Gavin Barwell, benefits and a whole load of old b…

The Croydon Central MP (“I’m just a bag-carrier”) staged a meeting in the Town Hall yesterday to try to defend the ConDem government’s policies on welfare. ANDREW FISHER remains unconvinced, and here’s why

Having had many a disagreement with local MP Gavin Barwell over the planned benefits cap, I went along on Tuesday night to his meeting on welfare at the Town Hall.

Feel the benefit? Some of Gavin Barwell's arguments were "economically illiterate"

Feel the benefit? Some of Gavin Barwell’s arguments were “economically illiterate”

I’m a big fan of public meetings – different ideas can be put, debated and tested against public opinion – and it is to Gavin’s credit that he hosted a meeting to discuss his government’s policies. He opened the meeting with a comprehensive presentation covering the main areas social security spending, and the cuts planned in each area.

However, it was riddled with contradictions, obfuscation and omission – the key one according to Barwell being that apparently to reduce the deficit you must slash welfare or else the NHS and education would have to suffer cuts. This is a grossly economically illiterate statement, even leaving aside the fact that both the NHS and education budgets have been cut anyway. The most efficient way to reduce the deficit – and to reduce welfare spending – is to create economic growth and jobs, something Barwell’s coalition government is failing to do.

Below are some of the main myths Gavin peddled last night, and the realities:

People are trapped on welfare by the complexity of the system: This is demonstrably not true. People are trapped on welfare because there aren’t enough jobs (and enough training opportunities). There are 2.5 million unemployed and fewer than 500,000 vacancies. The system is complex, but it was no less so in 2006 when there were 800,000 fewer people unemployed.

Benefit rates have risen faster than wages: Gavin presented a statistic that welfare payments had gone up 20 per cent in the last five years, while average wages only by 10 per cent, which is roughly true. Welfare payments have risen in line with inflation and wages haven’t, which is doing economic damage, mainly through suppressed consumer spending. If we take a longer-term view, though, unemployment benefit was worth 21 per cent of average full-time male earnings in 1979; today it is worth only 11 per cent. If it was worth 21 per cent of average earnings in 2013, then Jobseeker’s Allowance would be £135 per week instead of £71 that it is.

The unmentionable Lord Ashcroft: for some reason, Barwell made no mention of tax avoiders such as his former boss Lord Cashcroft, who cost the country far more than benefit fraud

The unmentionable: for some reason, Barwell made no mention of tax avoiders such as his former boss Lord Cashcroft, who as a group are estimated to cost the country 100 times more than benefit fraudsters

Benefit fraud is £1.5 billion: Gavin lingered on this point, and explained what the government, and Croydon Council, are doing to combat it. But what he omitted to say is that more than 10 times as much (£16 billion) in benefits and tax credits are unclaimed every year. Even more offensive is the avoiding and evading of tax by wealthy individuals and big business which is estimated as costing the nation £120 billion (see this graphic).

Universal credit will lift 350,000 children out of poverty: UC is the government’s flagship welfare change, being very slowly rolled out from April this year, to simplify the benefits system. They claimed this 350,000 figure in 2011 and it was repeated by Gavin at the meeting. However, it has never been independently assessed. What has been assessed is the impact of the welfare changes already announced, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that another 400,000 children will be in poverty by 2015 and that rises to an extra 800,000 by 2020.

Households affected by the benefit cap are “not poor”: Croydon is one of four London boroughs piloting the benefit cap from April. Total benefits per household are capped at £26,000 regardless of need, because that is the average worker’s wage. I challenged Gavin directly on this, as I have before, to say which of the benefits included in the cap he thought was too generous. He did not answer.

The benefit cap is dishonest in several ways:

  1. it seeks to compare average individual income with total household income;
  2. it ignores the fact that people on an average wage are also entitled to many of the same benefits on top of their working wage; and
  3. it blames tenants for the high costs of housing, when housing benefit is paid directly to the landlord. It’s a subsidy for private landlords – and it is rents, not benefits, that should be capped.

Gavin’s government propaganda ultimately failed with a largely well-informed audience – but especially powerful were the personal testimonies people facing eviction due to the bedroom tax and of disabled people who have endured the Atos work capability assessment. Barwell conceded that he didn’t think the Atos system was working well, and that he had raised it in parliament, but his name is not yet on the cross-party early day motion backing the British Medical Association’s call for the assessments to be scrapped. Likewise he had little defence when challenged over Atos being handed a further contract to assess people on Disability Living Allowance.

To give credit where it is due, Gavin was actually pretty good at dismissing the two racist contributions – one of which seemingly thought enslaving asylum seekers would help, and the other that seemed to want all benefits to ethnic minorities stopped. Gavin didn’t even remotely pander to these lines which was reassuring given his previous comments.

But Croydon’s residents deserve an MP that not only avoids ethnic division but also that avoids the social division and real poverty that this government’s welfare policies will create. As even Tory Mayor Boris Johnson has acknowledged, these policies risk the “social cleansing of London”.

  • Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon – 142,300 unique page views, Nov 2012-Jan 2013
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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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