Morally amazed

I'd expected my views to be attacked when I appeared on the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 last night. What I had not expected was the extremism of the views pitted against mine. It's a sign of just how far to the right British politics has moved – particularly on issues of welfare and employment.

The panel were debating the government's plan of forced labour for people unemployed for a year or more. I appeared as a 'witness' to argue that it is wrong to force people to work for benefits – instead of minimum wage, some of them will receive as little as £1.73 per hour.

Former minister Michael Portillo was more extreme than I expected, asking if unemployed people would take a job more quickly if they were dependent “on their friends” - implying that everyone can rely on friends and that there are jobs available for all.

Claire Fox went further, raising as a “thought experiment” the possibility of scrapping benefits for unemployed young people altogether, because they'd be “tough” enough to cope. Perhaps she might like to attend today's service at St Martin's-in-the-Fields to commemorate people who have died homeless in the last year. She could reflect on how many more would be commemorated if her “thought experiment” became reality.

It says a great deal that these sort of comments can be made by respected commentators on a high-profile radio show. It shows how normal it has become to suggest that receiving support from the state is a questionable privilege rather than a natural consequence of a living in a civilised society in which people support each other.

If we want to know where this attitude will lead, we need only to listen to the 'witness' who followed me – Larry Mead. Mead is a pioneer of 'workfare' - a euphemism for forced labour – in the United States.

When asked if it was demeaning to require people to work for benefits, he said “That's what the middle class would feel like if they had to do this, but a typical poor person doesn't make that distinction between work for welfare and work for a wage...I know it's not logical to us, the middle class... For them, it's a step forward.”

I don't know anyone who couldn't make the distinction between paid work and unpaid work. I doubt you do either. But Mead's comment is not only frighteningly unrealistic. It also portrays a highly divisive attitude to society. For Mead, middle class people are 'us' working class people are 'them'.

This betrays the agenda of the coalition government and their friends in the right-wing press, who want people with jobs to see benefit claimants as an alien group.

In the wake of the economic crisis, we can choose to take responsibility as a society, asking ourselves tough questions about our priorities, our way of working and our attitudes to money. Instead, the government has chosen to launch an attack on people on the margins of society.

And I fail to see how scapegoating a vulnerable economic group is morally different to scapegoating people on the basis of their race or religion.

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Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. The Moral Maze can be heard at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qk11.

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