“Money pads the edges of things”. EM Forster puts these words in the mouth of the wealthy Margaret Schlegel in Howards End. They sprang to my memory this week as the Con-Dem coalition's plans for for removing security of tenure of council tenants, and for cracking down on benefit fraud hit the headlines.
It seems that wealth not only eases the sharp edges of life, it may also serve as a baffle on the moral antennae. Eighteen of the 23 members of the present cabinet are reported to be millionaires and presumably will never have to face the possibility of being removed against their will from a home they love, where they have long felt themselves members of a community and where they have flexibility in accommodating those whose presence gives them pleasure and support.
Looked at from the point of cold logic, it may seem reasonable to ask whether, for example, a widow whose children have left home should continue to live in a three bedroomed house when there are so many on the waiting lists for social housing. But the benefits of being able to have her grandchildren come to stay and to remain where her friends are, should be put into the equation.
No one who pays their housing dues to a mortgage provider would tolerate for one moment having their occupation of a property terminated because government decides it is too big. Financial considerations may well come into play and 'downsizing', when freely chosen, a good solution. But that freedom of choice is important. Should rent payers, who may have been good tenants for forty years be deprived of it? The question should at least be discussed, and in terms of equality of consideration and justice, as should a programme of intensive council house building. There should be no assumption that people insufficiently wealthy to own their own homes may be treated in a less humane manner those whose edges are well padded.
According to David Cameron, £1.5 billion is lost annually through benefit fraud. A 'crack down' will doubtless be popular. But it would have more moral credibility if the Prime Minister had not neglected to mention the £70 billion lost through tax evasion – a deceit generally practised by those rich enough to avail themselves of creative accountancy. Richard Murphy, the Director of Tax Research and an advisor to the Tax Justice Network, estimates that tax evasion industry to be worth £25 billion a year and points out that in the year to March 2010, HM Customs and Revenue laid off one in eight of the front-line staff who could be tackling this issue.
I turned to Howards End to refresh my memory of Helen Schlegel's comment and putting it in context, found that she had continued with this observation: “you and I...stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence.”
The claim that “we are all in this together” should be revisited by the politicians whom that describes. With apologies to George Orwell, it seems that some of us are more in it than others.