The "better off on benefits than in work" claim is a complete fallacy - where's the evidence?

The real issue for the government is not making work pay, but making work exist, says the PCS union's Mark Serwotka.

 

Earlier this month work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and chancellor George Osborne claimed their changes to our welfare system mean, "no longer will it be possible to be better off on benefits than in work". The prime minister wrote the same in the Sun, calling it a "crazy situation".

The government's line, as it very gradually rolls out Universal Credit from today, that it is "making work pay" has cross-party support. "We would make work pay," promises Duncan Smith's mini-me Liam Byrne, while shadow chancellor Ed Balls affirms that "it must pay more to be in work than live on benefits."

My union's members, tens of thousands of whom work on the benefits and tax credits system, are confused. A jobcentre worker told me: "All the calculators that we use in jobcentres are designed to show that you would be better off in work."

So if politicians are telling us all that you can be better off on benefits, and jobcentre advisers are telling claimants that they would be better off in work, someone is being lied to. But who? Iain Duncan Smith should come clean. But not being one to look for pots of gold at the end of rainbows, I asked my union researchers to look into it.

They found the DWP’s "tax benefit model" – data which showed how much better off people out of work, in a range of circumstances, would be by moving into employment. Publication of this data was, intriguingly, abandoned in 2010 – just after the coalition government was elected, but a similar calculator is still used by DWP staff. It shows what would happen if someone moves into work for 30 hours per week. Even on the minimum wage, the legal minimum, benefits only deliver 79 per cent of what you would be paid in work.

We looked again to see if the same was true for only 16 hours of work – after all there are 1.4 million people working part time because they can’t find full-time work. This time benefits were only worth 81 per cent of a working income. Jobcentre advisers tell me these figures closely match the ones they use today.

For verification, we checked against data collected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on all major countries’ welfare systems, including the UK’s. Like the DWP calculator, it factors in housing costs and benefits, and it assesses what is called the "replacement rate" for moving from benefits into work for 30 different household types – and in not one single case would a household be better off on benefits.

It does not feature in either the DWP's or OECD's models, but work might not pay for those who work very few hours in low paid jobs. But the irony here is that Duncan Smith has himself actually made this more likely by increasing the number of hours people need to work before they receive working tax credits.

The "better off on benefits" fallacy has become common. In truth, there has always been a clue that it is an urban myth: no one who claims it exists has ever actually given up work to live the benefits high life. And why not? Probably because deep down they do not believe it, but it is also true that even when the benefit of working is highly marginal, most people want to work. As unemployment climbs above 2.5 million, and 6.8 million counting as underemployed, the reality is there are fewer than half a million job vacancies. The real issue for the government is not making work pay, but making work exist.

PCS members working in jobcentres face a bullying management driving down their own living standards and setting targets that staff are told to deny exist. Low pay is so endemic that up to 40 per cent of the DWP’s own staff will be eligible for Universal Credit themselves. It is grim, far worse than when I started working for the DHSS in the early 1980s. Back then we helped claimants and took as long as was necessary to get them the benefits to which they were entitled.

On the other side of the counter (or more likely now on the other end of a phone) it is even worse, with claimants subject to more and harsher sanctions, unprecedented demonisation from ministers and a Pavlovian press trained to foam at the mouth at the mention of scroungers and skivers.

As well as challenging ministers’ myths, we have a duty to challenge their hatred-inciting rhetoric. So the next time Iain Duncan Smith – or anyone else for that matter – claims people are better off on benefits, hand him a pen and paper and ask him to show you how.

Mark Serwotka is the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images
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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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