Mark Littlewood: making the War on Welfare personal

Today the Daily Mail published a quite astonishing and appalling article by Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs (and former spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the Pro-Euro Conservative Party and NO2ID) calling for the government to publish the names and addresses of every individual claiming benefits in the UK. This has already been reacted to with fury by disabled people on Twitter, many of whom have already faced public hostility by people who perceive them as benefit claimants. He compares benefit recipients to the companies whose tax affairs have come under scrutiny in the media (and, supposedly, at the G8 summit); he calls those companies “wealth creators and tax contributors” and benefit claimants “tax consumers”. (More: David Gillon @ Where’s the Benefit?, Latent Existence, Tom Pride.)

Littlewood used to run NO2ID, and one of their adverts featured a fictional abuse victim of some sort, set after the compulsory ID cards had been introduced, saying that she was being forced to re-register her new (supposedly safe) address, yet her abusive partner could easily bribe someone at the department that runs the ID system to give him her address. Exactly the same could happen to anyone receiving benefits — which is just about everyone at some point — if his scheme is put into action, but in particular any parent or any disabled person. True, they might put in an exemption for where revealing their identity might compromise their safety, but if they publish it before the report is made (or the abuse situation arises) then it would be very easy for the abuser to find his victim. Besides, the Bedroom Tax affair shows that the present government do not care much about making exceptions for the needy.

He dismisses the general claims about public hostility to claimants by claiming:

Surely, no one needs to worry about violent retribution against claimants. The British are far too reasonable to start taking up pitchforks and burning torches and assaulting imagined benefit cheats. We are generous and fair-minded people.

This is absolute rubbish. Some of my friends have faced hostility in public places when using disabled parking spaces, from people who regarded them as too young or “not disabled enough” (because they do not require a wheelchair or can walk a couple of paces, for example) when using disabled parking spaces (in this case, the observer wrote a snooty letter about them to the local paper). One woman on Twitter gave this account:

I was beaten up by a man who believed me a benefit cheat because my disability is only obvious to trained specialists & I don’t LOOK ill, despite being on enough morphine to kill 3 people. So his claim that nobody will get hurt is ALREADY proven bullshit. We ARE getting hurt WITHOUT telling them where we live. I have a genetic illness. I’ve done NOTHING WRONG. Yet he wants me put on a par with sex offenders — & even THEY have more privacy than he wants me to have!

While it’s not necessary for there to be a mob to inflict injury or cause persistent, life-limiting harassment, it’s also not true that we never see mob violence in this country. Shortly after the murder of James Bulger, an innocent 12-year-old boy was apprehended (and subsequently released), and when he was being transported to and from court, a mob formed of people trying to attack the van he was travelling in and lynch him. People still publish the supposed new identity of one of the real killers (who, remember, was a disturbed ten-year-old boy at the time) twenty years later, and there can be only one reason to do that. For the government to publish the names and addresses of all benefit claimants on a freely publicly accessible website would be of assistance to anyone seeking to track down personal enemies or take the law into their own hands, as well as to terrorists, the mafia and foreign government agents looking for people they want to assassinate or kidnap. It will also cause fights, as neighbours and acquaintances look each other up to find out how much the other is getting. Paradoxically, it might even lead to a rise in benefit claims as people find out how much they can get, especially if they are already claiming benefits. It could also expose employees to some danger, for example by outing disability benefit recipients to employers who did not know they had any disability. And given that there is no other free publicly searchable database of names, addresses and phone numbers that we cannot opt out of, it’s a huge invasion of people’s privacy and leaves people open to blackmail.

He claims:

This wouldn’t be a matter of ‘naming and shaming’ anyone. After all, if you are legally entitled to a particular benefit, what is there to be ashamed about? Anyone ashamed to claim money from the State maybe shouldn’t be claiming it.

By the same token, most Jews in 1930s Germany were not ashamed of being Jews, but still did not appreciate being forced to wear a yellow star and, if they owned a shop, putting a “Jewish shop” sign in the window. The reason they did not like it is because, in a country where anti-Semitic propaganda was everywhere, it identified them to enemies who would attack them. In this day and age, “benefit scrounger”, “fake disabled” and “bogus asylum seeker” propaganda is everywhere; it’s regularly carried in mass-market tabloids and there have been advertising campaigns encouraging people to “rat on a rat”; the hotlines take a huge proportion of baseless and malicious reports. People claim benefits because it is a necessity; if they were not available, many disabled people in particular would be forced into penury by the costs of their condition, or into institutions, or onto the mercy of their family and friends. Many people who claim benefits are actually ashamed of having to do so; they did not want to rely on handouts but to work, but there is no work available. The notion of “naming and shaming” is based on exposing them to public hostility and stigma, and if it exists, then outing them exposes them to all that. The only reason you would out someone is for this reason. (Besides the sex offender example, the other case of mass public outing I am aware of involved secret police informers in some former Communist countries after those régimes fell around 1989.)

The comparison with major companies which dodge tax is fatuous. We are in the middle of an economic crisis and the government is cutting welfare in an ostensible attempt to plug gaps, yet it fails to collect billions in corporate taxes and allows people to squirrel away their vast wealth offshore to avoid paying their fair share. The amount that people claim in benefits, individually, is peanuts: in most cases it’s barely enough to live on, and even in cases where it is, only a mean-minded person would begrudge a severely ill or disabled person who cannot work a decent standard of living. The attacks on social security could be avoided with more efficient collection of taxes, a lesson the rich world routinely lectures to countries like Greece. Besides, we all pay taxes — even if we are not earning, we spend our money in shops and pay VAT — and we are all “wealth creators” as our money keeps businesses alive and funds others’ jobs. The rich, it seems, only gives this honour to the very wealthy, as a means of allowing them to avoid paying the same taxes as everyone else.

Much as we are all tax payers and we all generate wealth, we are actually all benefit claimants. Most benefits are paid in kind: we or our children get an education, we get healthcare, we get roads built, repaired and signposted, we have access to libraries and parks, we get our rubbish collected, we get the streets policed and criminals locked up. Some of us do not personally pay Council Tax as we are not householders, but whether we do or we don’t, we get these benefits. The so-called wealth creators of today benefited from these things if they grew up in the UK. It thus doesn’t make sense to name only those who receive monetary benefits from the state. Many of those have, in fact, paid income and council tax in the past; in some cases, their benefits help them to work and, thus, pay taxes.

I also do not buy the claim that it will save money for “the taxpayer” by reducing benefit claims. They will need to employ people to maintain the website and update the database and make sure it’s correct and that nobody remains on it long after they have stopped claiming benefits or have been removed for safety reasons. They will also need to protect it against inevitable sabotage (e.g. denial of service attacks). They will need to pay for the costs of prosecuting the vigilantes and score-settlers, or those who commit crimes while the police are otherwise occupied with disorder stemming from the database, not to mention the additional policing costs. As fraudulent claimants who are convicted are already publicly named, as are other criminals, there is likely to be an increase in fraudulent claiming, because a claimant’s name is in the public domain anyway. There is also an assumption that all those “who don’t need the money” will stop claiming: the fact is that the claims are necessary to secure blue badges (for disabled parking spaces) and other in-kind benefits.

This demand reveals what kind of people really dominate the Liberal Democrats and how easy it was for them to throw in their lot with the Tories. It has been suggested that the article is mere “clickbait”, but any rent-a-quote Tory could have been found to suggest something so ridiculous and dangerous; the fact that this man has a libertarian background and previously opposed ID cards on safety grounds demonstrates that he is serious (it’s also possible that he is not seriously advocating this, but suggesting it to make a moral equivalence with the “persecution” and “shaming” of wealthy men who avoid tax). There are reasons why we have a welfare system and people who claim money that our elected Parliament has entitled them to are not criminals, and should not be treated like them; if we are to fundamentally change the nature of our welfare system, it should be on the basis of a serious public debate, not an ill-informed shouting match based on unrepresentative individual stories picked up by the press. Let’s talk about the principles, if we must, and not make it personal.

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  • The amount people claim in benefits collectively is also peanuts, which is why any serious discussion of economics largely avoids mention of it. The point of exaggerating its importance is to keep the dialogue safely away from anything genuinely meaningful like tax havens and personal tax abuse, the kind you might indulge in personally and professionally if you owned the media, say.

  • Yakoub Islam

    Half of UK benefit spending actually goes on state pensions: 74.22bn a year. It’s followed by housing benefit of £16.94bn and disability benefits of £12.57bn. Jobseeker’s allowance is actually one of the smaller benefits – £4.91bn in 2011-12. That is 3% of the whole benefits bill. Fraud accounts for 0.7% of the benefits bill: £1.2bn, less than the underpayments, which amount to around £1.3bn.