Joan Smith: Compassion deserts Cameron

The PM's attack on benefit claimants incapacitated by drink, drugs and obesity laid bare his Tory soul

Share
Related Topics

David Cameron is right, though only up to a point: many people in this country are offended by the thought of workers in poorly paid jobs having to support benefit claimants who can't work because of addictions to drink, drugs or food. Even some politicians on the centre-left have come round to recognising the inherent unfairness of the present system, although I suspect they may have winced when they heard the Prime Minister's language last week. Some of his Lib Dem coalition colleagues certainly didn't like it.

Cameron is still trying to present himself as a compassionate Conservative. But the revelation that just over 80,000 people are living on incapacity benefit because of alcohol, drugs or weight problems sent him into a classic Tory rant. He promised to get tough with claimants who don't deserve benefits – the "undeserving poor" are a perennial Tory theme – and he was clearly addressing his core vote when he talked about the need to get "these people" into work. What he didn't explain is where the new jobs are going to come from, just as he failed to address the question of why employers would take on alcoholics or drug addicts (to put it crudely) when there are 2.5 million unemployed but reasonably healthy potential workers to choose from.

The PM's error was to correctly identify an imbalance in the treatment of taxpayers and benefits claimants, and then make a leap from that into punitive moral judgements. He also gave the impression that the problem is bigger than it is, even though fewer than one in 20 incapacity benefit claimants fall into this category. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, in August last year there were 42,360 incapacity benefit claimants with alcohol addiction, 37,480 with drug dependency and 1,800 who were obese. Labour's spokesman on employment, Stephen Timms, pointed out that there's a danger of simply moving thousands of claimants from one benefit to another; if they can't find work, they may end up on Jobseeker's Allowance and nothing will have been achieved.

A complex problem that has developed over years isn't amenable to the simple, instant solutions that politicians favour. The Employment minister, Chris Grayling, says private and voluntary organisations have agreed to invest £580m in treating addicts and preparing them for employment. Modern Tories like to think themselves caring, but their instincts are still small-state – and he claims all conditions are treatable with the right support.

I wonder if he's ever met some of the families I encountered while canvassing in the north of England during last year's general election. One couple in particular has stayed in my memory, their problems so intractable that the woman broke down in tears when I arrived with some leaflets. Her husband looked to be in his early forties but stayed on the sofa in a dressing gown, so obese he was unable to get up without help. He had diabetes and was waiting for two new hips, while his wife had had to give up work to look after him. Both were severely depressed, entirely dependent on state benefits and unable to see any way out.

They were both very nice people, living in a way neither had consciously chosen, although in strict Cameronian terms the husband had brought his problems on himself. It would take years and massive state intervention to get this couple into a situation where they could work and support themselves, and that takes us to the problem at the heart of Tory philosophy. Time after time, the most significant factors in what happens to people turn out to be class, education and income, but Tory ministers behave as though we all have the same start in life. This inevitably colours their view of individuals, encouraging the kind of unfeeling language we heard last week.

Take obesity, where a gap is opening up between children from poor and affluent families. Some researchers suggest working-class children are fatter because their families aren't getting messages about healthy eating and exercise; others point out that fast food is cheaper, less time-consuming, and more filling than a healthy middle-class diet. Overweight children tend to grow into obese adults, but Tories, as a breed, have little appetite for regulating supermarkets which discount unhealthy food and alcohol.

I know alcoholics can be irritating and self-deceiving, but cheap booze, social tolerance of heavy drinking and the reluctance of GPs to intervene all play a role in failing to halt addiction at an early stage. Cameron's Tories seem less interested in understanding why people develop addictions than finding fault, labelling individuals and telling them to get over it. Weirdly for people who loathe the "nanny state", they're pretty quick to sound like nannies themselves, berating their charges for indolence and fecklessness. "Frankly," Cameron fumed, "we are not doing our job looking after taxpayers' money if we do not try and make sure these people go to work."

Right-wing politicians have been talking like this for years, pleasing their voters but failing to come up with long-term answers. Labour governments make a different mistake, reluctant to stigmatise the poor, but also seeking to avoid antagonising constituents whose families depend on benefits. Political parties disagree about whether incapacity benefit claimants are shysters or victims, but their responses are too tribal to address the question of fairness for everyone: people in work, the unemployed, pensioners, the chronically sick.

Cameron is right to argue that too many people are "trapped in long-term poverty", but that doesn't apply only to people on state benefits. Inequality is entrenched, and you don't have to look far to find the hopelessness, low self-esteem, poor health and multiple dependencies that are among its consequences. Getting people out of this state requires radical rethinking about the relationship between rich and poor, individuals and state. But it might put an end to the absurd situation in which the poorest exist on the taxes of the not quite so poor.



www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past