Benefits need to be determined by evidence and humanitarian concerns, not just the balance of political power

In June 2018, the dead body of Errol Graham was found lying emaciated in his flat with just a few five-year-old tins of fish in his cupboard. Eight months earlier, his unemployment and housing benefit had been stopped after he failed to attend a work capability test. Suffering from serious mental health difficulties, he had warned of being unable to cope with “unexpected changes”. His death is another shocking example of the complete disregard for the lives of poor and vulnerable people shown by the social security system. Graham’s tragic case only came to light because his family had been treated with contempt by the Department for Work and Pensions, which seems to operate according to the Victorian morality encapsulated in a quote often attributed to the Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett: “Never apologise, never explain. Get it over with and let them howl.”

The Conservative party led the charge with its 2012 Welfare Reform Act. This reduced the generosity of benefits by tens of billions of pounds while attempting a wholesale redesign of the system. This was accompanied by broader shifts in the use of impoverishing sanctions and health assessments. A discussion of welfare is an essential part of, but not the same as, a discussion of how to end poverty. Yet successive Tory ministers have had more of an eye on reducing outlays, making systems look simpler or changing people’s behaviour, than on supporting vulnerable people.

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