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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.