The myth of the "welfare scrounger"

A little noticed piece of DWP research shows that four out of five claimants spent at least three quarters of the past four years off unemployment benefit.

In its effort to save money on the working age welfare bill, the government has used some bold imagery. The Chancellor is fond of saying, "where is the fairness...for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?" And the Prime Minister has talked of the benefits bill "sky-rocketing" while "generations languish on the dole and dependency". The benefit scrounger is the bogeyman of British politics, stalking the corridors of Westminster.

In the real world, it’s pretty hard to find families that have never worked, let alone generations of people on the dole. But as well as being political cover for the public spending squeeze, this rhetoric reflects an apparent hardening of public attitudes. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that in 2011 54 per cent of people thought that if benefits were lower people would "learn to stand on their own two feet", more than double the 26 per cent who felt that way just 20 years earlier. It appears that the idea of dependency is almost synonymous with the dole in many people’s minds. As a result, moves to erode benefits, through things like the 1 per cent up-rating plan, garner widespread public support.

Into this rhetorical maelstrom, was last week released a fascinating – and little noticed - piece of research by the Department for Work and Pensions on the benefit histories of dole recipients. It’s a precious piece of evidence in an argument that tends to be fuelled by anecdote, prejudice and fear (on all sides). And it rather undermines the picture that our welfare system is awash with people taking advantage of its 'something for nothing' deal.

The analysis looks at the benefit claims history, going back four years, of people who made a claim for unemployment benefit in 2010-11. For a sample group of 32-33 year olds who claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) in 2010-11, 40 per cent of them had not made a claim before in that period. Sixty three per cent had spent no more than six months of the previous four years on JSA. And almost four out of five claimants had spent at least three quarters of the past four years off the dole. The idea that these claimants are 'trapped' in a 'dependency culture' is absurd.

What all this implies is that the overwhelming majority of people who claim unemployment benefit each year spend at least three-quarters of their time in work. And for 40 per cent of claimants, the need to claim JSA clearly comes as quite a shock since they have no recent history of having done so before. But you would never tell that from the tone of the debate. Only a small minority of adults – 11 per cent of claimants in 2010-11 – have a history of spending more than half of recent years on the dole.

The government is right to want to take action to help that 11 per cent achieve sustainable employment rather than spending half their time on the dole. But when four out of five claimants draw benefits for an unemployment spell that is obviously an unfortunate aberration, it’s clear that the excoriating rhetoric isn’t based in reality. If all claimants are to be labelled 'scroungers', then today’s striver is tomorrow’s scrounger – and that could be any of us. It’s worth remembering that the next time we hear a welfare squeeze being justified by a pervasive 'culture of dependency'.

A man stands outside the Jobcentre Plus on January 18, 2012 in Trowbridge, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.