The government is ditching one failed social care policy after another buffeted by squalls of criticism, not least from some of its own MPs who fear that this administration is holed below the water line.

This has been the year of bungles and unintended consequences for the Tories provoking a series of social care U-Turns, some discreet, some handbrake scorchers, beginning in the run-up to the general election, with the ‘dementia tax’ fiasco. 

In the latest discreetly announced volte face, the government has agreed to overhaul the punitive benefits system after severe criticism by the all-party Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC). In its conclusions, the PAC flatly stated that “the government does not understand the wider effect of sanctions” a statement of the blindingly obvious but no less powerful for that.

Sanctions – stopping benefits – are the penalties that claimants, the unemployed or the disabled, face if they don’t stick to their Job Centre contracts. 

These will replaced – at least for “first offenders”- with a warning. The system will be trialled after new legislation is passed which, the Treasury insists, is needed. It goes on to say in response to the PAC that sanctions are needed for two reasons: “To encourage more people to comply with conditions; and to penalise claimants for not meeting their responsibilities.” Complying with conditions “helps some claimants find work.” In 2015 – the last year for which there is complete data – 400,000 sanctions were imposed. 

There is scant evidence that this dismal world-view which divides people into strivers and skivers actually works. Charities at the coal face say sanctions drive many into debt and others into serious mental health problems (or both) which ultimately rebounds on the NHS already under great strain. Coroners have heard of people committing suicide after their benefits were stopped. Still, after years of austerity, food banks at least are doing a roaring trade, a phenomenon that Tory leadership contender Jacob Rees-Mogg describes as “ uplifting”.

This latest humbling of government policy follows the withdrawal, under strong pressure from MPs on both sides of the House, of the 55p per minute charge by the Universal Credit helpline. New guidelines issued also mean PIP claimants receive higher benefit rates after yet another defeat for the government in the courts. 

There is scant evidence that this dismal world-view which divides people into strivers and skivers actually works. 

Then there’s the slow motion train crash that is Universal Credit.  Up to half a million people with disabilities and their families are likely to be worse off after it comes into full effect in 2019, some by as much as £2000 a year. This after nigh on a decade of austerity and a steep fall in real earnings for most people. 

“We’re still seeing some really worrying things coming out of those assessments,” Mind’s Ayaz Manji told the Guardian. “There’s a lot of really poor decision-making. Lots of the people who make those assessments don’t understand mental health. We’ve seen people who’ve been denied the benefit because they’ve been described as ‘well-groomed’, or ‘able to look somebody in the eye’.” 

IDS: architect of a disastrous benefits shake-up

Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of Ian Duncan Smith architect of the plan. The price of Universal Credit, the trade-off with George Osborne, then Chancellor was to slash disability benefits and introduce Personal Independence Payments (PIPs). The net cut in welfare spending has been in the order of 20%. Despite a flood of warnings including from his own advisers and expert advice to slow down, the former Tory leader pressed ahead and the system collapsed into expensive chaos. While Mr Duncan Smith had an eye on his legacy the human cost to the disabled has been enormous. 

A huge swell of resentment is building over the way Atos, Capita and Maximus, the private multinationals under contract to the DWP to carry out assessments for the new payments. Assessors are often hopelessly under-qualified. They deal with complex and sensitive cases involving vulnerable people, including many with learning disabilities, wary of a system they don’t trust and find confusing and challenging. Disabled people and welfare advisers giving evidence to a Commons inquiry claim assessments all too often filled with “lies and misinformation” a claim which the companies deny. 

Scotland is going its own way, removing the private sector from this process altogether. Mrs May and David Gauke, Works and Pensions Secretary are standing firm despite repeated pleas by moderate Tories to pause the roll out and fix the problems. 

The government’s welfare policy is fraying like an old sweater

The truth is that government’s social care policy, pulled one way then another, is fraying like an old sweater caught between the need for savings to pay for Brexit and keeping up with a lengthening conveyor belt of hardship. This is a circle that cannot be squared as long as policy puts process and profit over people.

And then there was Grenfell a symbol, if ever there was one, of a government unwilling or simply unable to grasp how ordinary people feel and how they live. The lamentable response to the tragedy by both local and central government encapsulated the belief that Britain has become a place where the organizing principle is the survival of the fittest and the richest. Beveridge’s towering achievement, the Welfare State, 75 years-old this year, is being dismantled brick by brick. 

Nowhere is this more keenly felt than among the young. They turned out in record numbers in June and were key to Jeremy Corbyn’s performance. Inherently more radical and idealistic than their elders, they are turning against the Tories – and more often than not to Labour – in droves. 

Faced with growing disarray over the sex scandal, divisions over Brexit and a huge question mark over her leadership Mrs May appears to have decided that neutralising  the charge that her government is uncaring might steady the ship.  

The trouble is her heart is not in it. And it shows.  Despite her insistence in a speech in January that she wishes to remedy what she called “burning injustices” there is scant evidence that this has been anywhere near the top of her in-tray.  

Fatally weakened but lashed to the wheel because her divided party thinks that, right now, stability is more important than competence, she cuts a forlorn figure; in office but not in power as Geoffrey Howe observed of Margaret Thatcher in her final days.

A retreat on social care by the Tories may help recover some waverers – what the Far Left sneeringly calls centrists for which also read Blairites. But the more the government moderates its stance the more it will upset the Right whose central narrative (Brexit aside) is a) cut back the role of the state and b) slash welfare costs – an approach which has all too obviously failed the vulnerable and the poor. 

What we are witnessing is a weakened and divided administration in retreat driven back by relentless fire, some of it blue on blue. How long it survives is anyone’s guess. 

51 thoughts on “U-Turning – one policy at a time”

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