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Laurie Penny on Kate Middleton: benefit scrounging mother moves into palace at taxpayer's expense

Britain only permits two types of outrage today: dog-whistle disgust for the extremely poor and spanielish devotion to the aristocracy.

“Dole Queen Owns Horse!” screeched the front page of yesterday's Sun. This masterpiece of balanced headlining ran alongside a full-length picture of a distressed-looking pregnant woman who is due to be relocated into an extravagant new home at the government’s expense. The thirty-one year old, who has never held a full-time job, will shortly be moving into a twenty-bedroom palace with a fleet of staff, all funded by the taxpayer at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds per year. Kensington Palace, to be precise. The state is to fund the redecoration of every room to suit the unemployed mother-to-be and her husband, who is also out of work after a brief stint in the army. 

By now, the twisted logic of tabloid mob-whippery dictates that a small host of outraged citizens carrying pitchforks, cameras and branding-irons should be forming to descend on Kensington. The public must be demanding to know who this brazen madam thinks she is and why she's being allowed to have a kid on the state and hundreds of millions of pounds in handouts instead of accepting a slow slide into alienated penury like the rest of us. Throw the hussy to the vultures! Smear her face over every front-page, have her chased from her home by packs of wild paparazzi! Confiscate her uterus! Rent out the offending organ to wealthy Chinese families until the surrogacy fees have paid back the exorbitant cost of her outrageous hyperfecundity to the public purse! If we’re not careful, every scrounging harlot this side of Anglesey will grow up thinking that the recipe for an easy life is to amass a collection of elegant wrap-dresses and marry the hereditary heir to the Duchy of Cornwall. The shame of it. 

Rather than string this one out until it snaps, let's be absolutely clear that we're talking about the Duchess of Cambridge here. By an unhappy oversight of tabloid subediting, Kate Middleton’s picture appeared yesterday in every paper looking slightly sad about some slightly mean things said about her by a Booker Prize-winning author, alongside headlines attacking Heather Frost, mother-of-eleven, for daring to be rehoused by a local council that has a statutory duty to do so. That these two stories have hit the front pages this week tells you most of what you need to know about class and media manipulation in Britain today. 

Tabloid persecution of individuals in receipt of welfare benefits is practically encouraged by the Department for Work and Pensions, which has been known to feed its tame papers stories about "benefit scroungers" to drum up support for its policy of plunging hundreds of thousands of children into poverty. Say anything the least bit critical about the Duchess of Cambridge, however, and you’ll get an official reprimand from the PM, or worse. If Hilary Mantel’s subtle and incisive essay merits public excoriation of this sort, I’m expecting a team of black-baggers to burst through my window at any second once they find my back-catalogue of republican rantery - so please forgive any spelling mistakes. I’m writing this column at speed, in the dark, hiding under the bed.

Before they come to take me away, let's look at the figures. Frost's large family costs the British state some £30,000 a year, as opposed to the £30m paid to the Queen per annum, on top of the Royal family’s land-based income and travel and living expenses. The morality of having a child at state expense is not what I want to discuss here: the key difference between Kate Middleton and Heather Frost is that the Duchess’ future children will never be at risk of poverty, whereas Frost’s are. In fact, in the sixth richest country in the world, over a quarter of children and young people live in poverty. The morality of that uncomfortable little statistic is never questioned, because Frost’s real crime in the ledger of proto-fascist tabloid morality is not the fact that she has a lot of children, but the fact that she is poor. Every millionaire in Britain will be receiving a £42,000 tax cut come April, and none of them are being shamed for it on the front page of the Sun.

There are two types of outrage permitted on of this bitter little island right now: dog-whistle disgust for the extremely poor and spanielish devotion to the aristocracy. If we're going to talk about large, dysfunctional families gaming the system and spoiling democracy for hard-working, law-abiding, ordinary citizens, the discussion should start and finish with the House of Windsor. The royals and their retinue cause more damage to the British psyche than any luckless single-parent family scapegoated by the tabloids, and it's a cost that goes way beyond the financial implications of the Civil List. Yesterday’s headlines, like tomorrow’s and next week’s, tell the people of Britain in terms as stark and brutal as an eviction notice: ask for nothing, doff your cap, and know your place.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.