The coalition shouldn't assume that there is no limit to public support for welfare cuts

With the government viewed as out of touch with families on low incomes, the mood could yet turn against austerity.

The government could be making a serious political blunder if it believes that talking tough on 'welfare' is enough for people to be persuaded that it’s "on the side of hardworking people". 

Hot on the heels of news from the latest British Social Attitudes survey that there has been a significant fall in the number of people who believe benefit payments are too high, the Child Poverty Action Group is today publishing YouGov polling showing that the vast majority of the public believe the government is out of touch with families on low incomes and middle incomes.

Despite some of the harshest political rhetoric for years, widely seen as aimed at pitting the hard-pressed ('strivers') against benefit claimants ('skivers'), nearly seven in ten (69%) people think the coalition government does not understand the concerns of people on low incomes. This view is strongly supported by voters of all the main parties in the 2010 election, raising important questions about the limits of public support for the coalition’s cuts to social security. 

Today, the Child Poverty Action Group is launching a campaign asking politicians – of all parties – to forget the stereotypes and remember that benefit claimants are 'People Like Us'.

As part of this, we’re inviting party leaders to watch a film we’re releasing of three ordinary people receiving benefits talking about their concerns. It cannot be right that debates on the reform of the social security system - a major public service after all - have become obse ssed with misleading stereotypes, which have crowded out the reality of who really claims benefits and why they need this support.

It’s only from listening to the experiences of ordinary people that we can have a sensible debate and policies that promote jobs, tackle low pay, promote affordable housing and childcare and help families with the added costs of children. Policies that people want and need.

One of the truths that is regularly obscured by the myths and stereotypes is that the vast majority of claimants have worked, and will work again. If politicians are genuine about getting on side with 'hardworking people' they should talk more about strengthening social security, or the security of family finances, and put a stop to beating up on social security claimants.

Demonstrators hold placards protest against the bedroom tax outside the High Court on 15 May 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain