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The Cost of Putting Ideology Before Reason

31/03/2013 09:58 BST | Updated 15/04/2015 18:59 BST

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Welfare is always an issue which seems to invoke impassioned debate. Whether it is the opportunistic politician, the aggrieved tax payer, the excited columnist or disenfranchised claimant.

Public discourse on the topic tends to be framed in strong, sometimes scathing terms - words such as 'scroungers', 'shirkers', 'leeches', 'work-shy', 'feckless'' litter speeches, shape slogans, flood articles, and adorn headlines. Protagonists of welfare reform are keen to make unemployment a question of character, a consequence of idleness or moral degeneration.

Voluntary unemployment is certainly part of the problem. But this is one explanation among many, some of which are beyond the control of individual will. Unemployment is an intrinsic part of recession - lack of demand means lower production, lower production means less workers are needed. Companies will go out of business. Both lead to large scale redundancies, and shrinking job opportunities.

Unemployment is sometimes created by progressive strides in industrial science, the development of labour saving technology which supersedes human levels of productivity. Changes in the types of sector around which an economy is based such as the move from manufacturing to service based industries, can leave a mismatch between jobs offered and the skills of potential workers. The need to retrain can also create problems of time and cost for both workers and employers.

But even when conditions are ideal, there is plenty of debate among economists over whether full employment is desirable or even possible. Unemployment above 0% is advocated by many as necessary to control inflation. And the perpetual existence of a reserve pool of labor is central to keeping wages down and workers expendable.

Unemployment is certainly a subject which keeps the statisticians busy. Their figures are thrown around in order to justify one argument after the other. And it will be no different here.

The total welfare bill in terms of GDP, is less than 4%, and overall only 6% of government spending. JSA accounts for 2.8% of the total welfare bill, and fraud less than 0.5% of claims. Adjusted for inflation welfare payments have increased by £34 billion since 2001. Welfare as a percentage of GDP has been stable at 6%.

And believe it or not there are economic benefits to out of work welfare. Economically, it prevents fall in aggregate demand, keeps money moving through the economy, and of course when it is spent a percentage goes straight back to the Treasury in VAT.

So unemployment is a complicated problem, and tough rhetoric by itself will have little or no effect. Unless solutions match the problems, they will be no more than wishes.

The government flagship welfare to work program has been a pathetic and dismal failure - only 3.5% of participants found sustainable work of longer than six months. Unfortunately for the country this government's signature has become inept, non sensical policy, the type of which would be better placed on the back of a fag packet. This is a government guided by ideology complete with all the damaging effects that entails.

And the group which is consistently being made to feel this are the disabled. A society is judged by how it treats the vulnerable. Yet in 1 days time, controversial changes to the 'spare room subsidy' will come into effect. On April Fool's day as it would happen. But this is no joke if you happen to be disabled. An estimated 660,000 people will be affected by the policy, 420,000 of which will be disabled.

The case of Richard Gorry was widely reported in the national media. He lives in a four bedroom property with his wife and three daughters - his 10 year old daughter has Downs Syndrome and his 8 year old daughter, Spina bifida. Gorry was denied extra housing benefit on the basis that his three children should share a single bedroom. The need for separate bedrooms because of their disabilities was ignored.

The case was taken to the Court of Appeal which ruled that the government had discriminated unlawfully against the family on grounds of disability. The refusal to allow an additional room to be paid for because of disability was discriminatory and unlawful. The ruling stated there was no justification to the discrimination. It was not a fair or proportionate response.

The Department of Work Pensions has sought to reassure families with severely disabled children that they will be exempt from the 'spare bedroom rule'.

"As the law stands where a local authority agrees that a family needs an extra bedroom because of their child's disability means they are unable to share, the family can be entitled to the spare room subsidy in respect of that extra bedroom"

Promising, but it goes on to state:

"the determination as to whether their disability requires them to have an extra bedroom is a matter for the local authority to decide with the help of Department for Work and Pension guidance and medical evidence."

So there is no instruction to exempt cases covered by the judgement. Rather it is left to the discretion of the local authority.

Quite unbelievably, the government applied to the Supreme Court to appeal against the ruling. The appeal was later dropped after advice it would fail but the intent speaks volumes. Words are always best measured against actions.

There are some less widely reported details about the ruling which make the initial decision to appeal even more deplorable. The case was tied to that of Lucy Trengrove. She was denied housing payments needed for a carer's spare room. The ruling was a joint ruling, and Lucy Trengrove won, but it was too late. She died before the decision. So on top of fighting her disability she and her family had to fight the discrimination of their own government. And in today's Britain this is a prospect which is facing many disabled people.

The reasons given for this policy are reducing the welfare bill and solving overcrowding, But it could cost more than it saves, and expecting three children to share a bedroom is a strange notion of reducing overcrowding. There are not enough one bedroom properties on the market to cater for the demand this policy will create; homelessness could rise; some will be pushed into claiming benefits to live in more expensive private accommodation; disabled people who have adaptations to their homes not deemed 'substantial' may be forced to move, and the property readapted for non disabled tenants at a cost of thousands. The irony is that these separate issues of unemployment and overcrowding could be solved together, through replenishment of social housing stock which would provide new homes and new jobs.

Being in government is a privilege. You have the power to influence peoples lives for the better. But at present this government is betraying that responsibility. Theory and ideology is important, but it stands or fails on real world outcomes. When in power that theory is no longer conjecture, it impacts on people's lives. And the reality is that people's lives are worse.

This is the cost, human and economic, of putting ideology before reason.