In 2010, I voted Conservative. In part, I wanted a change from a jaded Labour government that were strongly associated (if not to blame) for Britain's plunge into recession. The Tories seemed to offer fresh hope. I liked David Cameron's talk of Big Society, and the images it conjured of communities coming together to make the country a better place. Above all, I was empowered by the promise that we would get through the recovery together.
In the next five years I learned that the promises of ex-PR man David Cameron were nothing more than a calculated attempt to rid the Tories of the 'nasty party' image that was standing in the way of them gaining power. As a homeless volunteer, and with a partner who works in the same field, I have witnessed the resurgence of this nasty image over and over again.
The injustices of this Conservative government are many, but their nastiness has been spear-headed by Iain Duncan Smith and his approach to welfare. I've listed a few (although there are many more) below:
1. Benefit sanctions. Issued to over 6 million individuals since 2010, benefit sanctions epitomise Tory disdain for the less fortunate. Sanctions are issued for 'transgressions' such as missing job interviews or failing to apply for a specific number of jobs in a week, resulting in withdrawal of benefits. On the face of it, this sounds reasonable but in reality, it is not. 20% of sanctions are issued against disabled people, and there are 1,000s of examples where the disability itself has been the cause e.g. partially sighted people unable to read an interview summons in small type.
The supposed aim of sanctions is to make people work, but by taking away claimants' only available money they prevent job seekers from travelling to interviews (thus triggering more sanctions) and from being able to afford basic life necessities. Sanctions are the cause of 70% of food bank visits and create an environment of worthlessness, fear and despair - in no way a platform for gaining employment. There is no evidence that sanctions work either. But weeks or months of not having to pay Job Seekers Allowance does save the state vital money.
2. Fit for work assessments. Another defining moment for the Tories was the announcement that everyone who had been declared long-term unfit for work would be reassessed. Again this sounds reasonable. Of the 230,000 found 'fit for work', over half were overturned on appeal by tribunal, including many with debilitating and serious illnesses. For many, the interim period between being fit for work and appeal was too stressful, causing further health problems, leading to death, and in some cases, suicide. I know someone who struggled to walk more than 5 metres without pain. He was declared fit for work and had a stroke on the way to his appeal.
3. Bedroom tax. The spare room subsidy or Bedroom Tax requires tenants of social housing to pay for any 'extra rooms' in their accommodation. The aim was purportedly to make people with extra space downsize to smaller accommodation to make room for those who need it. There are 180,000 two bedroom social houses and 85,000 one bedroom. There is simply nowhere to go and so the vast majority could not downsize. 63% of claimants affected are disabled and use extra rooms for their equipment or for partners to sleep in. They have been hit with a reduction in their allowance making their already challenging lives even tougher. The Bedroom Tax has led to huge rent arrears, depression and in some cases, suicide.
I've described three of the most damaging cuts to welfare (there are more) but in my mind the Tories' biggest crime is the conditioning of the public to think welfare is a bad thing, and that all who claim it are skivers or scroungers. This sort of rhetoric demonises a whole group of people who are predominantly either incapable of working, severely disabled, seeking work or even working but unable to pay their rent.
Another Tory justification for their actions is that welfare create a culture of dependency. But in reality, the majority of claimants would prefer to be in a situation where they don't have to claim it. The few who 'play the system' invariably do so because they do not have the self-belief to pursue a constructive life in mainstream society. Getting them to do so is best done with training and support, not sanctions.
Welfare provides a safety net or a helping hand for those who need it. People need welfare predominantly because they have experienced unfortunate circumstances. As people who have benefited from more fortunate circumstances, I believe we owe our taxes to funding it. Selfishly, there is nothing to say that we will not end in the same situation one day. And a society where everyone is looked after, is a better society for everyone. If we truly believe that each of us are born equal, then welfare should be a constitutional right. Removing welfare removes dignity, and in a country as rich as the UK, this is unacceptable.
After the 2014 Autumn Statement George Osborne said that "the world has not fallen in" after 5 years of Tory austerity. For many 100s of thousands it has. Another 5 years of Conservative government promises £12 billion more of welfare cuts, which will cave in the roof for many 100s of thousands more. If you don't want this to happen, please don't make the mistake I made in 2010 by voting for it.
Editor's note: This post previously incorrectly stated that Atos assessors are not medically trained. Atos informs us that assessors are all medically trained