David Cameron’s recent pronouncements about ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture around welfare made me shudder in horror. He talked about working-age people being ‘encouraged to sit at home’ on benefits, and the need to end this ‘culture of entitlement’.
This amounts to nothing more than scapegoating the poorest in our country and a strategy of stoking resentment between the poor and the very poor. I’ve always been proud of the welfare state and thought of it as being the bedrock of decent society in Britain.
When travelling around other parts of the world you appreciate the fact that we have a safety net, whereby the poorest and most vulnerable are looked after. We have a right to medical care, education and enough money to be able to eat and feed our families. None of us know whether one day we may fall on hard times and need the welfare state to be there for us.
I feel afraid that this safety net is about to have massive holes made in it. Some people will fall through the gaps. Gone was the David Cameron of ‘progressive, compassionate conservatism’ and of ‘hug a hoodie’ notoriety. Instead we had a glimpse of the David Cameron we would have if the Tories win the next election outright and how the Tories would behave if they were not (ever-so slightly) hampered in their aims by the so-called liberal democrats. This David Cameron talked of taking housing benefit away from people aged less than 25, of stopping benefits once someone has been unemployed for more than 2 years, of breaking the link between benefits and inflation, and not increasing benefits if someone has 3 or more children. This is the David Cameron who is an Eton-educated class warrior. This David Cameron has no idea whatsoever about how ordinary people live.
Stopping housing benefit for those under the age of 25 will mean that more than a million of the under-25s will not be able to afford housing independent from their families. That would be everyone who is unemployed, and also many of the low-paid workers who currently receive housing benefit. Not everyone has a wealthy Mummy and Daddy to help them afford their own place, or who have a few spare rooms for them to move into.
If someone has the misfortune to be unemployed for more than two years and their benefits are stopped, what will happen to them? Will other family members be able to support them? Will the churches or charities step in? Will they turn to crime? Will they commit suicide? Who knows?
And what of the children of the parents on benefits who come third or fourth in a family? Even if the parents are the ‘undeserving poor’, what about their children? Is it their fault their parents are feckless? Should these children be brought up for 18 years at levels of household income even less than normal benefits? Do we really want any kids in Britain in 2012 to be hungry when they go to bed, to not have decent clothing or a decent home?
Some Conservatives talk about the plans for reform as an attempt to ‘help people’ by not allowing them to become trapped in a cycle of welfare dependency. This is like telling a starving man that denying him food is freeing him from the cycle of food dependency.
In the end it all comes down to priorities. The Tories will favour the rich, with tax cuts for business and huge pay rises for the CEOs no matter how badly their companies perform. They will continue to provide a safety net for the banks with taxpayers’ money, and the bankers will still have massive bonuses despite their actions being the cause of the crisis. For the very rich it’s a ‘welfare system for the wealthy’: this is the real culture of entitlement.
Dr Kay Phillips is a GP in Manchester and national chair of the Respect party.