WE may look back on yesterday's benefit cuts – for that is what a below-inflation increase amounts to – as the definitive turning point in the history of this Government: the moment when the general public finally realised that it had been dangerously misled by political loose talk.
The most heartfelt and eloquent speech in yesterday's debate came from Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat former housing minister. Language, she said, is very important to politicians and they should not use it to create divisions. Yet that is exactly what some members of the Government have done in opening up "a fissure...between the working and non-working poor" and by "hammering on that faultline with the language of shirkers and strivers". Far from fertilising David Cameron's Big Society, she observes that such language merely sets neighbours against one another, creating a less generous, less sympathetic Britain.
Why did so few of her LibDem colleagues have the courage to vote against this immoral and economically illiterate decision? Like her, they must have had desperate constituents coming to their surgeries, struggling to explain that they are "not like other benefit claimants". In fact, few claimants conform to the stereotype caricatured by a Government that deliberately confuses being an economic loser with weakness and character failings. Skivers and strivers is a false distinction in a UK where there are five applicants for every job and millions are underemployed. Some 60% of those who will suffer from the 1% benefits cap are in work but not earning enough to struggle above the poverty line.
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The Government belatedly published an economic impact assessment of the cuts yesterday. This shows that it has a disproportionate effect on the poorest 10%, lone parents, women and households with a disabled member. It does this without mentioning poverty anywhere. Iain Duncan Smith, whose department produced these figures, says the cuts are necessary because the benefits budget is unaffordable. Yet the actual saving over two years is just £3bn from a departmental budget of more than £200bn a year, more than half of which is swallowed by payments to pensioners, some of whom are multi-millionaires.
The Coalition boasts of public support for these cuts. Little wonder, when ministers have resorted to obfuscation, misleading statistics and emotive language about closed curtains and generations that have never worked. As the IMF has observed, benefit cuts take money out of the economy because those on the breadline spend everything they have and they also undermine those much-vaunted "automatic stabilisers". Cities such as Glasgow and Dundee, with high levels of welfare dependency among both those in and out of work, will lose many millions from these cuts, further undermining their local economies. What will happen to the public mood as voters realise that the government is targeting not lazy, beer-swilling couch potatoes but them? Congratulations, Sarah Teather. Let us hope your leader is listening to you.