Osborne is unafraid of the "nasty party" label. Is he right?

The Chancellor works on the assumption that voters have a boundless appetite for ever tighter welfare limits.

Is there a limit to how hard the coalition can be on people who depend on unemployment benefit? George Osborne clearly calculates that there isn't. Among the announcements in today’s spending review was a further tightening of the conditions to be imposed on people signing on when they lose their jobs. They are:

Introducing upfront work search, requiring all claimants to prepare for work and search for jobs right from the start of their claim;

Introducing weekly rather than fortnightly visits to Jobcentres for half of all jobseekers;

Requiring all unemployed claimants, and those earning less than the Government expects them to, to wait seven days before becoming eligible for financial support;

 Requiring all claimants who are subject to conditionality to verify their claim every year;

 Requiring all claimants whose poor spoken English is a barrier to work to improve their  English language skills; and

 Requiring lone parents who are not working to prepare for work once the youngest child turns three.

According to the Treasury, this will save the taxpayer £350m per year. (See page 7 here.) Hidden in that dry bureaucratic language are measures whose net effect will be to increase the likelihood of people with no money finding themselves without help.

Especially harsh is the obligation to wait seven days before making a claim. This, said the Chancellor, was to make sure people start their job search immediately and don’t just roll up to a Job Centre on day one of their unemployment. What they are expected to do on days 2-6 if their job search isn’t immediately successful isn’t explained.

Besides, the presumption here is that the DWP is a well-oiled machine that efficiently processes benefit claims and disburses money like some social action ATM. That plainly isn’t the case, as anyone who has claimed benefits - or even just met someone who has claimed benefits - would know. The main effect of introducing an arbitrary delay in eligibility will be a hike in rent arrears and a surge in visits to loan sharks.

The stipulation that non-English speakers improve their language skills before claiming is a pretty crude device to show that the government doesn’t like paying benefits to immigrants. How that will be assessed should be interesting to watch. Maybe a private sector provider could be awarded a contract to hurl difficult spellings at people with funny sounding names? The evidence shows that immigrants are proportionately less likely than other sections of the population to claim benefits but that isn’t really the point. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the political imagination to see why the Chancellor came up with this particular wheeze. It is a dash of Ukip-lite in the spending review.

Overall the welfare debate in Britain has become dismal and sterile. Supporters of the Chancellor will today say there is nothing inherently unjust about the new measures – they simply ask that people make the appropriate effort to find work before taking cash from the taxpayer. The left will point out that every increase in “conditionality” amounts to a new hole in the safety net through which vulnerable people fall, leading to deeper poverty, social problems and  – if you want to be all utilitarian about it – higher costs to the taxpayer in the long run.

The opposition will denounce the measures and then refuse to say whether or not it would reverse them. The Tories will jeer. Labour will tie itself in little angsty knots trying to work out whether it is supposed to be channeling the anger of voters against a faulty benefits system it generally failed to reform during 13 years in power or debunking welfare myths and reversing prejudices against benefit claimants.

Immigrants, the unemployed and single mums will drop another rung down the social hierarchy as the supposed authors of their own immiseration. I have asked very well-placed Tories if they are ever worried that at some point this strategy – mining ever deeper into people’s resentment of the way their neighbours appear to game the benefits system  - will backfire. Is there a compassion threshold beyond which voters will recoil from the harsh language and the social consequences of a brutal welfare settlement. (The myth that there is anything generous about the UK’s provision is well addressed here.) The answer from Treasury sources is “no”. I have been told by one senior  advisor that, having looked at opinion polls, the Chancellor has concluded that he would struggle to meet the public’s appetite for welfare crackdowns. Some Conservatives are more cautious, insisting that the party has to be very careful about the language it uses in this context – no explicit references to “scroungers”. “More in sorrow than in anger” is the guidance from one Tory strategist on the tone MPs should take when talking about benefit cuts.

Still, I find it hard to believe that the Tory party, given the whole legacy of brand toxicity from the 1980s and 1990s – the “nasty party” image – won’t eventually suffer some kind of backlash in connection with this stuff. As I’ve written before, voters are capable of holding two contradictory thoughts in their heads at the same time: first, yes we wanted you to cut the benefits bill but, second, in so doing you have reinforced every suspicion we had that you are mean at heart.

Maybe Osborne is right. Perhaps there is no bottom – the axe can go ever deeper, the sanctions can get tougher, the dividing lines with Labour can grow wider. Cracking down on welfare could be the political gift that keeps on giving for the Tories. But there are also swing voters who struggle to put their cross in the Conservative box on polling day because they feel that, ultimately, it is a party that has it in for foreigners, single mums, disabled people, the sick, the poor. Today the Chancellor didn’t do much to persuade them otherwise.

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on August 11, 2011 (Getty Images)

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.