THE BLOG

Autumn Statement: We Need a Social Security System That Invests in People

02/12/2014 14:08 GMT | Updated 01/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Ahead of the Chancellor's Autumn Statement tomorrow, Westminster-based politicos and journalists have been speculating as usual about what will be in, what should be out, and indeed whether this whole exercise is worthwhile at all.

This twice-yearly ritual of hypothesizing on the content of George Osborne's speeches is, as ever, firmly concentrated within the Westminster Bubble. Few voices from the communities who will be most affected by the Chancellor's cuts are heard, despite the fact that they have most to lose from his choices.

For significant cuts there will be. Osborne has been laying the groundwork ever since his party conference speech in September which called for a further £25bn of painful austerity - and he's even been using the Prime Minister to tell the public to get ready for more cuts. Of course, social security spending is likely to be the main target for more slicing - if not in tomorrow's Autumn Statement, then certainly in the next parliament: Osborne has already proposed a two-year freeze on all benefits.

Within the current narrow focus of the Westminster debate, it's easy to see these arguments as purely abstract number games - £15billion cut here; £2billion 'given away' there - and it's easy to lose track of the huge impact they can have on real people. But at Community Links, based in one of the poorest but most diverse places in the UK, we see how these political arguments play out. We see the reality of our social security system is experienced by people. We see just how many people rely on it, and we how much of it is spent on compensating for housing costs that have spiralled out of control, or for wages which remain far too low to live on.

Take Bradley, for example. He's in his forties and works 52 hours every week as a Traffic Marshall in a supermarket car park. But despite long working hours, Bradley's wages are so low that he needs Working Tax Credits in order to be able to afford a basic standard of living. As he said when he came in: "If you work for the minimum wage, how do you pay your rent?"

Here in Newham, we also see just how little room there is for further cuts to the welfare budget in the way they are currently being implemented: simply salami-slicing people's money without addressing underlying issues. Our new report, published today, shows the impacts the Coalition's cuts have had. The multiple reforms to the benefit system, often affecting people at the same time, have eroded people's resilience and their ability to act. They have pushed people into survival mode, unable to focus on longer term goals, instead just getting by day-to-day. While some of the impacts have been covered by short-term discretionary housing payments (DHPs), the benefits cuts have also caused knock-on costs elsewhere.

One of our research participants, Diana, highlights how the short-term approach of simply cutting benefits pushes claimants to focus on addressing immediate crises, rather than longer term positive steps. Diana has been affected by four different welfare reforms, including the bedroom tax, having to be reassessed for disability benefits, and a reduction in her council tax benefit meaning that she has to pay money to the local authority. These changes have meant that Diana has been unable to eat, causing her much anxiety and stress but also, as Diana is diabetic, exacerbating her health problems.

There's no doubt this will cause knock-on costs for other public services, not least the health service. But perhaps more importantly, by pushing Diana into survival mode they are reducing her ability to thrive and to contribute. As Diana says: "I know it sounds stupid but I am past the stage of caring, because every time I pay my rent I think, there's another week with a roof over my head. I just don't feel secure at all... I feel like I'm just living here week-by-week."

Our experience shows clearly the debilitating impacts that short-term raids on benefits can have on people's ability to seize opportunities. We need to start seeing social security as an investment, not as wasteful spending that needs to be cut. Changes to government spending rules could achieve this. Secure and Ready - the second report that we're publishing today - argues for classifying social investment as capital spending and reforming welfare cap so that it incentivises investment in people to save costs in the future and across traditionally siloed departmental and organisational budgets. This is an important part of an early action approach to social security: one that improves lives for the people we work with, and will also enable a more effective spend of public sector budgets.

While within Westminster the debate continues to go round and round, here in Newham the urgency for Government action is clear. Tomorrow, the Chancellor should start to reframe social security as a long-term investment rather than a bill in which to find politically easy yet socially damaging short-term savings.