Cameron’s double standards on benefits

The Prime Minister’s response to criticisms of child benefit betrays a worrying classism.

The government has spent much of the day facing renewed pressure over its proposed changes to child benefit: one senior Tory MP called them "unworkable", and a Treasury tax expert described them as "intrusive" and "an administrative burden".

Meanwhile, the shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, has written to his Conservative counterpart, George Osborne, requesting clarification of how exactly the scheme would work, and who would be eligible under the convoluted new regime.

This is hardly shocking news. What is more surprising, however, is David Cameron's response to such concerns at his press conference.

Aside from how remarkably blasé he was about the practical difficulties, the Prime Minister displayed double standards in his government's approach to rich and poor welfare claimants, betraying a deep classism underpinning the government's implementation of social policy.

In relation to these concerns, Cameron said:

I don't start from the proposition that we are all appalling cheats and liars and tax evaders, and the rest of it, and I am quite sure this change will secure the very generous revenues that the Office for Budget Responsibility have pencilled in. So I don't predict a problem.

Contrast this with the government's plans to use private "bounty hunters" to crack down on what Cameron in August called the "absolutely outrageous" level of benefit fraud.

It seems he thinks that the higher earners who will be missing out are more honest and have a greater sense of civic responsibility than the poorer people who constitute the majority of welfare claimants.

What evidence is available does not support his claims – or prejudices. Those who earn more have greater opportunity to avoid tax, and more often have the social connections and knowledge to enable them to do so.

Tax evasion has been estimated to cost the Treasury £15bn a year – 15 times as much as benefit fraud. This figure doesn't include the legal tax avoidance indulged in by rich individuals and companies, which some have estimated to cost an additional £40bn a year.

So, it's very hard to maintain Cameron's claim that those who would lose their eligibility under the new scheme will be flocking to surrender their child benefits.

In contrast, the government's own figures suggested that last year roughly 1 per cent only of benefit was fraudulently claimed, amounting to £1bn a year, out of a total £148bn spend.

Obviously, any sort of fraud is a bad thing, and nobody would seriously suggest otherwise. It would also be seriously misguided to suggest that "all" those who stand to lose their child benefit are "cheats and liars and tax evaders". However, some will, and as times become harder it is not difficult to see why.

Most importantly, this shows just how wrong-headed this insidious discourse that contrasts an honest, civic-minded upper middle class with work-shy, dishonest lower earners is. What is most worrying is that such ideas are set to be reflected in how critical social policy reforms are implemented.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories