Benefit cuts and cheap headlines

By Symon Hill
June 28, 2010

Around the time that Norman Tebbit made his famous comments about unemployed people getting on their bikes, my father was doing just that.

Having lost jobs in Midlands car factories in Thatcher's recession of the early 1980s, he was soon cycling miles each day to a gardening job, although he really hated bicycles and the pay was dreadful.

Later, with my father on the dole, my mother managed to get some part-time work delivering newspapers. Several of these papers were filled with screaming headlines attacking benefit claimants as scroungers. The irony would be funny if it were not so sick.

And some of these papers haven't changed. After government announcements at the weekend, welfare “reform” is one of the two themes dominating this morning's front pages. The other is England's defeat in the football world cup. Thankfully, the Sun has missed an opportunity to attack benefit claimants on its front page, choosing instead to tell the England football team, “You've let your country down” (someone really needs to explain to the Sun that football is a game, which means you can enjoy it whatever the result; it's not a war or an international summit).

In contrast, the Daily Express revels in the opportunity to attack “scroungers”, its usual term for benefit claimants. It does not use this word when speaking about the Windsor family and their multimillion pound handouts through the civil list, nor to the arms companies who sponge so many subsidies off the state. In the Orwellian world of Express doublespeak, only poor people can be “scroungers”.

The paper's view of those on incapacity benefit is even more of a fantasy than the perspective promoted by George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith. The Express accuses large numbers of people of “lying” about being too ill to work. In reality, research by the charity Scope found that the latest scheme introduced by the last government seriously underestimated the severity of illnesses in many cases. People awaiting open heart surgery, and others with severe mental health problems or with advanced Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, were declared “fit to work”.

Ministers have suggested that disabled people able to do “some work” should have lesser benefits and be encouraged to find jobs. Many disabled people would love to do so. But despite the gains made by limited equality legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act, many employers are still prejudiced against disabled applicants and workers, and are not geared up to working with them. It is not simply a matter of providing ramps and lifts (though some workplaces still have a long way to go in that regard). There are some disabilities which mean that individuals are more able to work on some days than on others, in a way that can be entirely unpredictable. Employers need to be very flexible about working patterns if people in such a situation are to find jobs.

So if ministers really want to reduce the numbers of people on incapacity benefit, they need to tackle work culture and increase the requirements on employers to be more flexible and effective when it comes to disabled workers. Of course, this would involve challenging businesses rather than attacking benefit claimants, and would not result in favourable headlines in influential right-wing newspapers. While Ed Balls has rightly protested against the government's benefit plans, he should remember that this government is simply continuing with a principle exemplified by the last one – namely, that if given a choice between attacking the vulnerable and attacking the powerful, they will always attack the vulnerable.

Surely almost no-one who voted Liberal Democrat was hoping for this. George Osborne's claim that “we're all in this together” is becoming increasingly ridiculous. Attempts to show that the rich will suffer too are largely symbolic and will make little difference to wealthy people who can access their own education and health care. In a particularly shallow case of gesture politics, cabinet ministers have agreed to take a five per cent cut in their own pay. Does this mean that in return for going along with Tory economic policies, Liberal Democrats ministers will now receive only twenty-eight and a half pieces of silver?

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