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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.