed their families? It’s time for the government to get its house in order. Then ministers must take a hard look at the misery and fear that has been intensified by the events of the last month, and decide whether they are happy to leave a legacy of poverty and hardship rather than taking care of those most in need.
Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Liberal Democrats. His new book A Mucky Business: Why Christians Should Get Involved In Politics will be available in November.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.