The state helps Katie Price care for her disabled child. Photo: Getty
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What the Katie Price benefits row reveals about our paradoxical attitudes towards the system

The celebrity model has defended spending taxpayers’ money on care for her disabled son.

Viewers of Celebrity Big Brother have been yanked through their screens into a moral dilemma regarding care for the disabled, welfare handouts, and multimillionaires. And it looks like this unexpectedly stressful viewing experience has revealed a great deal about the nation’s paradoxical thinking regarding benefits.

Katie Price, the model and celebrity formerly known as Jordan, was explaining to fellow housemates on the show how she pays to care for her disabled son, Harvey. She clashed with the rabid rent-a-rightwing pundit Katie Hopkins over the fact that the state provides a car to drive her son to and from school each day: “he has a driver and a nurse who sits in the car with him”.

Hopkins criticised her use of taxpayers’ money on account of her wealth – the Mail describes Price as a “multimillionare”. In spite of Price telling Hopkins that it would probably cost her £1,000 to pay for a trip between London and Sussex herself, the latter insisted: “With the amount you earn, I'd find that tricky when you can afford it yourself . . . if you can afford to pay for something you should pay for it and you shouldn't rely on the government, I think that's wrong.”

Price’s defence was that she pays her taxes, and does not have a set amount of income each year – and what would her son do if she was paying for it herself, something happened to her, and she could no longer to fund his care privately?

She has also put out a statement on her website, calling it the “local authority’s duty” to pay for Harvey's transport, as he attends a special school outside the area where he lives. The statement also criticises the “government’s choice to close the special needs schools”, meaning Harvey has to go to a suitable school so far away.

What Hopkins’ reaction reveals is how nonsensical attitudes can be towards the way handouts are distributed. The disabled and most disadvantaged have been hit by far the hardest under a coalition fiddling around with where welfare lends a hand. And suspicion of state help from right-wing figures like Hopkins is propping up such unfair changes to the system.

The most pressing problem with the principle of universal benefits is that it aids the advantaged, not the disabled children of those who have ill-advised government cuts to contend with. It’s what benefits wealthy pensioners, who are given winter fuel allowance and free bus passes regardless of how comfortably off they are, and gives all infants – including those from well-off families – free school meals.

Granted, these aspects of the system are occasionally used to condemn the government, but it would take far louder opposition to change them, as they are a symptom of the benefits system being used brazenly by a government buying votes.

Changes to pensioners’ perks would mean risking the ever-precious grey vote, and free school lunches are a gesture brought in by a government attempting to appeal to middle-class voters, and – I’ve been told by a frontline source – can actually save the government money on Pupil Premium spending; a system put in place supposedly to help disadvantaged children.

So before commentators jump on Hopkins’ bandwagon of taxpayer tutting, it’s time to think: should we criticise a universal system for aiding disabled children who have to travel miles from home to get an education due to government choices, or should we concentrate our efforts on scrutinising a state using handouts to buy votes, hurting those who need them most in the process?

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.