Bedroom tax: Is the Government genuinely ignorant?

By Bernadette Meaden
March 7, 2013

This is not the first government to be accused of being out of touch, and no doubt it won’t be the last. When the government is comprised largely of millionaires who have led unusually privileged lives, perhaps it is almost too easy an accusation to make. But when a government seems disconnected from the lived reality of its people to an extent that is quite evidently damaging, then the disconnect must be taken seriously.

Worryingly, it seems the more vulnerable and disadvantaged you are, the less the government understands how its own policies are affecting you.

Take this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, for instance. In response to questions about the bedroom tax, David Cameron asserted, almost angrily, that disabled children are exempt, and that disabled adults who need round the clock care are exempt. Now, this is just not true, as the National Housing Federation confirms here.

Not only is what the Prime Minister stated untrue, the DWP is currently embroiled in several court cases over this issue, with lawyers representing disabled children taking legal proceedings against Iain Duncan Smith. If the Prime Minister actually believed what he was saying in Parliament, he is not only out of touch with the country, he is out of touch with what’s happening in his own government on a very contentious, politically explosive issue.

The Prime Minister frequently asserts that the government will always look after ‘genuine’ sick or disabled people. But the facts don’t support that. Employment Support Allowance, which replaced Incapacity Benefit, is now limited to one year, meaning that in future very large numbers of adults with ill health or disability will be denied any benefits, having to depend on friends or family, or otherwise becoming destitute.

Similarly, with unemployment: for some time there have been doubts expressed about the reliability of the unemployment figures. How can they look relatively good in an economy which is flatlining, possibly entering a triple dip recession? In the last few days, even Conservative luminary Michael Heseltine expressed his puzzlement in a television news interview.

Close examination of the figures reveals hundreds of thousands of people who are on various government schemes, who are not earning a wage but are counted as employed.

Last year in their study ‘The Real Level of Unemployment 2012’ researchers at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research stated:

"For Britain as a whole in April 2012, the new figures point to more than 3.4 million unemployed. This compares to just 1.5 million on the claimant count and 2.5 million according to the Labour Force Survey – the government’s two official measures of unemployment. The difference is attributable to extensive hidden unemployment."

The report provides alternative, ‘true’ unemployment figures for each region, and in direct contradiction of the assertions of Iain Duncan Smith, the authors conclude that "the notion that the unemployment problem can be solved simply by encouraging the unemployed to look for work seems distinctly far-fetched."

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has predicted that child poverty will rise by 400,000 over the course of this Parliament, but in response the government is determined, not to tackle it, but to redefine it, in a way that will largely attribute it to poor parenting, not pitifully low incomes, and a welfare state that is being dismantled.

Similarly with Foodbanks: David Cameron is determined to portray them as something to be celebrated, the Big Society in action, rather than glaring proof that the government has failed to ensure a basic level of social security for its own citizens.

What are we to make of this terrible disconnection between the government and its most vulnerable citizens? The best interpretation would be that it is genuine ignorance or incompetence, because that would imply that Minsters could be informed or persuaded into a different course. But that seems increasingly unlikely, which is disturbing, and genuinely frightening for the most vulnerable among us.

When the government creates and promotes an alternative version of reality, which serves to mask and trivialise the negative impact of their policies, it is far worse than out of touch. It is deliberately abandoning the weakest to their fate in an ugly Darwinian brand of politics.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.