Cutting benefits for teenage mothers is a policy based on prejudice alone

The measure proposed by the 40 Group of Tory MPs will do little to reduce the welfare bill, while further stigmatising an already marginalised group.

While Iain Duncan Smith tours the studios defending the government's punitive benefit cap, other Conservative MPs have been busy dreaming up new welfare cuts. In a measure seemingly inspired by former social security secretary Peter Lilley, who denounced "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue", the 40 Group of Tory MPs (so called because they represent the 40 most marginal seats won by the party in 2010) has proposed removing benefits from teenage mothers unless they live "with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation". This measure, it says, will leave teenagers "in no doubt that teenage motherhood will not lead to an automatic right to subsidised housing and other benefits". 

As in the case of Duncan Smith and his "belief" that people are moving into work as a result of the benefit cap, they've no evidence for their claim that teenagers have children in order to claim benefits (as they concede), but they're prepared to allow their prejudices to shape policy all the same.

Before addressing the proposal itself, it's worth noting that the teenage pregnancy rate is currently at its lowest level since records began in 1969 (not a statistic you'll find in the group's literature) and that many young mothers already live with their families or in sheltered housing. But while the number affected would be too small to make any significant dent in the £201bn social security bill, the measure would cause much unnecessary harm. It would further stigmatise an already marginalised group that deserves to be supported, not punished. In addition, as Sue Cohen of the Single Parent Action Network, points out, the coalition has already made large cuts to sheltered housing. Is there to be new investment? If not, she says, the government "is consigning their children to even deeper poverty". 

Finally, forcing young mothers to remain with their parents contradicts measures such as the benefit cap , the "bedroom tax" and non-dependent deductions (which reduces housing benefit for those families with a child aged over 18), which are ostensibly designed to encourage families to downsize.  

At a time when Britain has no shortage of social and economic problems, it's genuinely dismaying to see the new generation of Tory MPs resort to attacking the same old targets.

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The 40 Group of Tory MPs said teenage mothers would have to live "with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation" to claim benefits. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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