The other day, Justin Welby, the new archbishop of Canterbury, defended the welfare system that the present government are busy ripping up, describing it as a duty of a civilised society to support vulnerable people or those in need: “When times are hard, that duty should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish. It is essential that we have a welfare system that responds to need and recognises the rising costs of food, fuel and housing. The current benefits system does that, by ensuring that the support struggling families receive rises with inflation. These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price for high inflation, rather than the Government.” The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, responded, according to the Daily Mail (from which I quoted the above) by claiming that the changes were about “fairness”, claiming that “hard-working” people had seen hardly any increases in their salary, yet the welfare bill had risen by some 60% under the last government:
That means they have to pay for that under their taxes, which is simply not fair. That same system trapped huge numbers, millions, in dependency, dependent on the state, unable, unwilling to work.
What is either moral or fair about that?
‘There is nothing moral or fair about a system that I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency. Some one in every five households has no work – that’s not the way to end child poverty.
‘Getting people back to work is the way to end child poverty. That’s the moral and fair way to do it.’
The article is also full of references to IDS’s Catholic beliefs and how they “drive” him. There is a section (which is in an image without alternate text, so blind readers will not hear it) which tells us he was the first Roman Catholic Tory leader and came tenth in a list of the 100 most influential Catholics published in 2010. Several of his key associates are “deeply Christian”, including Phillipa Stroud and Tim Montgomerie. He is quoted as saying “it’s a sin” that people “fail to take up available work”, and that the dependency culture in which nearly a fifth of households are entirely without work is a “national crisis”.
It’s difficult to discern the relevance of IDS’s religion to his political stance. There have been quite a number of religious people, including Catholics, who have sided with the forces of reaction: the recently elected Pope, for example, is widely and credibly accused of collaborating with the Argentine dictatorship of 1976-83, in which thousands were “disappeared” and many murdered on the pretext of eliminating “communism” and other threats to western Christian civilisation. (Contrary to a forcefully made claim on Twitter, he was not Archbishop of Buenos Aires at that time — not until 1998, and a bishop only in 1992 — but the provincial head of the Jesuit order.) The point seems to be that somehow Welby, as a “mere” Archbishop, has no place questioning the present government’s intentions on Christian grounds and that IDS has just as much authority as he does. Anyone with any religious background will realise the incongruity of a secular politician being presented as of greater authority than a bishop or other senior figure in the religion, unless that person is accused of abusing his position (e.g. child abuse or provoking communal violence).
The first serious objection to his “fairness” claim is that he is pleading for fairness on behalf of those lucky enough to have a job. His idea of “fairness” would be familiar to anyone who has worked in a classroom, where a child will cry “that’s not fair” when another child gets more than them, or some favour they believe the child receiving it does not deserve. You will notice that I put “hard-working” in quotes, because really, not everyone who has a job works hard; in fact, hard work over 10 hours a day often gets you less pay than sitting at a desk for seven or eight. We live in a time in which jobs are scarce, and in some parts of the country there are far too few jobs to go round, particularly parts of the north. Many people who do work find that it does not cover the cost of living because there are fewer full-time jobs and many more part-time ones as well as “self-employment opportunities” which allows employers to dispense with payroll (which also risks a reduced tax take, because it is up to the self-employed person to declare their earnings). And while you earn your pay when you work, you do not earn your job, unless you are self-employed. It is something someone else gives you, and while you can do a certain amount to impress them beforehand, it is not entirely in your gift, even less so during a recession when there are fewer jobs and more people chasing them.
IDS is inviting people to assume that those on benefits are not working, and to assume that they are choosing not to work, rather than being unable to work due to disability or illness, or are simply not lucky enough to have found full-time employment during a recession. He is encouraging privileged people (a privilege, in sociological terms, meaning an advantage that is not earned) to begrudge the paltry sums they are expected to pay to keep the less fortunate afloat. This is fairly typical of the politics of envy this government and its press indulges in: deflecting people’s anger away from the rich (by calling them “wealth creators” and insisting that they will flee the country and take their wealth with them if required to pay their fair share) onto their neighbours by suggesting that they might be alcoholics or drug-addicts, as in the article above, and feeding them a drip of propaganda about scroungers, multi-generational unemployment, families being given spare rooms at taxpayers’ expense (or “the taxpayer’s expense”, in the singular). He and his supporters in the press invite readers to assume that benefit recipients are using the money to feed bad habits, so they might think that claiming benefits is a bad habit. In reality, most are using it to just get by, and this is even more true of disabled recipients.
Duncan Smith uses the same phony “fairness” rhetoric when defending the “bedroom tax” recently, in the context of a Labour campaign focussed on its impact on poor families in Hull:
It can’t be right that 14,000 households across Yorkshire and the Humber are living in an overcrowded home,” he said.
There’s nothing fair about making families wait and wait for a house that is big enough while other households on benefits are allowed to live in homes that are too big for their needs at no extra cost.
Many working families in Hull cannot afford the luxury of having spare bedrooms and the Government cannot afford to pay for bedrooms that are not being used.
That’s why, from April, housing benefit claimants living in social housing with spare bedrooms will be expected to make a contribution towards the rent for those spare rooms.
Again, it’s the same use of “fairness” to mean the spiteful, resentful envy of the playground: people in work being asked to begrudge those on benefits, wrapped up in fake concern for people who cannot get the right house and a bit of “common sense” that people “can’t downsize”. In fact, there is a dire shortage of social housing because most of it was sold off, and there is surely little benefit in a vast wave of people being forced to move in a short period, with people uprooted from their communities and children forced to change schools, which is what would happen if there was enough appropriate housing to go round. As already widely publicised, some of the worst hit families will be disabled ones, as a couple which includes a chronically ill or disabled person often cannot share a bed or even a room. In the case of two friends of mine, for example, the wife has severe ME and cannot have someone with her all the time; they either need two bedrooms or the husband sleeps on the sofa.
However, the emphasis on foster families and disabled spouses obscures the mean-spirited motive behind this: that people receiving any kind of state benefit should be treated with a “beggars can’t be choosers” attitude, and that things which are normal in many owner-occupied houses, such as teenagers of the same sex having separate bedrooms (especially if there is a large age gap, such as 11 and 16), should be begrudged a poor family who require housing benefit to the extent that they should be required to move house, or suffer a financial penalty if they will not or, more likely, cannot. Whether it’s right that tax payers should be funding a “spare room subsidy”, it was not regarded as a serious moral issue until the government and their propaganda outlets made it into one in 2011, and it is less of one than the upheaval that this law will cause to thousands of families across the country. If there is a solution to it, it must take the form of building new council houses and flats. The policy is all about demonising the welfare state and those who have to use it, and turning ordinary people against each other.
Finally, if Duncan Smith wants to show off his religious credentials, he should consider that lying is considered a sin, which covers circulating false stories about benefit scroungers and people with fake disabilities (and if he is not directly involved in this and has such a strong moral compass then he should be speaking out against it), but it also covers making false promises when standing for election, as Sue Marsh has exposed that the Tories did in 2010, in which they promised not to scrap DLA, not to force people to work when too ill and to “tackle the stigma and prejudice that still persists towards disabled people”, and they broke all of these promises almost as soon as they came to power. Iain Duncan Smith may be more Catholic than the current Pope for all I care — nobody accuses him of handing over two of his friends to the secret police to be tortured and murdered, but then, he hasn’t yet been tested with a military dictatorship — but to most of us he is yet another slimy, dishonest politician, backed by a press that fosters prejudice to sell papers, with a fake moral stance to cover a policy that seeks to reduce the tax burden on the wealthy by impoverishing ordinary people more.
(More: Tom Pride.)
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