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Who Benefits? 

Benefit reform, long a thorny topic, seems set to become one of the year’s defining policy issues. DDN looks at the truth behind some of the government rhetoric.

Welfare reform is one of the government’s flagship policies, and this year will see the much-touted ‘universal credit’ replace a range of benefits including income support and jobseeker’s allowance, while disability living allowance will be replaced by a ‘personal independence payment’. The measures were set out in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, one of the key aims of which was ‘creating the right incentives to get more people into work’. 

Changes to the benefit system have loomed over service users since before the coalition came to power, however, with Labour’s own controversial green paper, No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility proposing the withholding of benefits from problematic drug users who failed to enter treatment. 

Those plans never came to fruition, but since then the ongoing programme of reform has included not just the universal credit, but the highly contro­versial work capability assessment (WCA) to determine eligibility for incapacity benefits, and caps on housing benefit that could mean service users having to leave the areas where they’ve built up peer networks and where their families and treatment services are based. ‘We need to strongly guard against people being sanctioned for what is effectively a health issue,’ Release executive director Niamh Eastwood warned delegates at the DDN/ Alliance Seize the day conference two years ago.

Last week saw a House of Commons vote on the government’s welfare uprating bill – branded ‘rancid’ by former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband – which intends to cap increases on a range of working-age benefits at one per cent. Although the government won the vote by a majority of 56, even deputy prime minister Nick Clegg criticised attempts to divide people into the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ at a government press conference.

But the benefits battle is not just being fought in Parliament – there’s also a war of words in the pages of the British press, with liberal voices decrying the stigmatisation, vilification and caricaturing of society’s most vulnerable members, while the right-wing media continues to do the government’s PR, running stories and editorials about ‘scroungers’ on almost a daily basis. ‘The government caricatures poor people in terms of the worst cases they can find,’ wrote Polly Toynbee in the Guardian last year. ‘So far they have won the argument.’ 

According to the TUC, however, their argument doesn’t quite stack up. In a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the trade union, it was those voters who were ‘least able to give accurate answers about benefits’ who were the most likely to back the government’s policy of cutting them. 

Around 47 per cent of the Department of Work and Pensions’ £159bn spend on benefits actually goes on the state pension, followed by housing benefit at just over 5 per cent and disability living allowance at just over 3 per cent. 

According to the results of the TUC’s poll, however, while fraud actually accounts for less than one per cent of the welfare budget, those who took part in the survey put the figure close to 30 per cent on average. They also estimated the percentage of the budget going to unemployed adults at more than 40 per cent, while in fact the figure is 3 per cent. 

More than 40 per cent thought benefits were too generous and nearly 60 per cent thought the system had created a ‘culture of dependency’, while the annual British Social Attitudes surveys show the number of people who think more should be spent on benefits falling by more than 30 per cent since the late 1980s.

‘It is not surprising that voters want to get tough on welfare,’ said the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady. ‘They think the system is much more generous than it is in reality, is riddled with fraud and is heavily skewed towards helping the unemployed, who they think are far more likely to stay on the dole than is actually the case. Indeed if what the average voter thinks was true, I’d want tough action too. But you should not conduct policy, particularly when it hits some of the most vulnerable people in society, on the basis of prejudice and ignorance. And it is plainly immoral to spread such prejudice purely for party gain, as ministers and their advisers are doing, by deliberately misleading people about the value of benefits and who gets them.’

‘There are any number of reasons to reform the welfare system,’ said a recent editorial in the Independent. ‘It is inordinately complex, hugely expensive and sometimes rather unfair, to name but three. Yet the government – or its Conservative half, at least – appears incapable of approaching the issue without descending into rabble-rousing rhetoric pitting ‘scroungers’ against ‘strivers’. Such tactics are not just unnecessary; they bear an only nominal relationship with the truth.’

‘Voters who have a better grasp of how benefits work and what people actually get, oppose the government’s plans,’ said O’Grady. ‘When people learn more about benefits, support moves away from coalition policy.’  DDN