The rich will only work if you give them money and the poor will only do so if you take it away. Those words might as well be emblazoned across the foreheads of every member of the government, for underneath the facade of compassionate conservatism this appears to be what many on the front bench genuinely believe
Imagine the reaction of the Conservative Party if someone committed benefit fraud on the scale of former Take That star Gary Barlow’s recently reported tax avoidance. Even Labour shadow ministers would be muttering under their breath about the benefits system being there only for those who ‘really need it’.
As it is, the worst Barlow can expect is a cold shoulder from the Prime Minister when the time comes to send out invitations for the Number 10 summer garden party. It’s a cliché to say that there is one rule for the rich and one for everyone else, but when punishment means little more than missing out on Downing Street canapés, how else do we explain this thundering double standard?
Indeed, despite tabloid headlines about a feckless underclass intent on milking the benefits system, tax evasion is a far bigger social scourge than fraudulent benefit claims. Just 0.7 per cent - or £1.2bn - of total benefit expenditure in 2012/13 was overpaid due to fraud. This compares with £5bn a year that the government loses through tax avoidance.
In other words, for every £1 swallowed up by benefit fraud, £4 disappears because of people like Gary Barlow. Get angry about people playing the system by all means, but start at the top and work your way down if you expect to be taken seriously.
Our double standard doesn’t only result in a financial burden for the taxpayer. Public misconceptions are also having serious social consequences: there are ominous signs we no longer even view those at the bottom of society as human beings at all. How else would it be thinkable for organisations and councils to deploy ‘spikes’ in doorways to deter homeless people from bedding down for the night? As one Twitter user put it, “the destitute are now considered vermin”.
And yet it isn’t only the homeless who are increasingly considered social outcasts - tolerated but essentially despicable. Benefit claimants have felt this way ever since Iain Duncan Smith got his feet under the table at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and introduced his pointless but cruel Work Programme, modelled on earlier reforms carried out in the United States under Bill Clinton.
American Welfare to Work reforms were supposed to dish out some much needed ‘tough love’ to recipients of state money. And yet despite the lofty claims of Clinton to have dragged the formerly unemployable into the middle classes, once they took effect there was a “huge spike in extreme poverty, defined as the number of households making under $2 a day”, according to the Washington Post.
In the UK, Jobcentres appear to have been instructed by the DWP that if someone says they are too ill to work, it is best to assume that they are lying. As a result, the stories of ruined lives are rapidly mounting up.
Take Annette Francis, a mother who suffered from severe mental illness and who died penniless after her benefits were stopped. And then there’s Mark Wood, an Aspergers sufferer from David Cameron’s constituency who starved to death after his benefits were cut. Or Brian McArdle, a partially blind and paralysed man who died the day after his disability benefits were stopped due to a fatal heart attack caused, his relatives say, by stress related to the decision.
Perhaps it really was technically the right decision to cut these people’s benefits; but what about the moral consideration? And why risk it at all if it isn’t even likely to work? Figures from IDS’ own department show that just 4 per cent of people on the Work Programme have found jobs afterwards.
An increasing number of people in Britain are living on the edge and that edge is getting narrower and more precarious. A million people used a food bank last year – the ‘tip of the iceberg’, according to the Trussell Trust. Rough sleeping, the scourge of the 1980s, is back with a vengeance, increasing by 60 per cent in London alone since 2011. Over 1 million people - 4 per cent of the workforce - are now on precarious zero-hour contracts, leading a hand to mouth existence and very often prevented by their employer from seeking alternative work due to a Dickensian rule called an ‘exclusivity clause’.
We accept all of this, and we accept too that if a person slips off the edge and finds themselves penniless in the seventh richest country in the world they should expect demeaning work assessments and hostile shards of metal in doorways, deployed to shoo off the human debris of our increasingly callous society.
In David Cameron’s Britain it would be untrue to say that only the homeless are treated like vermin. Anyone can qualify, just so long as they are unlucky enough.