Shift the rhetoric from benefit scroungers to cheating corporations

Undue focus on "scrounging" is draining public support for welfare at a time when a proper safety net is desperately needed by millions of vulnerable people.

If you ask someone in receipt of benefits what their biggest barrier to going to work is, many will say they simply cannot afford to take a job. This may sound ludicrous, but for those moving from unemployment into employment the loss of benefits combined with starting to pay income tax and national insurance can have a very profound impact.

Under the government's new Universal Credit, to be introduced next year, people rejoining the ranks of the relatively low paid will have a proportion of their earnings clawed back in the form of reduced benefit. This reduction in benefits will be equivalent to an effective rate of tax of 65 per cent on their additional earnings, on top of any income tax and national insurance they have to pay, until they are earning enough not to be entitled to any benefits. Faced with the additional cost of childcare and transport, it’s not surprising that many of the poorest, like single parents, decide not to risk being worse off in work.

Compare this debilitating, effective tax rate of 65 per cent, with the amount of tax being paid by some of the biggest multinational companies trading in the UK - some of whom avoid taxation entirely or are paying as little as 2.5 per cent tax on their UK earnings - and it reveals a gross inequality. But are the public seeing this unfairness reflected in our political and public discourse?

Last week Starbucks and Amazon faced a grilling by the Public Accounts Committee, but these cases of high profile multinational companies not paying their fair share are only just starting to get the political and media attention they deserve. For years before the current recession started and the government’s need to balance the books became such a dominant issue, there were many more stories about "scroungers" and "cheats" who have claimed benefits dishonestly than companies dodging their responsibilities. This is despite the fact tax avoidance and evasion costs the economy £32bn a year, nearly 30 times more than the £1.2bn lost through benefit fraud. Austerity means tax dodgers no longer get a free pass but they have still faced nothing like the political and media spotlight focused on benefit "scroungers".

Iain Duncan Smith has been forced to admit that the Department for Work and Pensions has over-egged statistics on benefit fraud, yet the government are treading much more carefully when it comes to chastising corporations. When asked outright by the chair of the Public Accounts committee if Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay and Starbucks were morally wrong for avoiding nearly £900m of tax between them, David Cameron gave no more than a limp rebuke, saying "we do need to make sure we are encouraging these businesses to invest in our country". How about we invest more in the British people who are stuck in the benefit trap, rather than blaming and shaming them for needing government support?  

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that putting an end to benefit fraud would be the solution to fixing our battered public finances. Indeed a recent survey YouGov did for Oxfam found people massively overestimate the problem. The poll showed that members of the public, on average, believed the total cost of false benefit claims to be 12 times higher than it actually is (the average estimate of respondents was £15bn, compared to official government figures which put it at £1.2bn).

Whilst the public is right, of course, to be worried about benefit fraud, the poll reinforces Oxfam’s concern that undue focus on this problem is draining public support for welfare in general at a time when a proper safety net is desperately needed by millions of Britain’s most vulnerable citizens who are facing a perfect storm of rising prices and falling incomes.

Our poll showed that despite the extensive media coverage of current welfare reforms, the public had little understanding of where the UK’s welfare bill is spent. Half of respondents believed benefits for unemployment (27 per cent) or sickness and disability (22 per cent) make up the majority of welfare spending, which in reality account for 2.9 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. More than half of the welfare budget is spent on pensions, yet only 17 per cent of respondents identified this as the biggest area of spend.  

Oxfam believes that misconceptions about the welfare system may be contributing towards a hardening of public attitudes towards benefit claimants. The latest survey of British social attitudes found that sympathy for people on welfare benefits has fallen to an all time low, despite the fact that benefits are at their lowest level since the welfare state was founded compared to average earnings. Benefit levels have actually halved compared with incomes since 1980, falling from one-fifth to one-tenth of average earnings. During previous recessions public support actually increased for those on welfare, yet now some of the ingrained myths about the benefit system mean that people who genuinely rely on welfare are being vilified.  

Whilst the public is being told that a crack down on welfare will help balance the books, in reality benefit fraud is small beer compared to the billions in tax that companies and wealthy individuals dodge each year. Eighty three per cent of poll respondents agreed with Oxfam that politicians and the media are giving the issue of tax avoidance and evasion too little attention and just over half thought preventing tax avoidance and evasion should be the government’s top priority to help reduce Britain’s national debt.

The Prime Minister has rightly said that we should not balance Britain’s books on the backs of the world’s poorest people. The same should apply to poor people in the UK. At a time when many people are facing cuts to benefits and services and many more are struggling to get by, the Government’s focus for deficit reduction needs to shift and they need to do much more to make the "scrounging" and "cheating" multinational corporations pay their fair share.

Chris Johnes is Director of UK Poverty for Oxfam

Charity workers hand out food to those in need. Photograph: Getty Images

Chris Johnes is Director of UK Poverty for Oxfam.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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