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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.