The UK could very well join the US in being the only developed countries in the world that don’t offer statutory maternity pay, if the Tories emerge victorious on May 8.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith controversially refused this week to detail their £12bn in welfare spending cuts next year if his party takes the helm, but documents leaked to the Guardian yesterday (May 5) reveal what’s got to give under the Tories – and in this case, it’s more than any of us had ever imagined.
The DWP documents were drawn up by Whitehall officials last year, warning that the government risked exceeding a legal welfare spending cap next year after failing to control costs. “There’s not much low-hanging fruit left” with respect to welfare spending, the documents read, warning that the proposed cuts would be “very/highly/extremely controversial.”
Beyond abolishing statutory maternity pay altogether, other proposed cuts outlined in the documents included barring under-25s from claiming incapacity or housing benefit, forcing single parents receiving income support to seek work when their youngest child turns three (instead of the current 5), and freezing benefits payments at current levels across the board.
Welfare reforms that represent the worst of the Tories’ sinister legacy – the bedroom tax and fit-for-work tests, both of which having been, in all too many cases, fatal – should be further escalated next year, the documents revealed.
The DWP documents proposed even stricter tests to make it harder for the sick and disabled to claim benefits. As if fit-for-work tests weren’t already strict enough, leading to absurd situations in which, say, a marine veteran amputee with terminal lung cancer was deemed able to work.
The leaked documents drawn up last spring were predictably dismissed by the Tories, with a Conservative spokesperson saying that “if we wanted to implement policies like these, we would have, but we haven’t.”
Given Iain Duncan Smith’s stubborn secrecy over the details on the billions in welfare spending cuts they’ve pledged as part of their campaign, one can’t help but qualify the spokesperson’s statement with “we haven’t yet.”
£30bn black hole
If Duncan Smith won’t spill the beans over his own party’s spending plans, then the Institute for Fiscal Studies – an independent tax think tank – surmised a few guesses.
Taken straight from the Tory manifesto, the only welfare cut the party has specifically outlined as part of its £12bn hacking of the welfare bill per year was a two-year freeze on working-age benefits. But, says the IFS, this comes nowhere near the total cuts it has pledged to make – the freeze only amounts to £1.3bn in savings.
If the Tories are to achieve their aim of eliminating the deficit by 2018, the IFS argues, then there’s a £30bn black hole in their plan. With all the tax cuts they’ve promised, which mostly benefit the already wealthy, the think tank criticised the party for proposing spending plans that, far from saving any money, would amount to a net giveaway.
IFS director Paul Johnson stressed that if the Tories were to come anywhere near their £12bn welfare cuts target, then “something quite radical” would have to be done to the benefits system.
And it was these same documents leaked to the Guardian that reveal what that “something quite radical” might look like.
Labour plans for spending and saving, on the other hand, are – in an age of austerity politics – quite “radical” in their own way.
Responding to the latest leaks, Labour work and pensions spokeswoman Rachel Reeves said:
“Labour has a better plan to control the costs of social security. We’ll save £1bn by cutting housing benefit fraud and overpayments and control housing benefit spending by tackling rip-off rents, getting 200,000 homes a year built, increasing the minimum wage to £8 an hour and giving tax rebates to firms who pay a living wage.”
It’s not only a concrete plan for savings, but it reveals the philosophical chasm separating the two main parties, a chasm that Unite head of political Jennie Formby explained.
“The Tories and Labour could not be more different in their respective visions for a future Britain,” said Unite head of political Jennie Formby. “The Conservative party reveals this vision in their spending and savings plan – according to them, those who are already marginalised, already kicked down by austerity and a low-pay economy, should continue to bear the brunt of the failures of the coalition government and the big businesses which cosy up to them for tax freebies and favours.
“Labour, on the other hand, sets out a vision for a fairer society, one that the vast majority of the electorate believes in as well.They believe, and have shown in their manifesto pledges, that those who have gotten a free ride throughout the recession—the bankers, the propertied class, the low-pay, high-profit employers—owe a debt to the society which helped them create their success.
“A more equal society, where those who need help will get it, is a more prosperous one. This election isn’t only about accounting and balance books, though budgets are important. This election is about clear, competing visions. This is what’s at stake tomorrow – hope for a more equal and progressive future, or five more years of the divisive, unjust Tory future that we’ve already had.”