Owen Jones: Hatred of those on benefits is dangerously out of control

Taking away support can only be achieved by demonising recipients as scroungers in mansions

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What does it say about modern Britain when the pre-meditated massacre of six children is described as "an accident waiting to happen" on national television? In the early hours of last Friday, someone poured petrol through the letterbox of the Philpott household, unleashing a blaze that ended in one of the most appalling mass murders in our country's recent history. Whoever was responsible must have known the almost inevitable consequences of their actions. No rationalisations exist for this sort of atrocity.

But as the surviving Philpotts face an agony most would struggle to imagine, right-wing shock-jock Carole Malone argued that they had effectively brought it on themselves. "This family became a target a couple of years ago," she argued on ITV's This Morning; they had "probably upset a lot of people" by being a family of 17 who were receiving state benefits. "I suspect they have many enemies out there because they were seen to be on benefits," she suggested with a tone that did not betray a hint of compassion. With the country in such a dire financial state, "People have seen families – maybe like this – wanting to take advantage." Referring to the "culture of the family" and the fact they had brought "attention to themselves", Malone concluded that "six innocent children have died as a result".

Malone has form. In 2009, she absurdly claimed that illegal immigrants received "free cars". The Press Complaints Commission forced the now defunct News of the World to apologise and publish a full retraction. After Karen Matthews shocked the nation by kidnapping her own daughter to extort money from the tabloid press, Malone claimed to have lived "next" to a council estate "full of people like Karen Matthews". They were part of a "sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country", she claimed, as though an abhorrent individual such as Karen Matthews was representative of anybody but herself. But as contemptible as this proven propagator of untruths is, Malone merely reflects prejudice that is increasingly rampant in austerity Britain. On the same day the children were killed, I am told that a producer at a leading radio station suggested using the tragedy as a hook for a feature on large families.

Before the general election, some of the media delighted in using the Philpotts as evidence the welfare system was out of control. They were featured on ITV shows Ann Widdecombe Versus The Benefit Culture and The Jeremy Kyle Show, and in several newspapers. The coverage had a simple aim: to provide proof of the age-old suspicion that the poor are breeding too much – and at taxpayers' expense, too. It was a sentiment that was rife among the eugenicists who flourished in inter-war Britain; and Thatcher's mentor, Keith Joseph, ruined his Conservative leadership ambitions in the mid-1970s by claiming that "our human stock is threatened" by single parents "in [social] classes 4 and 5" having too many children.

Echoing this tradition, Jeremy Hunt argued before the general election that long-term claimants had to "take responsibility' for the number of children they had, adding that the state would no longer fund large workless families. But it is all based on myths. Just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more.

Hatred against those receiving benefits is out of control in Cameron's Britain. The Tories transformed a crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending, and determined that the most vulnerable would make the biggest sacrifices. But taking away support from the disabled, the unemployed and the working poor is not straightforward. It can only be achieved by a campaign of demonisation – to crush any potential sympathy. Benefit recipients must only appear as feckless, workshy scroungers, living in opulent quasi-mansions with wall-to-wall widescreen TVs, rampaging around the Canary Islands courtesy of handouts from the squeezed taxpayer. Benefit fraud does exist – according to Government estimates, it is worth less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – but the most extreme examples are passed off as representative, or as the "tip of the iceberg". The reality is all but airbrushed out of existence.

Earlier this year, a Sunday Times article featured the headline "End the something for nothing culture". Below was a picture of the Gallagher family from the comedy-drama Shameless, as though these fictional caricatures were real life. This one-time paper of record quoted a Whitehall official on benefit recipients: "If we want them to tap dance, then they will tap dance." Rod Liddle – who dresses up the boorish rants of a thick pub bore as journalism – claimed that his new year's resolution "was to become disabled", perhaps with a "newly invented" illness like fibromyalgia, so he could claim benefits. As the economic catastrophe that began four years ago led to a national jobs' crisis – there are now over six million people looking for full-time work – the "scrounger'"caricature perversely has become more and more popular.

It is tempting to ignore the ramblings of glorified internet trolls like Liddle, but their projected ignorance has consequences. Six of the biggest disability charities have warned that the campaign of demonisation – by both journalists and politicians – has led to a surge in abuse towards people with disabilities. According to Scope, two-thirds reported abuse in September last year, up from 41 per cent just four months earlier.

But this campaign helps sustain public acquiescence in a massacre of the welfare state. George Osborne plans £10bn of further benefit cuts; Cameron's parting spinmeister Steve Hilton has proposed £25bn. Half a million people are to have their disability living allowance taken away, even though the estimated fraud rate is just 0.5 per cent. People with serious illnesses are being stripped of their employment and support allowance, after undergoing the horrendous (and often humiliating) ordeal of a points-based assessment by French corporation Atos. One man with a degenerative lung disease, Larry Newman, was awarded no points – just a few weeks before he died of his illness. Under New Labour (let's not forget who started this), one woman had her benefits cut after missing an assessment appointment – because she was in hospital having chemotherapy for stomach cancer.

But we rarely see this reality: it is intentionally hidden from us. The Government and much of the media divert anger from those who caused the crisis, to your "scrounging" neighbour down the street. And so we end with Carole Malone arguing that a family whose children died in a fire brought it on themselves. It is beyond shameful. And it must be challenged.

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