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Laurie Penny on the human cost of welfare reform

The scandal is that no one is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision.

The scandal is that no one is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision.

Who will stand up for the welfare state? Not the Conservative Party, whose mantra - "Making work pay" - has turned out to be a cruel euphemism for slashing already meagre welfare payments and steering the long-term sick into the magical land of jobs. Not Labour, which declined a second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill; after all, its attacks on disability and sickness benefits when in power laid the groundwork for the coalition's planned destruction of the Attlee settlement. And it won't be the press.

With most official statistics indicating that gutting welfare on the brink of a second recession will leave millions in penury, the government has resorted to stoking tabloid hysteria, feeding the weekend papers a ready-boxed scare story tied with a thick ribbon of prejudice. Details of the most ersatz claims used by fraudulent welfare claimants have been distributed to build the growing consensus that the poor are simply not worth looking after. This is a consensus that nobody in opposition seems to have the guts to challenge.

In reality, benefit fraud rates remain stubbornly low, at 1 per cent. For every person who claims that a fear of ladders prevents them from cleaning windows, there are 99 others for whom incapacity or unemployment benefits are a vital lifeline. So vital that staff at jobcentres have been issued a six-point plan for how to deal with rejected claimants at risk of suicide. The government appears relaxed about the human cost of welfare reform.

The headline figure is that benefit fraud costs taxpayers £1.6bn each year. That figure is a fabrication. According to statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, this includes over £600m in "official" and customer errors. Factoring out pension scams, the figure is just £250m. To put that number in its proper context, the most conservative estimates hold that corporate tax avoidance costs the Treasury £25bn per year: 100 times the cost of benefit fraud.

Moral case

Threatening the workless with destitution may make good headlines but it is no way to increase employment when there are no jobs to go to. Unemployment in Britain stands at 2.5 million, including almost a million under-25s. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, wants us to believe that the private sector will provide jobs for these people, as well as another million public-sector workers and welfare recipients who will soon be joining the dole queue. Unfortunately, private-sector employment has flatlined, there are six dole claimants for every vacancy and Father Christmas is just your dad faffing about in a nylon suit.

There used to be a liberal consensus that it was the government's responsibility to provide employment and ensure that those unable to work were entitled to a minimum standard of living. As the Welfare Reform Bill oozes unchallenged through the Commons, the real scandal is not that the government is lying through its teeth in order to justify its evisceration of the welfare state. The scandal is that no one in Westminster is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision as the honest heart of social democracy.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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“I’m frightened, genuinely frightened”: how London terror attacks affect the rest of the country

What happens to tourism after terrorism? 

Like many children his age, Adele Pillinger’s six-year-old son is “obsessed” with dinosaurs. Last year, the mother of two from Silsden, West Yorkshire, booked a family trip to London so her two sons could visit the fossil-filled Natural History Museum. They were to go in October 2017 – next month. But last week, Pillinger cancelled the trip.

“I feel it’s too much of a risk,” says the 38-year-old, who made the decision to cancel after the Parsons Green tube attack last Friday. “I’ve got two young children… I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way and that’s what I feel like I’d be doing by taking them to London at the moment.”

Pillinger is not isolated in her decision. Although it is difficult to count the precise impact of terrorism on London tourism, the Westminster Bridge attack in March and London Bridge attack in June saw school trips being cancelled and many changing their plans to visit the capital. Headlines after terror often speak of resilient city-dwellers keeping calm and carrying on, but the effect of terrorism on the psyche – and plans – of others in the country is little discussed.
Adele's son, via Adele Pillinger
“I’m frightened. I’m genuinely frightened,” says Pillinger. “I feel genuinely sorry for you guys [Londoners] because you kind of have to crack on with it. I’m sure if it was happening on our doorstep we’d probably feel the same way… but I wouldn’t visit for pleasure at the moment, I can make a decision to not do it.” Instead, Pillinger plans to take her family mountain-biking in Wales.  

Cori Clarke, a 30-year-old teaching assistant from York, has recently decided against taking her six-year-old son Jude to visit his great-grandmother, who lives in London. “Last summer I took my daughter for a few days in London, a sort of girls’ weekend, and this year was going to be my son’s turn. But with what’s happened, I’m just not going to take him.”

Although she’s aware it may sound hypocritical, Clarke does agree with people who say that cancelling plans is “letting the terrorists win” – and she even persuaded her mother against cancelling her own separate trip, planned for November. “I would say you can’t let these people stop your plans, which I know is contradictory,” explains Clarke, “but I don’t want my son seeing anything; I think he’d be absolutely terrified if anything happened… I just thought it’s not worth it basically.”

Many other parents face similar decisions to Pillinger’s and Clarke’s. Primary school children were trapped in the Houses of Parliament during the Westminster attack in March, and schools across the country have been reassessing their planned trips to London. If schools go ahead with their plans, mums and dads then face the difficult decision of whether or not to isolate their children by pulling them out of the trip.

“I just said no, it just seemed too recent,” says Milli Brazier, a 27-year-old from Southend, Essex, who pulled her nine-year-old daughter out of a trip to visit the Science Museum after the Westminster attack. Though the school originally intended to cancel the trip, it went ahead after parents complained. Brazier and a few other parents decided against letting their children go.

“To be honest the school’s not the most organised school and the thought of if anything did happen… the idea of the school not being able to organise the children and keep them safe…” Brazier trails off. “I think as a parent if you’re not comfortable sending your child anywhere… if it’s not right for you as a parent, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Milli and her family, via Milli Brazier
Like Pillinger, the mother from Silsend, Brazier feels that the rest of the country doesn’t have to “carry on” like Londoners do after attacks. “If you live in London you have to carry on, but if you’re making an unnecessary trip to me it just seems a little bit pointless to take that risk when you don’t need to,” she says. “If I didn’t have children I’d probably do it myself but it’s different when you have children.”

Neither Pillinger, Brazier or Clarke know when they will feel comfortable enough to visit the capital again. “I don’t feel the government is doing enough to make people feel safe,” says Pillinger. When people accuse her of letting the terrorists “win” by changing her plans, she has a succinct reply.

“I would say that I think they’re already winning,” she says, “because we’re not doing anything about it. Everyone’s entitled to feel how they feel about it but I think they’re already winning because I’m frightened…

“It’s not normal what’s happening, it’s not normal and it’s not right and I do think the government needs to get a grip on it and do something more about it.”

By the end of the year, it will perhaps be easier to see the financial impact terrorism has had on London’s tourist industry. It's worth noting that, at present, you're more likely to be killed by a dog or by hot water than by a terrorist. But regardless, it is clear that some families' perception of the capital has changed. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.