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13 July 2012

Withdrawing benefits when there are no jobs to find is just cruel

A doctor writes first hand of the repercussions of Whitehall hyperbole on benefits.

By Tom Riddington

The government knows exactly what it’s doing. When the Prime Minister broadcast his intention to substantially shrink the benefits system, it wasn’t because he’s blissfully unaware of the consequences. He knows this will remove a crucial lifeline that could condemn millions to an inescapable cycle of poverty.

A pattern is developing with this government. Policies are announced that seem so clearly detrimental, those enacting them are declared by detractors as either oblivious to the ramifications or utterly callous. But rather than dismiss their decisions as the immoral acts of ignorant elitists, I want to understand their politics. Instead of blustering and chastising, I’m willing to consider that Cameron’s cabinet are neither naive nor malicious. I’d like to know how they justify their actions, and why they think what they’re proposing is right.

As an NHS doctor I can’t agree with sweeping cuts to welfare. We need a social security safety net because the unexpected is precisely that. You cannot predict the personal disasters that drive the need for benefits, in the same way that no-one sets out to require emergency medical treatment. It’s not a culture of entitlement, and it’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s a last resort. Doctors see first hand the repercussions of Whitehall hyperbole. Half a million people will lose their disability living allowance by 2016. They won’t lose their disability. Accident and Emergency departments face the overwhelming challenge of a newly homeless generation when housing benefit for under the twenty-fives is withdrawn. When government aid is withheld from the people who need it  the most, the NHS feels the impact.

Nonetheless, the Conservative’s idea is perfectly valid: switch the emphasis from benefits to employment. Make it more profitable to work than to rely on the state. Enable all people from every part of society to determine their own existence, instead of being reliant on the whims of government funded charity. It’s a well known argument:give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he feasts for a lifetime.

Even when judged by their own standards, this government falls short. So far they’ve taken away the fish. This is the easy half, the half that abdicates state responsibility for the most vulnerable in society. Truly compassionate conservatism would be to ensure a reliable alternative income for each and every person who has their benefits withdrawn. Otherwise those previously trapped on handouts will be just as trapped, but without any financial support at all.

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Unicef has already warned the UK government that their spending cuts will reverse the progress made on tackling child poverty. A recent joint report from Action for Children, the NSPCC and The Children’s Society has concluded that depression, poor quality housing and poverty are far more prevalent than government figures suggest. Children’s charity Kids Company has seen a two hundred percent increase in families relying on them to avoid starvation over the past twelve months. Further cuts to basic social securities will do little to help this sobering trend.

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Reducing housing benefit, capping the numbers eligible for council houses and asking the jobless to do full time community work for free does nothing to address the fundamental flaw in Cameron’s argument. Focusing on jobs not handouts conveniently forgets that employment is the part you need to get right first. It relies on a buoyant jobs market where employers are willing to risk their business on a previously unemployed and potentially unskilled workforce. The UK is fast approaching three million unemployed. In today’s calamitous economic situation, even the most qualified and most experienced remain out of work.

Giving people no choice but to find a job is a great way to get them off benefits. Unless there are no jobs. There is no plan to address the fallout of Cameron’s rhetoric. The new homeless, impoverished disabled and jobless millions don’t factor into his equation, where you’re either productive and employed or a work-shy fraudster. The least appropriate action for the government is precisely what they’re promoting: withdrawing the only means of survival for someone powerless to change their circumstances without help. No matter how you cut it, that’s cruel.

Tom Riddington is a NHS hosptial doctor with a special interest in medical ethics and healthcare politics. You can find him on twitter @drtomriddington.