Punish The Poor

Merrick, 30th May 2010ce

Punish The Poor

I want to help try and build a more responsible society here in Britain. One where we don't just ask what are my entitlements

- David Cameron, Prime Ministerial acceptance speech, 11 May 2010

It's easy for Cameron not to ask for entitlements when he's got thirty million quid in the bank and a nice house in the country that we bought for him. For people dependant on entitlements - to which they are entitled - things feel somewhat different.

In the haste to contrive an outline plan for the coalition government in its first couple of days, they still found time to say, ‘we agree that receipt of benefits for those able to work should be conditional on the willingness to work’.

This week we saw Iain Duncan Smith back from the dead to flesh that out, giving us the principles behind the government’s Welfare Bill. It focuses on making sure that people aren’t worse off by working. One way to make sure people aren’t worse off by working is to reduce their benefits, and this is the clear implication of the promise to reduce the ‘unaffordable’ benefits bill.

Let's say it plainly. There are far more unemployed people than there are jobs. This is not going to change. The only time when this wasn’t the case was before computers were commonplace and when women were chained to the kitchen. Unless we plan to put half the workforce back into unpaid domestic work, we're going to have a surplus of people.

The government's own figures show that there are over two and a half million unemployed people but less than half a million vacancies. Making five times too many people play musical chairs under penalty of destitution is plain cruel, unless you believe that haranguing people will magically make jobs appear for them.

Persisting with this punitive approach will crash the self-esteem - and thereby the employability - of those people, so it doesn't even work on their 'everyone into full employment' way of thinking, let alone face up to the fact that there isn't enough work. Which, in turn steadfastly refuses to look beyond that fact and admit that we need to work less and consume less. As I've spelt out elsewhere, we'd be better letting those who can happily live on the dole do so.

The government's attitude is literally nonsense. They claim an intention to start doing something we already do. It has always been a condition of unemployment benefits that you have to be available for work.

Fifteen years ago the Tory government changed the name of the Unemployment Benefit to the more demeaning Job Seekers Allowance, and introduced the phrase 'actively seeking' into the declaration signed fortnightly. Those who refuse work, or cannot provide proof that they have been actively seeking work, get their benefit cut.

So that election poster, and its part of the coalition declaration, and its place among explanations of the Welfare Bill, are superfluous. It's only there to propagate the idea that anyone on benefits is a loafing idle freeloader and that unemployment is the personal fault of those it afflicts, so nobody feels too bad when we slash the pittance that stands between them and destitution. Its inclusion in the coalition statement was simply there to roll the poor in shit, a tag-on sentence that has no place in a declaration about new policy.

Part of the new plan is to massively expand the 'welfare to work' scheme introduced by Labour, that is to say, make the unemployed work for a third of minimum wage.

This influx of cheap labour will drag down the wage level of all low-paid workers. Given there are already people who do the work the welfare-to-workers will be given - removing graffiti, picking up litter - but who'll now be unneeded, we can sack them, put them on the dole, then re-employ them on unemployment benefits at a third of the price.

The worker's wage may be cut by two-thirds, but the cost to the public purse is far greater. These schemes will be run by private companies - companies whose paramount purpose is to make profit - who get paid in proportion to how many people they kick off the dole. Essentially, we're transferring benefits from people who have no money and giving them to corporations instead, whilst leaving the poor to starve because they can’t find jobs that don’t exist.

Persecute the Sick as Well as the Poor

The oversupply of jobless will only increase. People on Incapacity Benefit (or Employment Support Allowance, as it is becoming) will all be tested to evaluate their level of sickness. This will happen even though they’ve been signed off by their GP – a fully qualified medical professional familiar with their case – and even though anyone found to be near the borderline for capability is already periodically examined by a second doctor on behalf of the government to confirm their incapacity.

Again, it’s doing what we already do. But under the new rules these same government inspectors are suddenly deciding that most claimants they’ve passed as unfit are fit to work after all. The Department for Work and Pensions say 68% are being moved off sickness benefits. Yet Citizens Advice Scotland is finding that 70% of such claimants win their appeals and stay on the benefit. Clearly, there is overzealousness in the new tests.

Citizens Advice Scotland reports cases of seriously sick and disabled people newly reclassified as fit to work turning up at every one of their offices. Such is the scale and depth of the misery involved that they’ve produced a report on Employment Support Allowance bluntly called Unfit For Purpose.

The absurdity amidst this cruelty is that it will simply swell the numbers on unemployment benefits. And, as people who’ve been verified doctors as unfit for work are going to have severe restrictions on the type of work they can do, they’ll be at the back of the queue for jobs. However, the amount of benefit they receive as an unemployed person will be lower than when they were on sickness benefits.

People on sickness benefits get paid more for good reason. They stay at home more, so need more heating. They often have mobility problems, so need buses or taxis where others would walk. They often have special diets that are costly. Most scandalously, despite commonly having an ongoing need for a range of prescribed medicines, they often have to pay full prescription charges.

Let me say that again, because it beggars belief; English people on long-term Incapacity Benefit with the Age Addition pay full prescription charges.

Whilst the amount paid to the claimant is less for unemployment benefits than for Incapacity, the administration costs are far higher. The fortnightly interviews and hoop-jumping given to the unemployed take a lot of working hours. After its initial set-up an Incapacity Benefit claim, by contrast, is largely automated and costs a negligible amount to administer. So with the sick too, we are transferring funds from the claimant to the companies that run the system.

Fraud for Need, Not Fraud for Greed

A 2006 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation based on six years of research found that most benefit fraud was not committed by criminal gangs or those accruing vast wealth, but by people making ends meet. It was largely committed out of need, not greed. It was people who could scarcely afford to buy a round of drinks in Club Tropicana, it was just people who were on benefits anyway supplementing their income to a living wage. Meanwhile, the government’s own figures show that tax evasion costs the UK fifteen times as much as benefit fraud.

Yes, benefit fraud is still fraud, but given that people on benefits are in or close to poverty, while those who are eligible for tax but avoid it are, by definition, better off, it is certainly less greedy and unjust. As Isaac Hayes said, 'if you were hungry, what would you do?’

So where's the poster campaigns about tax evasion? Why don't we have adverts on TV telling us to shop anyone we suspect on an 0800 number?

The answer lies in the relative incomes of the two types of fraudster. A government of the rich is unlikely to penalise the rich. It helps out them and their friends, and it keeps us aspirational and consuming.

The tax evader is trying to hold on to money. It's their money, they probably deserve it. The benefit fraudster has none, so they probably deserve to be poor.
The rich deserve to praised for their wealth, accordingly the poor deserve to be punished for their poverty. A cabinet dominated by people who were born super-rich find it easy to believe that money is the grand test of virtue.

It is impossible to argue that people can truly live on [Job Seekers Allowance of] £65.45 or £51.85 a week – the price of a tank of petrol, a decent lunch for the well-off, a treat for the kids. It is cheap to point perpetually to the MPs' expenses scandal, but when no party contemplates benefit rates rising after the election, and the Conservatives have headlined policies on penalising benefit "cheats", it is important to remember how easy money was to them, the casual claims for wine glasses and sofas, and David Cameron's £680 claim (more than 10 weeks' jobseeker's allowance) for repairs to his Oxfordshire cottage.
- David Conn