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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle