Iain Duncan Smith and Melanie Phillips: in a world of their own?

The universal credit is championed by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan SmithIain Duncan Smith was quoted in the Daily Mail on Sunday as saying that:

‘People who are paying taxes, working very hard, have hardly seen any increases in their salary and yet, under the last government, the welfare bill rose by some 60 per cent to £200billion’ 

This is exactly the type of double speak that the tabloid press loves, but it is riddled with contradictions. The most apparent of which is of course that it was precisely because wages were stagnant and prices increasing that the welfare bill had to rise in order to meet the difference. Is IDS saying that if he had of been in power during the Labour ‘boom-years’, he would have put downward pressure on benefits?  If so, doesn’t that mean that he would have presided over the impoverishment of the UK’s workforce, with low income households being squeezed between an inadequate benefit ‘top up’ and falling real wages?

IDS is right to point to Labour’s using the benefit bill to prop up depressed wages as a disaster, but by failing to offer a viable alternative i.e. ensuring that work actually pays, he exposes the contradiction inherent in his own government’s position; that as long as wages fail to keep up with inflation, the government is faced with either higher benefit payments (note the increase in the Housing Benefit bill despite massive cuts) or an increasingly impoverished population.  Labour may not have had an answer when they were in power, but it certainly doesn’t look like the Conservatives have one now either.

Melanie Phillips demonstrated similar levels of ignorance in her Archbishop bashing article where she failed to grasp the irony of simultaneously claiming that social security is the refuge of the ‘selfish’ and ‘anti-social’, and noting that over half the population is receiving a social security benefit!  I assume she wasn’t claiming that half the population are selfish and anti-social, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised if she had.

Furthermore, neither Melanie nor its creator IDS appear to fully understand that Universal Credit, the new payment that will replace most of the current benefit system by 2017, will be the same for in-work as well as out-of-work claimants.  Universal Credit, and welfare reform more general, is an acceptance of exactly the thing that the Tories decry; the institutional and political acceptance of the fact that benefits become increasingly more important as wages drop or remain stagnant.

By failing to ensure that work pays, the Tories and their proponents are instead tying us to a system that will see the benefit bill increasing as prices continue to outstrip wages, and increasing numbers of previously self-sufficient families are forced to make a claim, often for the first time. It is low wages that create benefit dependency  not ‘selfish’ or ‘anti-social’ citizens.

Media generated stigma stops people claiming benefits

As someone who reads benefits related news coverage on a daily basis I am continually astounded by the constant stream of negative stories about ‘scrounging’ benefit claimants. Hardly a day goes by without a story about benefit ‘fraudsters’ scamming thousands of pounds from the state, despite the fact that less than 3% of benefits claims are found to be fraudulent.

A new report, entitled Benefits Stigma in Britain, by the University of Kent for Turn2us has found that the perceived stigma generated by this torrent of negative media depictions of benefits claimants has put off hundreds of thousands of people from claiming the benefits they are entitled to, leading many to forgo essentials such as food and fuel.

The researchers examined more than 6,000 articles about benefits published between 1995 and 2011 in all the major newspapers. They found that there has been a surge in negative stories compared to the previous 10 years, with 30% of the articles focusing on benefit fraud.

The researchers tested the accuracy of statistics used in articles and found many to be inaccurate or misleading. For example the report highlights an article in the Daily Telegraph that claimed there were many families taking £100,000 a year in housing benefit, when in reality there were only five such families in the UK.

The reports evidence suggests that stigma is playing a role in explaining non take-up of benefits and tax credits, with around one in four respondents to a MORI survey giving at least one stigma-related reason for delaying or not claiming. However the report found that decisions about whether to claim were also influenced by the complexity of the system and the incentives embedded within it.

Rob Tolan, head of policy at Turn2us, highlighted how this stigma had effected some of their clients:

At a human level, stigma sees the elderly, sick and disabled people skipping meals or keeping the heating off … One lady we helped, who was left disabled by a brain tumour, ate porridge five nights a week, rather than ask for help.”

The full report is available here.

‘Close to Home’ – the real story of life on benefits

Last night, I attended Close to Home, a reading put on by the theatre company Ice and Fire. It was in a beautiful, albeit rather gloomy venue called the Union Chapel, in Islington and was extremely well attended.

Ice and Fire had interviewed various different people living on benefits, and their verbatim testimony had been woven into a script which was performed by some wonderful actors.

The stories included heartbreaking comments from a severely ill 30 year old woman. She was routinely hospitalised because of cystic fibrosis yet had a well-founded fear of losing her Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which pays for the car that provides her with her only method of getting out of the house. She spoke very poignantly about the fear and humiliation induced by the government’s express intention of cutting DLA by 20%  which is based on the assumption that 20% of DLA payments currently being made are undeserved.

Continue reading