Deborah Orr: Politicians simply do not understand the soul-destroying truth about life on benefits

It's ghastly to dread the sound of a postman at the door because the thought of a bill brings on nausea
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The Independent Online

Perhaps simply because it has been anticipated for so long, and with such dread, the Green Paper on welfare reform, when it finally arrived, seemed reasonably even-handed. Certainly, its presentation, in the soothing, measured tones of the Work and Pensions Secretary, John Hutton, was highly benign. Here is a Green Paper inspired solely by the worry that people on welfare were being let down - chucked on a scrap heap and forgotten, no longer even accorded the modest compliment that they might be able to look after themselves. Or so our elected representatives would like us to believe.

It's funny, really, how wedded so many campaigners have become to incapacity benefit. I suppose it's indicative, first, of how wary people generally are of change and, second, of how knee-jerk in their recalcitrance some left-wing activists can be. Everybody knows - and Hutton even reminded us - that incapacity benefit started out as one of many Thatcherite scams to hide the mass long-term unemployment created by her own ruthless execution of the cultural revolution for the 1980s. Yet the idea that a Labour government might want to think about changing this once-hated abomination is greeted with the greatest of suspicion.

The reason, I think, is because there is a real sense that our reforming democrats do not know what it is like to be hard-up, whether in work or out of it. Pronouncements such as that issued recently by Tony Blair, and reiterated yesterday by Hutton, don't help matters. Both men have breathlessly pointed out that it is in the worst pockets of deprivation that the most incapacity benefit claimants live.

Their mad implication is that somehow the benefit causes the problem, or at least exacerbates it. The truth, of course, is that it was inaugurated to mask deprivation. It is in places like these that talk of reform is least trusted, because the people in these areas know there are no jobs for the likes of them. The economy was restyled a quarter of a century ago, after all, with marginalising them as an aim explicitly stated by the most brutish Thatcherite right-wingers.

But there's a more banal misunderstanding of how people come to exist in poverty in the first place, and why they so often prefer a mix of benefit and black economy to the little-respected dignity of low-paid straight work. It's particularly soul-destroying, living in penury in a land of plenty, where wealth and excess are paraded openly and celebrated gleefully.

It's frustrating to see lights blazing in offices all night, when at home the running water has to be kept cold except on strictly regulated occasions when the boiler can be heated. It's miserable having to wear one's worn-through boots in the rain, because there isn't another pair to put on, especially when the cultural discourse suggests that simply everyone naughtily treats themselves to new Manolos every season. It's ghastly to dread the sound of the postman at the door, because the thought of another bill brings on nausea.

A lot of the time, people stay on benefits even though they have sporadic work because they want security as well as money, not just because the mechanisms of claiming are so clunky.

The Government has said much about removing what it is pleased to call "perverse incentives" from the welfare system. But one "perverse incentive" of the welfare state, brought about directly since Thatcherism, is that people crave something to fall back on, and the low-paid, insecure, labour market simply does not offer this. That's one of the reasons why the system is so much abused. A six-part series on the BBC has just began, investigating benefit fraud. Its producer, David Street, says he's made a lot of films about fraud, but has never seen fraud on a scale like that in the welfare state.

All I can say is that he's led a very sheltered life. I don't think I'm alone in knowing of many people who have, at one time or another, claimed benefits while pocketing a little extra cash. I did this when I was on the dole, by offering to make and fly-post publicity material for local bands. Later, when I found full-time low-paid employment, my boss recommended that I go on Enterprise Allowance (another Thatcherite scheme for distorting employment figures) when he got nervy about driving me up to the dole office to sign on.

Since those days, I've known a woman on incapacity benefit who held down three jobs - nannying, cleaning and babysitting - and in one good year saved up for a trip to Disneyland Florida without ever questioning for a moment that this was the moral thing to do for her family, and scores of really nice, good, upstanding citizens who in this one respect urinate all over what used to be called the "social contract".

Of course, it is right to pay your taxes. Of course, it is wrong to cheat the state. But the problem is not just that the bureaucracy needs reform - though it does; the problem is that people have lost sight of why exactly it is that diddling the state is - or at least should be - pretty much the same as stealing from your gran.

What the Government wants to do with welfare reform is - broadly speaking - not so terrible. A whole range of services are not as helpful as they ought to be in getting people back to work. Even JobCentres, for example, tend to get the least interesting jobs because they have a reputation for attracting the least dynamic job seekers.

As for the services which encourage people to set up their own business - obviously something that is encouraged a lot (perversely) in areas of low economic activity, too often they promise so much more than they can deliver. One person I know found herself really inspired by a small business adviser, who promised help with a business plan, with registering a company, with marketing advice and with initial advertising. Yet after a great deal of work, and when she was poised to begin, it turned out that the outlay for the marketing had to be stumped up by the unemployed person, and would only be reimbursed by the state when receipts were presented. Since this person had been on income support, suffering severe depression, for some years, the whole thing came to nothing.

Not only was this woman's time wasted, but a government adviser also managed to squander plenty of time offering false hope and misleading advice. Which did nothing to help the depression she was fighting her way out of at the time. Since a third of new claimants for incapacity benefit claim depression, it's important to note that recovering depressives can't be pushed too hard, too fast.

Yet the pilot scheme, Pathways to Work, now being rolled out over Britain, is fairly effective. The carrot side of the welfare reform equation is to be heartily welcomed. But a lot of the sticks betray a sad and awful lack of understanding of how hard life is for many people, and how wounded and damaged and bent out of shape they become in the living of it.