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The duty of the ‘undeserving rich’

23 November 2012

Those on welfare are at the mercy of arbitrary decisions, says Jonathan Bartley

WHEN he guest-edited the New Statesman in June last year (News, 10 June 2011), the Archbishop of Canterbury warned of the "quiet resurgence of the seductive language of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor". It seems that many have been successfully suckered.

The 29th British Social Attitudes report, released in September, reflected a hardening attitude towards the welfare state and an increasingly harsh view of those who receive benefits. The Government's attempt to weed out "scroungers" on Employment and Support Allowance is also being linked by charities with an annual 34-per-cent increase in disability hate-crime, while other hate crimes have fallen (News, Leader 21 September).

The idea of Jubilee in the Bible, with its emphasis on land being returned, slaves being freed, and debts forgiven every 50 years, challenges such moralism (Comment, 9 November). This broad equalising principle, which appears to have aimed at ensuring wealth was not amassed, but shared, was not based on notions of individual desert. There was no sub-clause providing an opt-out for those who had lost large amounts of land because of idleness or profligacy, or who had borrowed irresponsibly.

The scandalous notion of the Jubilee was that if there was any moral distinction to be made it was of the "undeserving rich". Those who had become rich should return wealth to the poorest in the Jubilee year. This was not even about identifying those who had amassed their wealth "immorally". To a greater or lesser extent, all the rich were undeserving, because the land, and the wealth, ultimately belonged to God. And God had given it to everyone - not just a select few who were entrepreneurial, lucky, or devious enough to amass it for themselves.

Contrast this with the Government's fiscal approach today. A small Financial Transaction Tax, which 11 other countries in Europe are pursuing, has been rejected by the UK. Money, however, is being spent on the renewal of our Trident nuclear weapons. The "deserving" appear to be the wealthy, who are trying to make their wealth grow, or those whose products could destroy the planet.

The "undeserving", meanwhile, are those who fail the Government's new Work Capability Assessment. This includes 73 people each week who usually die as a result of the illnesses and conditions for which they had previously received welfare payments, after they were certified "fit for work". Some commit suicide. In one case, Freedom of Information requests revealed, someone died while filling out an assessment form. Relatives of the deceased have suggested that the stress of the assessment itself also contributes to death.

The arbitrary nature of such categorisation is also highlighted by the 400,000 disabled and sick people who have been initially declared fit, and who then have to undergo a lengthy, expensive, and exhausting appeals process to establish that they were deserving after all.

The categorisation of "deserving" and "undeserving" hardly makes financial sense, either. The total expected savings from putting 2.5 million disabled people through work tests will be just £2.2 million over three years - and that is if the targets are met. This is a tiny percentage of the £20 billion a year that a Financial Transaction Tax would earn, and 0.2 per cent of the £100 billion cost of Trident renewal.

It pales into insignificance alongside the £25 billion a year lost through tax avoidance by wealthy individuals and corporations, or the tens of billions that could be raised through a Land Value Tax, which would raise revenue based on an assessment of the value of land held by wealthy institutions and individuals.

As the idea of Jubilee appears to recognise, big problems require big solutions, not penalisation of the already poor on the basis of their designated moral character. It is not that we should abandon moral judgements, but rather that they should be based on a different morality that sees the "deserving" as those in need. It is the "undeserving rich" who have both the capacity and the responsibility to meet those needs.

Jonathan Bartley is director of Ekklesia, a think tank.

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