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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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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