'We won't go back to the work house' – a melodramatic slogan maybe, but one that captures the sense that many feel, that the Welfare Reform Bill, currently going through its first reading in the House of Lords before becoming law next month, represents a major step in the dismantling of state welfare, a return to a darker, pre-Beveridge age of a 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor.
Certainly it was a slogan that summed up the feelings of those gathered opposite the House of Lords on Wednesday, many of them living with disabilities, single parents and carers, a coalition of the dispossessed who feel victimised by the Bill.
Proponents of the Bill argue that the cuts in housing benefit (which will tighten rules on family size and restrict tenants to the bottom end of the market), to the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Disability Living Allowance (which London Mayor Boris Johnson has opposed), the cap on universal benefits to £26,000 and the scrapping of the Discretionary Social Fund are essential to tackle a record deficit. A government spokesman said:
"It was important to... make sure the people who received benefits were the people who really needed benefits and make sure that people had the right incentives to get off benefits and back into work".
However, groups like Winvisible, which organised Wednesday's protest and lobby, say the Bill heralds a return to Dickensian days, with families facing eviction within central London, the disabled forced into work they simply are not able to do, benefits slashed to the most needy in society and single mothers expected to be 'ready for work' as soon as their youngest child is one.
The Lords went on to vote against key sections of the government's reform plans by 224 to 186. Plans to means-test ESA for disabled people after a year were condemned by Lord Patel as an immoral attack on the sick, the vulnerable and the poor:
"If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, then we enter into a different form of morality."
The other defeats were over plans to time-limit ESA for those undergoing cancer treatment and to restrict access to ESA for young people. The Bill now returns to the Commons.
Photo: Peter Riches at demotix.com