The poll that shows Labour can win the argument over benefits

The better educated people are about the benefits system, the less likely they are to support the coalition's reforms.

At first glance, the latest poll on the government's benefit cuts might appear discouraging for opponents of the coalition's approach. YouGov's survey for the TUC found that 48 per cent of people support George Osborne's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years, with 32 per cent opposed. However, their support is based on the false belief that the unemployed will be most affected by the move (64 per cent believed they would be). When informed that the cap will also affect low-paid workers receiving in-work benefits (60 per cent of the cut falls on working families), support for the policy falls to 30 per cent and opposition rises to 40 per cent.

Ahead of next Tuesday's vote on the government's Welfare Uprating Bill, which will enshrine in law Osborne's plan to raise benefits by 1 per cent, rather than in line with inflation (which currently stands at 2.7 per cent), the poll should stiffen the resolve of Labour, which has vowed to oppose the legislation. The clear evidence is that the better educated people are about the benefits system, the less likely they are to support the coalition's reforms. The moral and political duty for Labour is to raise the public's level of understanding. The poll reveals how widespread ignorance about the welfare system is:

  • On average, people think that 41 per cent of welfare spending goes on benefits to the unemployed. The actual figure is three per cent.
  • People believe that 27 per cent of benefits are claimed fraudulently. The goverment's own figure is 0.7 per cent.
  • On average, people think that almost half (48 per cent) of those who claim Jobseeker's Allowance do so for more than a year. The true figure is 27.8 per cent.
  • People guessed that an unemployed couple with two school-aged children would receive £147 a week in Jobseeker’s Allowance. They would actually receive £111.45.

Significantly, the poll found that while 53 per cent of those who gave the least accurate answers believe that benefits are too generous, less than a third (31 per cent) of those who gave the most accurate answers think that they are. As TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady says, it's not surprising that voters generally favour punitive welfare cuts - "They think the system is much more generous than it is in reality, is riddled with fraud and is heavily skewed towards helping the unemployed, who they think are far more likely to stay on the dole than is actually the case."

But as long as Labour continues to emphasise that the main victims of the real-terms cut will be the working poor, while also reminding the public that the majority of the unemployed have worked or will work again soon, there is good reason to believe that it can win the argument.

British musicians Miss Dynamite (5th L) and Charlie Simpson (6th L) join unemployed young people as they stand in line outside a job centre in central London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.