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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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.