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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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.