Will Hutton, The Observer: George Osborne’s savage attack on benefits is an affront to British decency
George Osborne’s savage attack on benefits is an affront to British decency
What constitutes a good society? What are our responsibilities and obligations to one another? To what extent is our humanity about looking solely after ourselves or being part of something we call society? The autumn statement, opening a new chapter in its rewriting of Britain’s tattered social settlement, has suddenly made these the fundamental questions in British politics. The last vestiges of an approach to organising society based on a social contract have been shredded. In its place there is an emergent system of discretionary poor relief imposed from on high in which every claimant is defined not as a citizen exercising an entitlement because they have hit one of life’s many hazards, but as a dependent shirker or scrounger.
David Cameron and George Osborne, repudiating the canons of the Enlightenment, the New Testament and the British commitment to fair play, think they are on a political slam dunk. Osborne gloried in his depiction of his actions in support of the nation’s “strivers” and attack on the shirkers. With a populist centre-right press behind him, he thinks he has launched a political masterstroke. Does the Labour party dare to vote against next year’s proposed welfare billremoving the link between inflation and the increase in benefits?
Everyone knows the coalition argument by heart. Fairness demands that the recipients of Britain’s allegedly enormous welfare bill play their part in the crash programme to eliminate Britain’s budget deficit.
Austerity must hit everyone. The welfare system, so the argument goes, has become a colossal scam encouraging systematic cheating and, worse, a culture in which idleness is rewarded and work penalised. What is more, support for social solidarity as a principle is disappearing. Polls reveal large majorities who support the coalition’s propositions.
But can so much of our culture, and what it means to be part of western civilisation, be put aside so easily? The idea that the best society is one organised around a voluntarily agreed contract between its members who come together and acknowledge reciprocal obligations is not so lightly torched. It may be unfashionable to defend the conception of a social contract, but our religion and our culture enshrine the notion of mutual responsibility and obligation.
Life is risky and hazardous for everyone. The bad luck of a broken family, unemployment, poor health, unexpected expenses of old age, mental illness and physical incapacity can hit anyone, however hard working. These risks confront everyone.
A good society recognises these risks and insists they should be shared and insured against in an agreed system of collective insurance. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment proposed that if society was to get beyond theocracy, anarchy or despotism, then it had to be underwritten by such a social contract. To organise society as an individualistic war of one against another was barbaric, while the other models, slavishly following the rules of one religion or one supreme leader, denied freedom.
Cameron and Osborne will publicly say that they still respect such values, but, privately, they are pursuing a different agenda. The terms on which millions have made their plans and life choices have been torn up. The automatic link between inflation and the uprating of benefits is to be scrapped for at least three years. The tax relief available to those building retirement pensions is to be further withdrawn. This comes on top of the capping of benefits, whatever the need, the restrictions on housing benefit, further limiting of incapacity benefit and the shrinking of access to child benefit. Additionally, there is a new bridgehead further to remove employment protection in the labour market, trading employment rights for shares in the company.
Is any of this fair? The heart of fairness is to establish a proportional relationship between contribution and outcome to which everyone consents. People have made calculations about how they are to handle the costs of old age, bringing up their children, physical incapacity or the lack of work in their area on the basis of social contributions to their circumstance that they reckoned on being an inviolable part of the deal. Now they find it is all turned on its head by fiat and for which no one voted. A social contract is a bargain over time. I pay my taxes and national insurance contributions. I should get benefits back when I need them.
What is happening is both illegitimate and contemptible and as the proposals are rolled out, more and more people will start to think so as they are affected too. The anti-welfare opinion poll majorities will begin to dissolve.
Is this necessary? Osborne insists it would be a “disaster” to turn back from his target of balancing the budget within five years and social spending must share the burden. He is an economic illiterate. Economics 101’s first principle is that if households, companies and banks are simultaneously saving and building up surpluses, as they are at present, then someone in the system has to have a deficit to compensate, otherwise there is a downward depressive economic vortex. That someone necessarily is the government. Its deficit is the counterpart of surpluses elsewhere. Osborne could and should have used his autumn statement to give the private sector the confidence to invest, to borrow, to innovate and to spend and so run down its vast £700bn cash stockpile. He should have adopted a bold target for the growth of nominal income, launched a multibillion pound infrastructure programme and cheap loan guarantee scheme. Then the pressure on the government’s own books would have been relieved.
He did none of these, instead believing that financial repression and shameful withdrawal of benefits are the triggers of recovery. Is every last aspect of Britain’s social contract defensible? Plainly not. As far as possible, a social contract should be designed to recognise labour market realities and not undermine incentives, restrict itself to insuring against inevitable risks and hazards and be supported by sufficient taxation and a government doing its level best to promote economic growth and jobs. Reform should take place within such a framework, but that is not what is proposed. Labour is steeling itself to do the right thing; if it can spell out what a 21st-century social contract looks like, this is an argument that can be won.
The Lib Dems also have to brace themselves. Osborne, his politics, economics and values, should be opposed to the last. Are they prepared to do what must be done?
The Observer, Sunday 2 December 2012
Another day, another outbreak of hand-wringing over how to protect vulnerable people from abuse in so-called care homes. Yesterday, it was the government’s turn, saying regulation of residential institutions was inadequate and launching yet another consultation. A few days earlier, the official watchdog revealed risks of poor care were rising, with hundreds of homes not meeting required standards.
Since last year, when Panorama exposed the casual brutality meted out to people with learning difficulties, there have been calls for more reviews, more regulations, more resources. We have seen arguments over accountability, heard debates over private versus public provision. Yet many miss the central point: we should not be locking up people with learning difficulties in this outdated manner.
Little wonder Britain remains stuck in a state of apartheid when it comes to people with disabilities if we accept a system that confines tens of thousands of people to places that give them fewer rights then convicted prisoners. I recently heard of a man stuck in a so-called assessment centre for 17 years; this is longer than life sentences served for murder – and with no parole.
People capable of living independent lives with the right support are consigned to units where they are locked up at night, subject to surveillance and bound by petty rules over what they can drink, when they can watch television and whether they can have relatives visit them in their rooms. Even in some better institutions, well-meaning staff ban staples of modern life enjoyed by the rest of us such as social media, trashy magazines or the occasional burger.
Such practices are not just demeaning – they fail to add up economically. The average cost of those residents being bullied so horribly at Winterbourne View was £3,500 per person per week. These are not unusual fees; full-time residential care is extremely expensive. There are more than 6,000 homes registered for people with learning difficulties, the numbers rising all the time as incidence of disability rises and firms see the potential profits.
Panorama showed we have not moved on so far as we thought from the days of Bedlam. Nor was it an isolated case; 19 of the 51 former patients were subjected to safeguarding alerts in their new homes, including one at an NHS hospital. This victim is now in her fourth home in two years, her parents forced to endure an eight-hour round trip to see her.
We should stop paying huge sums to lock away people with learning difficulties. Far better to create a system of independent living that places people back in their communities, which is what they and their families fervently desire and where they are so much safer. Put three people together in a flat and there is half a million pounds to spend annually on a real home with support staff.
There are some fine examples emerging of people with even quite profound learning difficulties holding mortgages and managing their own budgets. Sadly, such is the myopia towards those with disabilities these are sometimes opposed by residents complaining of “paedos”. One social housing manager told me this problem was at its worst in middle-class areas.
The only way to change these antediluvian attitudes that bedevil Britain is by spending the billions spent caring for those with learning difficulties in a more humane manner. These people should be at the heart of our society, not hidden away as they are all too often at present.
Child benefit: would someone give IDS a brain scan and quickly?
Barbara Ellen,The Observer, Sunday 28 October 2012
His ludicrous and cruel proposition is an insult to the poor
I would like to volunteer to be shrunk and placed inside Iain Duncan Smith‘s brain. I’m reluctant (who wouldn’t be?), but after his declaration that poor unemployed people with more than two children should lose benefits, I feel I have no choice. I would require night vision goggles to see through the murk of his reasoning; also, a leaf blower to get rid of the dense cobwebs of what appears to be an entrenched 18th-century world view.
Stumbling around Duncan Smith’s brain, I expect to come across a giant crumbling cuckoo clock, ticking monotonously but always showing the wrong time, with two tableaux alternating beneath. One: a decent-looking fellow (circa 1950s) doffing his cap to his “betters”. Then another ghastly apparition: a couple slumped on a sofa, drinking, smoking, eating chicken from a bucket, cackling evilly as they fill out endless benefit forms for their many unkempt children. At one point, the woman will lift her skirts and give birth again, directly into the chicken bucket (“Nice little earner!”). Horrifying, but also long suspected: it’s Duncan Smith’s unshakeable vision of Britain’s deserving and undeserving poor.
If you think I’m being dramatic, you should hear him. In his view, hardworking (striving) people are procreating at just the correct rate to suit their budget. Meanwhile, poor unemployed (skiving?) people are just chucking them out, because they know the state will pay for them. Duncan Smith proposes that this group only receive aid for the first two children, presumably in terms of child benefit, tax credits, housing et al. However, those who already have an excess of children would not be affected, presumably to give the fecklessly shagging poor time to put their reproductive organs in order. (Oh, thank you kindly, most merciful gentleman!)
First of all, what is this: “Benefits China”? It brought in a one-child rule in one way; IDS wants a two-child rule in another way, but there seems scant ethical difference. And the truth is there aren’t even that many over-procreating skivers. It’s already been pointed out that, by targeting the surprisingly small amount of long-term unemployed, with more than two children, Duncan Smith won’t save much money. The vast majority of people on jobseeker’s allowance are back working within a year and only 4% have more than two children. Targeting these “skivers”, then, IDS would only claw back a few hundred million, nowhere near the amount (£10bn) George Osborne wants cut from welfare by 2016, on top of the benefits cap.
The Lib Dems have called this “Tory kite flying”. Others suspect that Duncan Smith is including in his private calculations the far larger, and infinitely more lucrative, group of struggling working parents who need their low wages supplemented by benefits. That would hit the spot – such savings could recoup billions. Inconveniently for Duncan Smith, such an action would also instantly negate his apocalyptic vision of mindlessly procreating “bogey-family” benefit scroungers.
Deep down, Duncan Smith must understand that no one in their right mind longs for a lifetime on benefits. He must also realise that people can’t see into the future to ensure they can always afford their children. Just like everyone else, he has access to statistics that prove that very few parents would ever plot towards such an existence.
So what’s this all about? While Duncan Smith tries to get people riled about skivers (leeching off us, laughing at us, procreating at us!), it appears to be a smokescreen for others he might decide to go after: people who are working, doing their best, but still struggling to survive and in need of short- or long-term help. That’s basically those “strivers” he keeps saying he’s protecting and representing. The idea that Duncan Smith doesn’t understand this is frightening, though not as frightening as the thought that he does, but doesn’t care. If it comes to it, I’ve got my goggles and my leaf blower. I’m ready to go in.