The Welfare State was not designed for the chancers

Labour voters are among those most resentful of others’ “choice” to live on benefits, writes IAN SMART


I want to start with a confession. On Saturday, as has been our custom for many years, Mo and I will depart for three weeks holiday in Umbria. We’ve rented a house, with a pool, and have arranged for various friends and family to join us over our three week absence. We will, I confidently predict, have a great time. And we will spend a fortune.

I say all of that, not to boast but to acknowledge in advance the easy route to criticise what I say below. I am a middle class bleeding heart liberal; a champagne, or at least prosecco, socialist. I have never been poor, or unemployed, for a single day of my adult life, and hopefully I never will be. I say only in my own defence that in choosing to practice in the Legal Aid field for the whole of my professional career, I have made that choice in the knowledge that while I will always be comfortably off (Legal Aid Cuts permitting!), I will never be stinking rich.

My day to day practice involves, always, ordinary people; almost invariably, ordinary people at points of crisis in their own lives, but I regret to say that these ordinary people increasingly divide themselves into two divisions: those who fear lapsing into poverty and those simply interested in making the most of their self acceptance of that state.

I’m going to go on to say a fair amount of controversial things about the current benefits system but I want to start with a brief diversion into a different group of people altogether: bogus asylum seekers.

Now the Left doesn’t like the term “bogus”. I’ve never quite understood why. A large number of people do enter this country making false claims of political persecution elsewhere and they do undermine public sympathy for those with a valid claim for asylum. If they do not have a valid claim, what are they other than bogus? But the bogus asylum seekers (excepting a very few genuine criminal elements) are not themselves bad people. They do not come here to exploit our welfare state, for they have little or no understanding of how they might access it, and they are probably unable to do so anyway. They come here because they believe that here they will be able to find work. And, bogus or otherwise, they do. Just as have done the hundreds of thousands of Poles, Slovakians, Portuguese and other nationalities who have taken legitimate advantage of the EU rules on the free movement of Labour.

But, despite this, even at the height of the New Labour boom, this country had a stubborn figure of more than one million people allegedly actively seeking work but unable to find it. And as many as three million allegedly medically unfit to undertake work of any sort.

Again, at this point, I need to depart on a caveat, or maybe two caveats. No, three caveats.

1. My office deals with a large number of ESA appeals and some of the decision making is absurd. I hesitate to choose the most ludicrous example, but if forced to do so it would probably be the man who was awaiting a surgical operation to repair the trauma preventing him from using his left arm, and keen for it to be undertaken, who was nonetheless assessed as being fit to work in the meantime. What kind of job is open to a man with (effectively) one arm? And who, anyway, would employ someone imminently awaiting a major operation followed by a six to eight week recuperation? Needless to say, he won his appeal, but what kind of idiot made this decision in the first place?

2. Depression is a terrible illness but, bluntly, depression is a word with two meanings: a clinical illness and, regrettably, a simple state of mind. The second of these, that I’m depressed because I sit about the house all day doing nothing, is not an excuse to qualify for additional benefits but rather a perfect example of why you should be encouraged back to work for your benefits as well as that of everyone else. That does not mean however that those with a genuine mental illness are not as deserving as those with a broken leg.

3. Some people “earned the right” to be unemployed. That still unduly colours the thinking of the Labour Party. Fifty year old men, made redundant, having worked all their days in the pits or the steelworks did not deserve to be driven into call centres or check outs at Tesco. If that could be disguised behind the veil of incapacity (and Incapacity Benefit) then I was as up for that as anybody. But that generation has largely now passed into retirement and the rest of the world goes on.

I express these  opinions not to curry favour from those intent in cutting the benefit system but rather in pursuit of a more equitable distribution of its… er, benefits.

Someone who has worked for twenty years and who is then made redundant is entitled to Job Seekers Allowance of £67.50 per week. And at the end of six months they get nothing, unless they can pass a means test. This is a ridiculously low figure when set even against the median national wage of £499. On the other hand, someone who hasn’t worked for twenty years but who can pass (or fail) the medical test for Employment Support Allowance, perhaps qualifying on the basis of their alcoholism or drug addiction, after an initial thirteen weeks, gets £94.25, hardly a devil’s ransom, but still a nice wee £20 bonus if you had no intention of working anyway. I can’t be alone in believing there is something wrong here.

And then there are means tested benefits. The vast majority of benefit claimants never see these. They are unemployed, or unfit, for a short period and then they go back to work. When the Tories proposed to cap Housing Benefit at £400 my immediate reaction was that this seemed a bit draconian. After all, anyone with a big family would find it difficult, particularly in the south of England, to find decent accommodation for £400 a month. Then I realised it wasn’t £400 a month, it was £400 a week!

Now, the average weekly wage in this country is, as I say, £499 a week (before tax). Nobody, and I mean nobody, earning the national average wage, or even significantly above it, is living in accommodation costing £400 a week. “But,” some complain,”because of this cap, we’ll be unable to continue to live in the centre of London.” Well, I’m a lawyer and I couldn’t afford to live there. All working people face up to that reality. I pay my taxes and, indeed, would be content to pay a bit more, but not to subsidise the lifestyle choices that I couldn’t possibly choose for myself. If you can’t afford to stay in a particular house, move. Even as to where I live now, that’s what I’d have to do if they abolished the Legal Aid Scheme tomorrow.

I could go on but I am in danger of turning into James Purnell.

The real point however is not to engage in a right wing rant but to engage in a left wing rant. For in addition to the client group who wish simply to make the best of a life chosen to live on benefits, I deal with an awful lot of ordinary working people who are being screwed by the current economic situation. People on compulsorily shortened hours; arbitrarily renewed or not renewed employment contracts; suddenly displacement from secure and well paid employment through no fault of their own; working week to week as opportunity presents itself.

Never mind those whose lives are suddenly transformed by unforeseen illness.

And, it is they, not me, with my comfortable lifestyle, who are most resentful of those who play the system and most resentful of Labour’s support of that choice.

Yet these people, not the chancers, are those for whom the welfare state was originally created; those who have contributed to “National Insurance” but who hoped personally never to have to call upon it. And yet they are the group who increasingly feel Labour, the creator of the Welfare State,  has forgotten them.

So, let’s be more judgemental. Let’s not be afraid to say those who can work are expected to work and, if they choose not to do so, should be entitled to nothing more than the most basic level of subsistence until they change their minds. And if that means they can’t “afford” their chosen place of residence without working, then they have the simple solution of finding work, not in every part of the country but certainly in those parts where work is patently available.

I suppose in the end I should own up to the origin of this rant: the London Olympics. I am simply fed up with the number of “Eastenders” complaining that there are no jobs for them from this project. They don’t mean that. They mean actually that there are no jobs that they can be bothered to do. As I write this there will be people in North Africa and Near Asia prepared to risk their lives to travel half way across the world to find work at the Olympics. And people from Eastern Europe prepared to be separated from their nearest and dearest for the same opportunity. And yet, all the while, my taxes and yours will be paying for people across the road from the stadium to exercise their “right” to stay in bed until the start of the Jeremy Kyle show.

So here’s a proposal for Ed. Between now and the end of the Olympics no one in East London , fit for work and without family obligations, should be entitled to any form of state benefit (including housing benefit) for more than thirteen weeks unless they are working at least sixteen hours a week. Not only would that recoup some of the public money thrown at this project, it would be incredibly popular with voters – Labour voters, particularly those here in Scotland, and Newcastle, and Manchester, and Birmingham, who only wished they had such an employment opportunity on their own doorstep.

And, just in case this appears unduly London-phobic, when it’s over, let’s go to the East End of Glasgow and do the same with the Commonwealth Games.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. After the revolution, he’s resigned to being sent to the Gulag along with James Purnell and Tom Harris. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.

Related Posts

21 thoughts on “The Welfare State was not designed for the chancers

  1. Totally agree. The point that the right of the party are trying to make is that all too often ordinary working people who have paid into the “system” all their lives feel that the welfare system has given nothing back to them. They go out to work every morning and see the 3rd generation claimants who just can’t be bothered to work. We want to make the system biased in favour of working people who geniunely need support either beacuse they are have trouble paying bills or because they have recently becomed unemployed. We also want to help those geniunely disabled people who can’t work. People that no employer would take on.

    We want to stop the welfare system being abused by the “chancers” and give it back to working people. Is that so evil?

    1. Not quote sure why so many are obsessing on this issue – it’s as if the repositioning of Labour was wholly benefits-dependent…

      Instead of this macho posturing and determination to match the coalition’s scrounger bashing by continually and wrongly conflating claimants and chancers the party would do better to properly oppose some of the changes that are being made. After all surely its the job of opposition parties to oppose apparent unfair new legislation.

      For instance has anyone in Labour looked at the new ESA descriptors? Some fundamental changes already in place mean that claimants could be deaf and blind and wheelchair bound and would not necessarily score enough points to qualify for ESA. Instead they will be expected to go on JSA and an employer will be expected to employ people in such circumstances. JSA will off course be withdrawn after one year if no job is found.

      It is likely that similar new rules will be applied to DLA/PIP claimants meaning that many in such circumstances who have found work will see this in-work benefit refused.

      Please get a grip and refocus your collective ire on these and other developments.

      1. No, people do not like benefit cheats. Either the Labour party gets to grips with this or it will be in the political wilderness for a very long time.

      1. Get a grip. One man’s fraud does not make me a fraudster just because we joined the same political party. Are you going to tell that there has never been a single SNP member who has broken the law?

        1. Are you going to tell that there has never been a single SNP member who has broken the law?

          Can’t think of one but I am sure you will provide a link.

        2. No, I dont think so. Alex is already heading for canonisation as we speak.

  2. Hi Ian

    Thought I’d maybe help you out on why the term ‘bogus’ isn’t a favourite.

    As you will know the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees sets a high threshold to be recognised as having international protection needs under said convention. Those asylum seekers who do have a well founded fear of persecution but don’t quite meet the threshold of the 1951 Convention (notable examples being all women in misogynistic states and until very recently people from the LGBT community who live in homophobic states) are all liable to be ‘refused asylum seekers’ or in more common parlance ‘failed’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. The reason bogus chaffes a little is that it is a pejorative term that suggests this group of individuals are lying or ‘at it’ whereas they may very well have every right to fear for their lives if returned to such human rights stalwarts as the Burundi (FGM rife) or the Democratic Republic of Congo (‘corrective rape’ a personal favourite of the army).

    Hope that helps.


  3. Fair enough but i’m getting hard line as well. In Cowdenbeath where I live there are only 2 pubs out of 11 I can actually have a night out in, the rest are either inaccessible to wheelchairs or have no toilet facilities a wheelchair user could access. Now i’ve had a good look at the WCA for ESA. I’ve done an on line assessment and I don’t think i’ll pass, i’ll either be put straight on to JSA or more likely onto the work related ESA which means i’ll need to look for work. I’m not sure i’m fit enough to cope with a job but this is the way things are now. That being the case then I will no longer sit back and accept second class citizenship. From now on I want ALL pubs cafes and resturaunts to be accessible and have toilets. I will no longer accept the excuse that it would cost to much, would create to many problems, isn’t possible etc. I also want every office to be accessible so I can apply for all jobs i;d be capable of doing. Agaion not having enouhg money is no excuse, get it done and if it bankrupts people then tough, i;m taking the same hard line stance that being taken against the disabled community. We’ve been demonised as scroungers, feckless, handout junkies etc but now we’re going to fight back. Yes we’ll play a full role in society but that means the rest of society has to change, the rest of society will hae to become fully accessible.

    1. Living just outside Cowdenbeath I can’t think of any pub that would cater to your needs.

      Even if they did some ain’t places I would like to have a pint in.

  4. The really worrying thing is the impact of these policies on people with mental health issues. Onviously mental health is a big spectrum – yes, it includes people who are depressed but it also includes people who are frankly mad and who do not behave in predictable ways. There is absolutely no point in sending them letters saying you have been found fit to work so you will have to apply for JSA. They don’t read the letters or, if they do, they don’t understand them.

    The foundation of the welfare state was to provide a safety net for the vulnerable. That is simply not happening any more.

  5. Ian is right – we should take a hard line against thaose that will neither work nor want… But personally I’d start with the Duke of Buccleuch

  6. A thought-provoking piece with a number of very fair points. One point of detail re: London, though. It is possible to find, say, a 3 bed house/flat to rent for £400 pw in some parts of London, but not all. The problem with the limit, as London MPs have pointed out, is that where someone with a family who lives fairly centrally and is in receipt of housing benefit which falls even a couple of hundred quid short each month, they’ll be forced from their home. Where that person has roots in the area, and access to family support networks, their move away is quiet likely to be deleterious across the board – kids have to move schools and the upheaval involved will make it harder for their parent/s to regularise their families’ lives off benefits (if, indeed, they’re in a position to do that at all – nb; single mothers with very young children; people with significant disabilities, etc. I follow the principle of what Ian’s said in his piece in this respect, but the devil, for some, is in the detail.

  7. Sorry I haven’t read all the comments but the blood is pounding through my head & I have to post on this quite *extraordinary rant* from a man who represents the party who had the perfect opportunity to reform the welfare system while we had money & jobs & *didn’t do it*.

    That was a huge moral as well as economic failure by Labour, & now you seem to be signing up to the completely wrong Tory policy of just cutting welfare costs regardless of the individual. It is too late now – there aren’t any bloody jobs in case you hadn’t noticed. If you force the long term unemployed into them then where are school leavers supposed to get work from? D’oh.

    You know this is why people really hate Labour, & I mean with a passion. Because you got it so wrong when you had an opportunity to get it right.

    And you are still getting it wrong.

  8. I take it Mr Smart only deals with clients or constituents who have the savvy to go to him as a lawyer or an elected member, if he was working in the community as I do, he would be encountering people who don’t have any money, who don’t have any electricity, & who can’t communicate with the DWP because you have to phone them & mobiles aren’t free, & they don’t have any credit as they don’t have any money.

    But that’s OK apparently.

  9. I would pay attention to what Eric Joyce has said, because even Boris bloody Johnson recognises that what the Tories are going to do in inner London is wrong.

    If you want to control housing benefit costs – control rents. That is easier said than done I am quite aware of that, but that should be the starting off point.

    Otherwise we are going to see an exodus of working class & also ethnic residents from central London leaving it a haven for the well off. Is this Labour policy?

    1. For me, the failure to implement rent controls was the single most despicable failing of Labour’s years in power. Rents were allowed to spiral out of control solely and deliberately to inflate the property bubble (by making buy-to-let owners rich), because the property bubble made “aspirational” Middle England homeowners feel good about their rising house values.

      Ian Smart’s argument is flawed in numerous ways, not least that Housing Benefit isn’t just paid to the unemployed, but to low-paid workers struggling to get by on the inadequate minimum wage. If everyone who can’t afford to live in central London is forced to move to Wigan or wherever in search of work, who’s going to clean Mr Smart’s nice London flat for him? Who’s going to sweep his streets? Who’s going to serve the claret in his wine bars and cafes and stock the shelves in his local Waitrose? People commuting in from Hull?

  10. Observer makes a really good point about the lines of communication. A lot of people, especially on low incomes, do not have land lines any more and rely on pay as you go mobiles. So it is really stupid that the only way they can apply for a budget loan or a community care grant is by telephone. They should be able to go into their local jobcentre and do it there.

  11. It’s not only pay as you go mobiles they use, it’s pay as you go electricity & gas via key meters.

    You take people’s money away, then they will be literally left in the dark, & soon the cold.

    Also if people are left in limbo between ESA & JSA they don’t qualify for housing or council tax benefit, & so they get into arrears, also taking away revenue from mainly social landlords & local authorities who can’t exactly afford that.

    I know it’s popular to bash benefit claimants, but the artful dodgers will work this system like they work any system. It’s the vulnerable that will suffer, & Mr Smart doesn’t seem to care.

  12. Mr. Smart, there is really no need to distinguish yourself as a champagne or prosecco socialist if you’re not a socialist in the first place. You have also left out the bit about people getting on their bikes.

Comments are closed.