Gabrielle Preston: This is the moment to rethink our attitude to welfare claimants

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The Independent Online

As the stream of allegations about MPs' expenses continues to dominate the papers and infuriate the public, surely the Government should rethink its attitude to benefit claimants? MPs earn about £64,000 a year – significantly more when topped up by expenses. Modest compared with City salaries, it is wealth beyond the wildest dreams of people living on benefits.

The weekly rate of jobseeker's allowance is £64.30 – or £3,344 a year, little more than that spent on cleaning moats or hanging chandeliers, around the same as that claimed for televisions and boilers, and a fraction of the thousands of pounds claimed to buy and refurbish second homes.

And yet politicians of all parties remain agreed that benefit claimants should "play by the rules" (put their children in childcare and look for jobs that may not exist) or face financial sanctions. But the problem is lack of decent jobs and support, not one of motivation.

Perhaps James Purnell, the Pensons Secretary singled out in the expenses row, will come to regret stating that he wants "a work culture, not a welfare culture... reforming the system so that it demands personal responsibility".

Thanks to a media that has stigmatised them as workshy fraudsters, claimants often feel the sort of shame that is notable for its absence in Westminster. It's hardly surprising that many fail to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. Claimants who unwittingly transgress the rules, or who are victims of administrative errors, are often made to feel like criminals.

Welfare reform makes little sense. The Government has even ignored its own research suggesting that benefit sanctions damage child wellbeing and are least effective in times of rising unemployment and recession. It assumes that "work is a route out of poverty" and that "high-quality, affordable childcare" is available. But most poor children have a parent in work, and the provision of childcare is highly variable and priced beyond the reach of many families.

Allegations that ministers are "playing the system" raise doubts about their right to pontificate on the behaviour of others. Welfare reform should now be abandoned.

The writer is the policy and research officer for Child Poverty Action Group

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