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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.