The Welfare State was not designed for the chancers
Labour voters are among those most resentful of others’ “choice” to live on benefits, writes IAN SMART
I want to start with a confession. On Saturday, as has been our custom for many years, Mo and I will depart for three weeks holiday in Umbria. We’ve rented a house, with a pool, and have arranged for various friends and family to join us over our three week absence. We will, I confidently predict, have a great time. And we will spend a fortune.
I say all of that, not to boast but to acknowledge in advance the easy route to criticise what I say below. I am a middle class bleeding heart liberal; a champagne, or at least prosecco, socialist. I have never been poor, or unemployed, for a single day of my adult life, and hopefully I never will be. I say only in my own defence that in choosing to practice in the Legal Aid field for the whole of my professional career, I have made that choice in the knowledge that while I will always be comfortably off (Legal Aid Cuts permitting!), I will never be stinking rich.
My day to day practice involves, always, ordinary people; almost invariably, ordinary people at points of crisis in their own lives, but I regret to say that these ordinary people increasingly divide themselves into two divisions: those who fear lapsing into poverty and those simply interested in making the most of their self acceptance of that state.
I’m going to go on to say a fair amount of controversial things about the current benefits system but I want to start with a brief diversion into a different group of people altogether: bogus asylum seekers.
Now the Left doesn’t like the term “bogus”. I’ve never quite understood why. A large number of people do enter this country making false claims of political persecution elsewhere and they do undermine public sympathy for those with a valid claim for asylum. If they do not have a valid claim, what are they other than bogus? But the bogus asylum seekers (excepting a very few genuine criminal elements) are not themselves bad people. They do not come here to exploit our welfare state, for they have little or no understanding of how they might access it, and they are probably unable to do so anyway. They come here because they believe that here they will be able to find work. And, bogus or otherwise, they do. Just as have done the hundreds of thousands of Poles, Slovakians, Portuguese and other nationalities who have taken legitimate advantage of the EU rules on the free movement of Labour.
But, despite this, even at the height of the New Labour boom, this country had a stubborn figure of more than one million people allegedly actively seeking work but unable to find it. And as many as three million allegedly medically unfit to undertake work of any sort.
Again, at this point, I need to depart on a caveat, or maybe two caveats. No, three caveats.
1. My office deals with a large number of ESA appeals and some of the decision making is absurd. I hesitate to choose the most ludicrous example, but if forced to do so it would probably be the man who was awaiting a surgical operation to repair the trauma preventing him from using his left arm, and keen for it to be undertaken, who was nonetheless assessed as being fit to work in the meantime. What kind of job is open to a man with (effectively) one arm? And who, anyway, would employ someone imminently awaiting a major operation followed by a six to eight week recuperation? Needless to say, he won his appeal, but what kind of idiot made this decision in the first place?
2. Depression is a terrible illness but, bluntly, depression is a word with two meanings: a clinical illness and, regrettably, a simple state of mind. The second of these, that I’m depressed because I sit about the house all day doing nothing, is not an excuse to qualify for additional benefits but rather a perfect example of why you should be encouraged back to work for your benefits as well as that of everyone else. That does not mean however that those with a genuine mental illness are not as deserving as those with a broken leg.
3. Some people “earned the right” to be unemployed. That still unduly colours the thinking of the Labour Party. Fifty year old men, made redundant, having worked all their days in the pits or the steelworks did not deserve to be driven into call centres or check outs at Tesco. If that could be disguised behind the veil of incapacity (and Incapacity Benefit) then I was as up for that as anybody. But that generation has largely now passed into retirement and the rest of the world goes on.
I express these opinions not to curry favour from those intent in cutting the benefit system but rather in pursuit of a more equitable distribution of its… er, benefits.
Someone who has worked for twenty years and who is then made redundant is entitled to Job Seekers Allowance of £67.50 per week. And at the end of six months they get nothing, unless they can pass a means test. This is a ridiculously low figure when set even against the median national wage of £499. On the other hand, someone who hasn’t worked for twenty years but who can pass (or fail) the medical test for Employment Support Allowance, perhaps qualifying on the basis of their alcoholism or drug addiction, after an initial thirteen weeks, gets £94.25, hardly a devil’s ransom, but still a nice wee £20 bonus if you had no intention of working anyway. I can’t be alone in believing there is something wrong here.
And then there are means tested benefits. The vast majority of benefit claimants never see these. They are unemployed, or unfit, for a short period and then they go back to work. When the Tories proposed to cap Housing Benefit at £400 my immediate reaction was that this seemed a bit draconian. After all, anyone with a big family would find it difficult, particularly in the south of England, to find decent accommodation for £400 a month. Then I realised it wasn’t £400 a month, it was £400 a week!
Now, the average weekly wage in this country is, as I say, £499 a week (before tax). Nobody, and I mean nobody, earning the national average wage, or even significantly above it, is living in accommodation costing £400 a week. “But,” some complain,”because of this cap, we’ll be unable to continue to live in the centre of London.” Well, I’m a lawyer and I couldn’t afford to live there. All working people face up to that reality. I pay my taxes and, indeed, would be content to pay a bit more, but not to subsidise the lifestyle choices that I couldn’t possibly choose for myself. If you can’t afford to stay in a particular house, move. Even as to where I live now, that’s what I’d have to do if they abolished the Legal Aid Scheme tomorrow.
I could go on but I am in danger of turning into James Purnell.
The real point however is not to engage in a right wing rant but to engage in a left wing rant. For in addition to the client group who wish simply to make the best of a life chosen to live on benefits, I deal with an awful lot of ordinary working people who are being screwed by the current economic situation. People on compulsorily shortened hours; arbitrarily renewed or not renewed employment contracts; suddenly displacement from secure and well paid employment through no fault of their own; working week to week as opportunity presents itself.
Never mind those whose lives are suddenly transformed by unforeseen illness.
And, it is they, not me, with my comfortable lifestyle, who are most resentful of those who play the system and most resentful of Labour’s support of that choice.
Yet these people, not the chancers, are those for whom the welfare state was originally created; those who have contributed to “National Insurance” but who hoped personally never to have to call upon it. And yet they are the group who increasingly feel Labour, the creator of the Welfare State, has forgotten them.
So, let’s be more judgemental. Let’s not be afraid to say those who can work are expected to work and, if they choose not to do so, should be entitled to nothing more than the most basic level of subsistence until they change their minds. And if that means they can’t “afford” their chosen place of residence without working, then they have the simple solution of finding work, not in every part of the country but certainly in those parts where work is patently available.
I suppose in the end I should own up to the origin of this rant: the London Olympics. I am simply fed up with the number of “Eastenders” complaining that there are no jobs for them from this project. They don’t mean that. They mean actually that there are no jobs that they can be bothered to do. As I write this there will be people in North Africa and Near Asia prepared to risk their lives to travel half way across the world to find work at the Olympics. And people from Eastern Europe prepared to be separated from their nearest and dearest for the same opportunity. And yet, all the while, my taxes and yours will be paying for people across the road from the stadium to exercise their “right” to stay in bed until the start of the Jeremy Kyle show.
So here’s a proposal for Ed. Between now and the end of the Olympics no one in East London , fit for work and without family obligations, should be entitled to any form of state benefit (including housing benefit) for more than thirteen weeks unless they are working at least sixteen hours a week. Not only would that recoup some of the public money thrown at this project, it would be incredibly popular with voters – Labour voters, particularly those here in Scotland, and Newcastle, and Manchester, and Birmingham, who only wished they had such an employment opportunity on their own doorstep.
And, just in case this appears unduly London-phobic, when it’s over, let’s go to the East End of Glasgow and do the same with the Commonwealth Games.
Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of Scotland. After the revolution, he’s resigned to being sent to the Gulag along with James Purnell and Tom Harris. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.