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Cameron's collective responsibility

David Cameron's welfare speech implored the UK's unemployed to 'do the right thing' and work their way out of hard times. His tough rhetoric and cunning manipulation of statistics fostered a dramatic press responsse. But if the 'welfare crisis' really is a crisis of social responsibility, then this monolithic display of misdirection is symptomatic of how 'responsibility' itself is being mishandled by a hypocritical elite.  

Deborah Padfield
29 June 2012

What were the aims of David Cameron’s speech on welfare benefits? Primarily (again) to associate benefits with a feckless willingness to sponge on hard-working others, this time highlighting that easiest target, young adults. The welfare system should exist for emergencies: for people who “do the right thing” and “use the system when they [fall] on hard times, but then work their way out of it.” His purpose was not to present positive and coherent policy; most vividly, there were no constructive suggestions for ways forward for young people to parallel those made by Nick Pearce.

His speech represents another, toxic piece of ideological grooming, “nudging” us towards distrust of fellow-citizens: the antithesis, as Stuart Weir has noted, of ‘we’re all in it together’. At a time when relentless deficit-reduction and recession opens a slippery slope from anxiety to fear to anger in all those whose livelihoods are threatened, this is close to unforgiveable.

Cameron has no need for direct untruths; it is enough to suggest them. Unpacking the suggestio falsi in his speech is frighteningly easy. That most housing benefit claimants are in work and “doing the right thing” does not make them less likely to resent “feckless” claimants. Some of the bitterest against fraudulent claimants whom I’ve met are themselves on benefits. So much guilt is, for political reasons, generated around ‘benefit dependency’ that claimants need to distance themselves from the guiltiest.

Thus Cameron states that “almost one in pound in every three spent by Government goes on welfare.” True: the ukpublicspending.co.uk website for 2011 shows total expenditure of £691.2bn, £122.1bn being spent on pensions and £110.3bn on welfare, including social exclusion and social protection. But the implication is that this third of expenditure goes on welfare benefits. That is pernicious.

Again, Cameron misleads on Disability Living Allowance. “On the one hand, it’s not right that someone can get more than £130-a-week DLA simply by filling out a bit of paper. But on the other, it’s not right that those with serious disabilities have nightmare 38-page forms to fill in.” It is a bizarrely crude misdirection, since the ‘bit of paper’ is identical to the ‘nightmare 38-page form’ which faces every claimant. £131.50 per week represents the highest rate of both care and mobility components, awarded to someone ‘virtually unable to walk’ and needing substantial care or oversight day and night. Of 432,265 initial claims in 2005 (I can’t find more recent figures), 201,285 people were awarded DLA; just 36,025 were awarded high rate for both components. In my experience, they will have had to provide substantial evidence for their claims.

I could go on about the misinformation so tersely peddled about disability benefits and long to do so, for it reveals so clearly the untruthfulness at the heart of government’s divide and rule. Where there is falsehood in one place, one can expect it elsewhere and must constantly be watchful for it.

So what does he say?

Failure of responsibility

The benefit system “may have worked when the welfare state was born, when there was a stronger culture of collective responsibility in this country.” But not now. In particular he portrays a ‘culture of entitlement’ in young people, allowing a young workless couple to think they have a right to state-supported babies while other young adults ‘do the right thing’ by waiting (indefinitely?) till they have saved up.

 ‘Collective responsibility’ then means the individual’s responsibility not to burden society, with a minimal corresponding social responsibility to individuals. “They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families…. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation" [Thatcher, 1987]. For Cameron, “self-reliance is in everyone. Industry is in everyone. Aspiration is in everyone. No-one is a write-off.”

This is an alluringly simple vision. He fails, of necessity given his ideological stance, to address the gulf between individuals’ responsibility and their power.

Responsibility and power

In Cameron’s world, one must do ‘the right thing’ as defined by existing political and economic power structures (failure to ‘make good’ being the individual’s responsibility). While he speaks of “a strong safety-net for those who need it”, those are, on his account, a tiny minority. “You can pump money into chaotic homes, but if the parents are still neglectful and the kids are still playing truant, they’re going to stay poor in the most important senses of the word.” That is their failure. Everyone is and should be in the same boat: benefit claimants can’t be exempt from the realities of “Can’t afford a home of your own? Tough. Live with your parents… Don’t like the hours you’re working? Tough. That’s life.” They are easy words for those exempted by personal wealth from such realities.

“The system we inherited …trapped people in poverty and encouraged irresponsibility.” This moral and financial dilemma has faced governments since the Poor Law debates of the 19th century; the LibCons have followed the last few governments in heightening conditionality and seeking – through Universal Credit as through Tax Credits – to make work pay.

Cameron’s response is that it is ‘right’ for the poor to accept what for richer people would be unacceptable, taking responsibility for working their own way out of not only relative but, given pay and benefit levels, absolute poverty.

In this speech he targeted the under-25s. But that target is tactical and the underlying message is fundamental: poverty is part of the deal, unless and until the poor can save up and climb up. His ‘safety net’ is explicitly a temporary emergency measure for all but the most disabled, time-limited for economic reasons and gilded by a self-righteous moralism.

Structural poverty

Such analysis avoids recognition that perverse benefit incentives are a secondary contributor to the poverty trap, a product of low wages, high rents, work insecurity, underemployment and expensive and inadequate transport and childcare. Cutting benefit levels (and further increasing conditionality) is perverse, deepening the trap and pushing people further from access to work and hope.

Cameron’s ‘strong minimum wage to draw people into work and prevent exploitation’ does not exist. His opposition to exploitation is dwarfed by the desire for a flexible workforce visible in employment law policies and removal of legal aid. In-work poverty is increasing: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and IFS foresee stagnating incomes and increased absolute and relative poverty to 2014. This is integral to the New Labour/LibCon commitment to a ‘competitive’ workforce. Poverty is a structural necessity, its costs highest in a stagnating, depressed economy.

Even if a regional living wage were introduced, under-employment would remain devastating: take the desperate woman I met this week, slipping into debt because she cannot find a second job to augment her 25 hours’ cleaning. She is 55, looks 10 years older and will age fast as depression and debt bite; it is hard to see her being picked by any employer. Nor under Beecroft’s proposals will she have job security.

Belt-tightening as a moral imperative sounds good, but many belts have no tighter holes. People hope and struggle and want to ‘do the right thing’, but lack the power to do so. Yet under Cameron’s suggested regime, this woman would be penalised if she did not soon find work.

What is the picture?

Cameron’s words have a rosy glow. His claim to have shifted people into work was borne out by ONS’ May figures. However, they also showed significant rises in part time work and unpaid family work (though not for professional and managerial cadres). Agency, casual and seasonal work has similarly increased.

He boasts also of finding incapacity benefit claimants fit for work. The assessment of people claiming disability benefits is notoriously inadequate, as evidenced recently by a British Medical Association motion. In my experience, doctors are rarely automatic advocates of disability benefits, seeing work as good for health. Their critique has to be taken seriously.

Cameron’s workforce is thus increasingly full of people forced in spite of major health problems to seek work which they are incapable of performing, and/or struggling to put together a cocktail of ill-paid jobs, with no hope of achieving a stable and secure – let alone satisfying – income. This may be “turning around huge numbers of lives”, but it is turning them in directions which Cameron is unlikely to see as tolerable for his own family or friends. UK social mobility is falling; according to the All-Party Group on Social Mobility, the UK stands ahead of US and European competitor-partners in the predictability of children’s prospects from parents’ circumstances.

The idea that further cutting benefits and rendering them more rigorously conditional is an answer to un- and under-employment is wickedly misleading. But that is not Cameron’s primary aim. His concern is to render inequality and insecurity socially acceptable under the mantle of individual responsibility. Wealth-creation in the LibCon world depends on continual insecurity, fear and loss of hope.

This holds in housing as in employment: the individual carries responsibility, and bears the costs of market flexibility through permanent insecurity. The Localism Act has done much to open social tenants to the market though increasingly most of them, despite Cameron’s figures on wealthy people in social housing, are the most vulnerable in the country.  An estimated 3,000-17,000 households earning over £80,000 live in social housing; in March 2011 we had four million social rented homes, with 139,170 new social rented properties being added in 2010-11.

Cameron’s attack on young adults’ entitlements was made on the back of a long-running campaign to delegitimize local housing allowance, particularly by highlighting the cost of support in wealthy parts of London. The responsibility of the rich remains invisible, though their expanding surplus wealth has inflated property prices, displacing long-established families and communities; no less invisible are the low wages which keep working people poor.

Willing suspension of disbelief

The frightening thing about Cameron’s rhetoric is that it is so easy to reveal its weaknesses. If he convinces us that the poor, not the rich, are responsible for our economic plight and for digging us out of it, then that is a measure of our willingness to be convinced: to scapegoat the most powerless, hanging on to the coat-tails of hope that we will not join them.

I have worked with many, in and out of work, who rely on social security because they have no option, though they hate both benefits and themselves for accepting them. I have also worked with some who assume their right to welfare support and have no paid-work ethic. It has never appeared a realistic or beneficial option. Given the paucity, nature and insecurity of jobs, their lack of motivation is often understandable.

And I know financially wealthy people who have no community-work ethic: for whom working without pay for socially constructive ends has never appeared a realistic or beneficial option, and who use financial advisers to avoid tax wherever possible.

One group depends on State welfare, the other on low-paid workers, a lop-sided financial system and State-funded infrastructure. One stands in the way of cutting welfare spending, the other resists Cameron’s Big Society, starving society of the fruits of their time, skills and education. And starving the economy of the money needed to get the wheels turning, through a more equitable sharing of the fruits of our collective endeavours.

That surely is the greatest failure of collective responsibility. On this I agree with Cameron: we desperately need the rebirth of a sense of collective responsibility. But I do not believe we will achieve it by sowing distrust, resentment and misinformation. 

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