It's not hard to work out why our politicians are changing their minds about the benefit system by GlynnePowell


It's not hard to work out why our politicians are changing their minds about the benefit system

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It's not hard to work out why our politicians are changing their minds about the
benefit system
The cherished certainties upheld by our political masters and intellectual betters sometimes seem so firmly set that
they can never be altered. And then, suddenly, the wind changes.

If you google back a couple of years, you will turn up headlines in which Tory hero Boris Johnson was vowing never to
tolerate ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’.

The cause of this strong language was the Coalition’s benefit policy, introduced by Iain Duncan Smith, which
introduced the first caps on the level of means-tested benefits people were entitled to claim. Housing Benefit was
going to be limited to £400 a week for a family, and Boris thought this would mean the eviction of thousands.

The Mayor’s deep feelings were undoubtedly to do with the looming 2012 London election and his perception that less
well-off voters are in love with the welfare benefits system.

So now, not quite two years later, we have Mr Duncan Smith’s Labour shadow Liam Byrne on the radio, talking about
Coalition plans for a national benefit cap.

How apocalyptic do you think Mr Byrne was?

‘It would make much more sense to have a different cap in different parts of the country,’ he said.

Not much social cleansing there.

How about medical testing of people making claims for Disability Living Allowance, a £12.6 billion a year benefit paid
to those who claim an impairment or health condition, and which, in the past, was awarded to half of all those who
claimed it without any medical check at all?

The tests need fast reform, Mr Byrne said, because they are too bureaucratic. ‘The principle of the test is absolutely

Our politicians seem, over a period of a few months, to have fallen out of love with the benefits system. Mr Byrne’s
view was that ‘the truth is that social security today doesn't enjoy widespread support’.

He added: ‘For many people in work, they don't actually feel they get much out for the pressures that they have to
contend with in everyday life.’

The BBC’s Today Programme prefaced its Byrne interview with a few words from an apparently randomly-selected
young working class man about the benefits system, in which he deplored large numbers of people who fail to work
because they say they are depressed or have bad backs.

The surprise is not that you can find an ordinary person who takes this line, but that the BBC broadcast it so
prominently. The shock was as if you were listening to searing allegations of long ago child abuse on Newsnight, and
suddenly you heard the name Jimmy Savile rather than the Roman Catholic Church.

It is not hard to work out why our politicians are changing their minds about the benefit system. Their polling is telling
them to.

They look at things like the British Social Attitudes survey, an annual snapshot with no reputation for right-wing
savagery, which reported last month that nearly two thirds think benefits are too high. This ‘suggests a fundamental
long-term change in attitudes towards welfare and benefit recipients,’ researchers said.
This week Demos, a think tank closely linked to Tony Blair in the days when Blair was ratting on his promises to
reform the welfare system, came up with the number of people who would like to see benefit claimants issued with a
spending card rather than cash, so as to limit the things that they can buy.

Two thirds wanted a bar on welfare money being used for gambling; half wanted a block on claimant spending on
tobacco and alcohol; just under half wanted to stop benefit money going on branded goods like trainers; more than a
third wanted to ban spending on holidays.

Politicians should not have needed British Social Attitudes or Demos to tell them this. They should have looked at the
government poverty figures which have showed numbers of working people on poverty line incomes rising since 2004,
long before the recession.

They should have realised that working families who face tough competition for jobs and decent wages do not like
paying high taxes to keep their shiftless neighbours untroubled by the need to earn.

What they actually did was to urge more mothers to go out to work. Then they wondered why it wasn’t making them

We now seem to have an end to the dominating consensus, unbroken since the 1960s, which says that welfare is a
right rather than a safety net and that no-one is out of work through their own fault.

If the major political parties can at last summon the courage to reform the benefits system, the rewards for the rest of
us could be great.

Gordon Brown’s tax credits, designed to persuade single mothers to work at least part time, cost nearly £25 billion a
year and serve both to depress the incomes of everyone else and to discourage couples from living together. It is time
tax credits were questioned.

Mr Duncan Smith is already onto the Disability Living Allowance mentioned above. The price to the nation of that one
and tax credits together would pay for David Cameron’s high speed railway line to Birmingham, in a year.

Beyond disability payouts, Housing Benefit costs us around £15 billion. Income Support for those who say they cannot
work, around £8 billion. Council Tax Benefit for claimants of these, another £3 billion.

We are getting close to the cost of building the Boris Island airport by now.

And if the sacred cow of the benefits system turns out to be more of a dead duck, what about other untouchable pillars
of the state that are supposed to be so widely loved that they are beyond serious reform?

Perhaps one day politicians might start to consider how popular with their voters the NHS really is.

More on Atos:

Calls to fine Atos for failure:

Calls to the Hague for the prosecution David Cameron for the relentless
persecution & abuse of our poor,sick,disabled & vulnerable citizens of this nation:

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