Back to the poor law

George Osborne

Two months ago, when Ed Miliband claimed the ‘One Nation’ mantle for the Labour party, there was always a possibility that David Cameron could seek to reclaim it, with both the Conservative party conference and the chancellor’s autumn statement providing ideal opportunities. However, there is little danger of George Osborne being thought an heir of Benjamin Disraeli.

The autumn statement provided a stark illustration of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Westminster coalition’s continuing efforts to divide different groups of people. A central example of this tendency is in respect of welfare. Osborne’s priority is to hold down working age benefits, including jobseekers’ allowance and income support, all of which will be increased by only one per cent over the next three years, below the rate of inflation. The aim is to save £3.7bn from the welfare bill by 2015-6.

The image used by the government of the working father or mother driving to work early in the morning to see the curtains closed at the (benefit-funded) house of the workless family is both dangerous and divisive. It seeks to foster a politics based on resentment, and to give rise to a sense that all benefit claimants are undeserving. The government’s approach is to divide people into two categories: ‘workers’ and ‘shirkers’. Of course, the problem of distinguishing in legislation between the deserving and undeserving poor goes back to, at the very least, the Elizabethan poor law of 1601, when the wealthiest sought to deal with what they perceived as the problem of rogues and vagabonds on the streets. At the same time, however, successive governments have clamped down on false welfare claimants, a number of whom face prison for what the courts take very seriously as crimes on the public purse.

Worse still, the government’s approach appears to be based on an entirely false assumption that most benefit claimants are out of work and do nothing. This is not borne out by the facts. The majority of benefit recipients are actually in work. Miliband, writing recently in the Sunday Mirror, had it entirely right:  ‘They said they were cutting benefits for the next three years and the mood music was that it was a way to punish the “shirkers and scroungers”. But the truth turned out to be so different. Six out of 10 people hit by these cuts are people who get up every morning and go to work. The lowest-paid families getting tax credits. The new mum who will lose £180 in maternity pay.’

There is a strong case to be made for reforming welfare, and helping people back into work.  But the chancellor shows little interest in genuine efforts to achieve this. Similarly, Iain Duncan Smith at the Department for Work and Pensions ploughs on with the idea of a universal credit, but still misses the point: people need to be supported back into work. For example, the one area which would assist many people, particularly women, in returning to work, is more effort to assist with childcare. The inescapable conclusion is not only that the government is really after spending cuts at all costs, but positively relishes those which allow it to cynically turn people, working people, against each other. In a definitive and quite intentional change of strategy, the chancellor last week dropped the façade that we are all in this together.

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Nick Thomas-Symonds is the author of Attlee: A Life in Politics published by IB Tauris (2010). He writes the Labour history column for Progress tweets @NThomasSymonds

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Photo: Ewan McIntosh

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  • Anonymous

    I get up every morning sadly not to go to work, at 5.30 I start my medication and the procedure that keep me alive, like Catheterize and then empty my bowel this takes me through to 8.45.

    But I suppose under the labour regime I’m still a shirker.