The Prime Minister’s moral mission to attack welfare

20 Feb

Photo by The Prime Minister's Office, via Flickr

Photo by The Prime Minister’s Office, via Flickr

Poor old David Cameron; there are so many people upset with him and he just can’t understand why. Our Prime Minister is on a ‘moral mission’ to clean up the benefits system, you see. Apparently the government’s attack on the welfare bill isn’t just about saving money – it’s about helping people.

It seems this is the message we’re supposed to buy into going into the next election. In an article for the Telegraph the Prime Minister highlighted the problems he has been heroically trying to solve in the welfare system. Housing benefit bills as high as £80,000 a year for a single claiment. Hundreds of thousands on incapacity benefit in need of reassessment. Mr Cameron also stands by his government’s decision to cap benefit rises, although he frames this as ensuring benefits don’t increase faster than wages.

These are all very simple ideas to grasp and many of them may seem reasonable. But they mask a very overt attack on the welfare system.

The claim that under labour some people in London were claiming as much as £80,000 a year in housing benefit is intriguing.  This predictably misses the point of the housing benefit problem. As Independent columnist Owen Jones frequently points out housing benefit has for years acted as a tacit subsidy for extortionate land lords. In areas like London monthly rents can be hiked hundreds of pounds at a time.

 Average rents are set to exceed £1,000 per month for the millions of UK renters in 2014. Placing responsibility for the housing benefit bill on tenants is counterproductive and, given the number of MPs who are also landlords, frankly insulting. When Cameron chooses to spotlight housing benefit claimants instead of pursuing a serious house building programme he is letting us know who his government really cares about.

The government’s solution to incapacity benefit reassessment was to expand the role of ATOS in the assessment process. In case you’ve forgotten about ATOS, it’s the company that has this on its record. In 2012 former ATOS nurse Joyce Drummond apologised for her part in the assessments. Ms Drummond even told the Daily Record ‘ATOS went by the philosophy that if you had a finger and could push a button, then you could work’. Thousands of disabled people have been wrongly judged fit for work.

If this is how the Prime Minister’s moral mission is carried out I’m not sure I want anything to do with it.

I’m also sure to David Cameron it sounds entirely reasonable to guarantee those looking for work are not taking home as much as those in work. But as a millionaire the Prime Minister has never had to face the practical consequences of his policy or the reality of poverty. Inflation has only just dropped below 2%. The rise in the  Consumer Price Index has fallen below 2% for the first time since the government were elected. Neither wages nor jobseekers allowance have matched the rise in the cost of food, rent or other living expenses under this government. When benefits are held below inflation that means people must make a very real decision to stop buying healthy food or skip a meal. This is an experience that no one in government can ever really understand.

In case you were wondering, this is why I’m not on board with the Prime Minister’s moral mission. We shouldn’t buy in to the government spin on strivers and shirkers. This narrative of the deserving and undeserving poor is Victorian. It has no place in the new millennium.


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