The “No” campaign launched last week, and we listened to Alistair Darling talk of the things that we have shared as the United Kingdom. We heard him talk proudly of the NHS and the Welfare State. At the same time David Cameron was spelling out future welfare reforms for a system which will exclude the under 25s from housing benefit and which, he initially suggested, may lead to people on benefits in the South East receiving more money than those in the less affluent areas of Britain. Once again, David Cameron is targeting the poor and the most vulnerable in society in an effort to fix the mess that the rich and the greedy actually caused.
Also last week, I was deeply affected by some comments on the Highland News website. I don’t usually read the Highland News, but I followed an online link to an article about a man who had been up in court in Inverness. The story was a depressing one – an alcoholic before he was a teenager, it detailed violent acts and anti-social behaviour. However, it wasn’t the story that affected me, as much as the comments on the webpage, now removed – and rightly so – by the Highland News. These comments initially focused on the man named in the article – a troubled and difficult individual - but soon became more wide ranging. They moved on from the article in particular and began referring to the “feral underclass”.
It was clear that the comments were about those out of work, sick and in receipt of benefits. The people posting talked about putting ”wasters” on the “Auschwitz Express” and gassing them; they discussed how to remove the “scroungers” and suggested they fight each other to the death. One post suggested that the whole of “the Ferry” – South Kessock, a deprived area in Inverness – should be bombed. Some of the posters named other families, who were nothing to do with this particular article, highlighting their dependence on benefits and discussing ways of getting rid of them and stopping these families being a drain on the taxpayer. There were gleeful suggestions that these “scrounging scum” should be euthanised or otherwise “got rid of”.
There was no hint of compassion for those people who were less fortunate or struggling to make ends meet on breadline benefits. The few voices that were raised to challenge those posting this list of insults and shocking language (It ran to six pages I think) were derided as “liberal apologists” who clearly knew nothing about anything. Those posting spewed their vile, hate filled nonsense from behind pseudonyms, smug in their own living rooms and no doubt with self-satisfied smirks on their faces. It was nauseating, and has upset me all week.
These two events are inextricably linked in my mind. The UK government has been persistently targeting the poor by trying to remove those claimants who they believe do not deserve benefits – the well-publicised “scroungers”. They have very successfully persuaded the general public that somehow, the responsibility for the state of the economy lies with people who are on welfare benefits, and the media perpetuates that myth. Headlines scream outrage about families with lots of children getting massive amounts of benefits; programmes like the BBC’s “Saints and Sinners” encourage people to see dishonesty and trickery going hand in hand with benefit recipients and so believe that this is the norm.
The endless attacks on benefits are designed to encourage us to think that only by reducing the cost of welfare, only by kicking these “wasters” off benefits, can we regain control of the economy. People buy into the idea that draconian measures to reduce the costs of welfare are the only way to reduce the deficit. Yes, removing under 25s from Housing Benefit entitlement may save £1.8bn but Vodafone allegedly avoided paying £4.8bn in tax when HMRC settled a dispute and the cost of bailing out the banks is said to run into the hundreds of billions of pounds. A survey by Prospect magazine recently suggested that people think that 40% of those claiming benefits are committing fraud. The truth is somewhat different – only around 3% of benefit recipients are getting more than they are entitled to through fraud or error – 3%, that’s all. What a mismatch between opinion and fact – a mismatch encouraged by the Tories and the mainstream media.
By promoting this popular opinion the UK government has chosen to ignore the one thing that will, in reality, tackle welfare dependency and make welfare affordable. The only way to successfully reduce dependence and spending on welfare is to create jobs. Did you hear that? I will say it again. The only way to successfully reduce dependence and spending on welfare is to create jobs; Jobs for unemployed workers, jobs that are flexible enough for single parents and jobs with employers who can support workers with disabilities.
The coalition government has shown no real commitment to economic growth and no real commitment to creating sustainable jobs. Instead, they persuade us that, to cut the deficit, we need deep and damaging cuts to benefits. It is a big smoke screen that allows them to look like they are doing the best – that we are “in this together”- when they are actually just furthering the ideological agenda of the Conservatives whilst the Liberal Democrats let them get on with it and cheer from the sidelines.
People on benefits are not to blame for the economic mess we are in – politicians and bankers are to blame. These are people like the former Barclays chairman Bob Diamond, who earned 1.3 million before bonuses, not the man who receives £67.50 per week unemployment benefit. People like Bob Diamond, whose bonuses were set to exceed £1 million before he gave them up after Barclays Bank were caught rigging the interest rates – not the man who gets £50 a week in housing benefit to live in a damp dull little flat in Govan; People like Bob Diamond, who thought that the best response to criminal activity within the organisation HE was in charge of, was simply to say it was “wholly inappropriate” – not the man who may be denied his mobility allowance because, despite being blind, he has no other health problems so won’t get enough ‘points’. Incidentally, Conservatives were deeply reluctant to condemn Bob Diamond; though they have been queuing up to condemn benefit recipients.
Here in Scotland, the Scottish Government already knows that the way benefits are being cut is not the way to improve people’s lives. The Scottish Parliament has passed the Welfare Reform (Further Provision) (Scotland) Bill which is designed to reduce the effect of the UK government’s actions on welfare recipients. The SNP has also given an indication of its desire “for a progressive welfare system that reflects our nation’s values and ensures fair and decent support for all our people” (Nicola Sturgeon 28/06/2012). To do that they will need to work very hard to undo the cruel myths propagated by the coalition UK government and the UK media.
I know that there are people who do not want to work. I worked in Benefits through the 80s, 90s, and into the 21st century. I remember people who were lazy, feckless and not interested in getting a job. I can remember the man who was signing on as unemployed, who was found to have a part time job as well as a full time job and who had just had a fortnight holiday in Florida. I couldn’t even afford a weekend in a caravan in Tenby. I can remember the man who had secured a mortgage using the income from his benefits and was then claiming more benefit to help pay the interest on his endowment mortgage.* I couldn’t even afford to stay at home looking after my wee ones, because I had to work to pay our mortgage. I can remember being satisfied when their benefits were stopped because, despite being given every chance, they were either committing Fraud or were not interested in working or helping themselves and it was the right thing to do. I can remember them and others like them – even their faces, many of their names and, the reason I can do this, is because they are actually few and far between.
I think I can count on both hands the people I met who were real “scroungers”. The people that the government would have us think are everywhere. The truth is that the vast majority of people, when given the right kind of help, can work and are pleased to do so. The problem with giving people the right kind of help is that it costs money. This money is in fact small bier compared to what a life on benefits costs in both money and in wasted opportunities. For the hardest to help, it means taking a tailored approach. It is difficult, complicated and expensive to resolve these problems so to make any targeted measures really work we absolutely have to have jobs. Growth and the creation of sustainable jobs are not part of the script for Westminster because the Conservatives are using the economic crisis to justify their pursuit of privatisation, a smaller public sector and less welfare. Rather than trying to fix things, it is easier for the UK government to persuade people that benefit recipients are useless, criminal and lazy, and to blame them for the fact that the rest of us are struggling in this time of austerity.
An Independent Scotland must put eradicating poverty and creating a better welfare system at the heart of its policies. To do that we must, must, must have jobs. We can’t win people over with the economic argument – one side says black, the other white, and it is just too complicated to get to the bottom of the figures. We can win people over by planning for better lives and that means jobs. By working to secure jobs, an Independent Scotland will make welfare affordable. We must develop a welfare system which offers hope and support and doesn’t demonise those who are struggling and need help. We must strive to have a fair welfare system which supports those who are sick and ill, and which assesses their entitlement by applying medical evidence and clinical judgement to each case. We need a system which doesn’t use private companies to carry out interviews that take little or no account of the medical history and prognosis for the patient; which leads to people being found fit for work when they are terminally ill; or to people taking their own life as a result of draconian, nonsensical and cruel decisions to cut benefits.
In an Independent Scotland, measures to help people back into work need to be given back to the public servants who can do it the best of all. Private companies operating training or job search programmes for the unemployed do so to make money. Some of them have shown they do not have the best intentions for their clients at heart – they are simply interested in the balance sheet. An Independent Scotland should not – indeed must not – allow multi-national rich companies to make money out of the misery of others – to use the unemployed for cheap unpaid labour and dash hopes when real jobs don’t materialise. This is immoral and deceitful.
Of course there must also be a plan for people who cheat the system and who try to duck their responsibilities – there have to be penalties for those who refuse to engage with the world of work and will not take the help that is offered. Fraud detection must be robust and we should remove the incentives to commit fraud that are endemic in the Welfare system just now – why do two single people get less benefit than a couple? It simply encourages people to lie about living together. We need, however, to recognise that these people are a small minority and not label all those claiming in the same way. Most of all we must push the message that people are valued. Most of us are just trying to live a good and settled life whether we are on benefits or not.
Unemployment, poverty, disaffection and isolation prevent people from contributing positively to society. Changing our attitudes to welfare will help to change that, and will help to start building a Scotland where achievement is more prevalent than failure; where aspiration is greater than despair and where policies are designed to increase the chance of people living a fulfilled life, contributing positively to the society they live in, rather than being vilified and hated for their “scrounging”.
* This doesn’t happen in the same way today.