Thinking Caps…

The arrival of benefits caps  is today’s big news and, unsurprisingly, the talk is of what might be done next – regional variation, perhaps, or reducing the cap level further, or specific measures such as limiting child benefit to the first two children of the unemployed and stopping under-25s from being eligible for housing benefit. Equally unsurprisingly, the topic has had both sides of the debate in a flap as those championing benefits claimants react with knee-jerk anger and those who can barely conceal their desire to bring back the workhouse to punish the unemployed for the sins of the bankers demand that more be done and deal out the vitriol, conspiring to drown out rational and reasoned responses.

The simple fact is that something does need to be done, but that the Coalition’s approach fails to tackle the real issues, being primarily just gesture politics that panders to the bigots. Allowing people to live a good life on benefits when they could be working is wrong, but the sort of one-size-fits-all approach of the Coalition pays no attention to whether a claimant is deserving or undeserving. It is all very well to say that a person on the dole should have to make the same difficult decisions about whether they can afford another child as someone who is working, but what happens if someone with three or four kids loses their job because the company they work for goes bust or they suffer an injury? Will they be stripped of child benefit because of a change in their circumstances, being punished for something beyond their control?

Similarly, there is the usual talk of withholding housing benefit from single mothers. Now, this is something that I have espoused for years as there is a class of young woman who see having a child as their gateway to economic independence – something that isn’t good for them, for society or for the child. But, the problems is that any blanket ban will catch innocent people out. Widows and divorcees need to be protected and girls without family to rely on will need provision, and there should be discretion for women who find themselves abandoned by feckless fathers and left to raise a child alone through no fault of their own. More importantly, we need to make sure that young women have the self-respect and the opportunities that having a child in order to get a flat and benefits isn’t seen as their own means of improving their life.

Then, there is all the more disturbing desire to prevent under-25s from access to housing benefit on the basis that they could move back in with their families. Now, I certainly don’t disagree with that principle (living as I do with my parent because I wasn’t able to afford a place of my own when working and I don’t feel that the state should provide me with a home when there is an alternative). But, once again, a blanket ban is unworkable. What happens to people who don’t have parents who can take them in (either because they don’t have parents, are estranged or their parent’s home is too small)? After all, with the ‘bedroom tax’ any parents on benefits with a spare room will have had to downsize, depriving offspring of a place to return to. Then, there is the government’s suggestion that people should move to where there is work – what happens if you have to move away from where the jobs are? How easy will it be to return? And, perhaps, most pertinent, what happens to couples with children? Strangely enough, none of this gets discussed by the Coalition as dealing with the complexities of reality doesn’t make for tough-seeming sound bites.

But, it’s not just the fact that the government is aiming for style for substance in its calls for getting tough on benefits that disturbs me, nor the fact that the Coalition has retreated into the rhetoric of bigotry – after all, New Labour spouted the exact same words when it was in power. What disturbs me is how the country is falling for defeatism. There’s a saying that Communism was all about making everybody equal by dragging everyone down to the lowest level of society – on that basis Britain today would make a fine Communist state.

Every time an element of the assault on benefits is discussed, the rationale is always given that people on benefits shouldn’t have it easier than those who are working. I agree with that premise. But, surely there is something wrong when the answer to high rents forcing benefits claims up in London is to say that benefits should be capped, driving people from their homes, rather than the suggestion that rents be capped. Equally, when the politicians worry that they are subsidising the unemployed to have lots of children when those in work have to worry whether they can feed another mouth, they don’t stop to ask if there might rather be a problem with the costs facing parents, the fact that wages are too low or that there is something fundamentally wrong with our society. The constant refrain is that life is horrible and nobody (bankers on bonuses and MPs on fiddled expenses excepted) should be allowed to hope for something better.

When we look at people living the good life at the tax payers’ expense, perhaps we should shift our gaze from those on benefits and take a cold hard look at the MPs who are about to get another undeserved pay rise. Rather than repeatedly kicking the unemployed when they are down and attempting to keep everyone in a state of poverty and despair whilst taking home a fat pay packet, it’s about time that they earned their wages by working to improve everyone’s lot. Create jobs so that those who can work can find employment. Sort out the housing crisis so that people can afford decent homes. Ensure that everybody receives a fair wage for doing their job and that nobody is exploited by being underpaid nor exploits by receiving high wages and undeserved bonuses for doing nothing worthwhile. We need a government that doesn’t fixate on how to make everyone’s lives equally miserable but one that aspires to make all our lives a little bit better. We need a government that works.

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