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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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England are out of the Euros – I only wish I'd cared a bit more

Try as I might, I just can’t make myself care about the England football team.

In a humiliation widely regarded as unprecedented, England have just fallen in the 2016 European Championships to Iceland, a country, it was stressed in the build-up, with a population the size of Leicester. True, if the story of last season in the Premiership taught us anything, it was to entertain a wholly new respect for things the size of Leicester. But even so. Iceland! Land of the puffin!

And so the post-mortem begins. It had already begun, in fact. In comments that set a new record for impatience in this area, Raheem Sterling of Manchester City was irrecoverably monstered for various inefficiencies on the right-hand side in England’s opening (and drawn) game. Roy Hodgson, the manager, resigned minutes after the Iceland defeat, reading a statement apparently written in the dressing room between the final whistle and the press conference. With that kind of flair for a deadline, he should obviously now go into sports journalism. But Hodgson’s future was a keynote in the debate even before the group stages were completed. A headline in the Sunday Times, as England entered the knockout phase, facing a highly winnable tie, read: “Hodgson: I won’t beg for my job”. With England, you have to be ready to get your post-mortems in earlier and earlier.

There has been a shift, though. Typically over the past half-century, England would fly in to an international tournament (assuming they’d qualified for it) in a media-supported horn-blare of expectation and entitlement, most of it patently unreasonable. The team’s subsequent failure to match those implausible expectations would then duly sponsor a long period of anguished wailing and dark recrimination. Things have calmed down, however. Of late, thankfully, a more modest understanding of England’s place in the global framework has taken hold. Now the team arrives helpfully cushioned by carefully managed expectations. And then, when they don’t win the tournament, the anguished wailing and dark recriminations start.

Such was the way in 2014 when the most downplayed England team in history went into a tough World Cup group in Brazil and, as widely predicted, didn’t emerge. The consequent flagellation lasted months – simply segued into this new one, really. England has been experimenting with modesty but the lesson of France, surely, is that the experiment has failed. English football doesn’t do modesty – from the overfunded swank of the FA’s hand-picked training and troughing headquarters in Chantilly, down to the aggressive occupation of foreign town squares by its supporters.

On that subject, it was more poignant than usual to reflect on the geographical affiliations declared on the flags at the England end in Nice on Monday night. Harpenden, Bletchley, Lincoln, Burton. Manchester? Newcastle? London? The big metropolises? Not so much. Hard not to catch an eerie echo of the referendum vote map laid out in that carpet of modified bedsheets. Perhaps those England fans actually meant it when they stood on their chairs and sang to their hosts in Marseilles, “F*** off, Europe – we’re voting to leave.” In the international tournaments, the discontented and the overlooked are heard. They take their game back.

I only wish I cared a bit more. I’ve tried, I’ve strained, but it won’t come. The fate of the English national football team doesn’t engage me – except as black comedy, of course, where it’s irresistible. I’m a fully paid-up, card-carrying Chelsea fan and it seems to create barriers at these big summer events. Support a team with five Tottenham players in it? I have too much invested emotionally, year-round, in the notion of Harry Kane not prospering on a football pitch to make the necessary leap, even though it’s June and we’re supposed to be on holiday. I’m not pretending this does me credit. But I can’t deny it.

Giles Smith writes for the Times
Hunter Davies returns in September

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies