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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.