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The seductive language of ‘deserving’

10 January 2014

Don't be sucked into scapegoating the poor, warns Paul Vallely

THE early signs are that George Osborne's political manoeuvre on welfare cuts might have backfired already. The Chancellor decided to usher in the New Year with an announcement designed to wrong-foot the Labour Party, and effectively declare open the 2015 General Election campaign. But his move revealed, intentionally or not, something about the morality of this Government's attitude to the poor.

Another round of spending cuts is to be at the heart of the Conservative election strategy, it seems. Of the £25 billion proposed cuts, half will come from taking the axe once more to benefits. Old-age pensions are to be exempted, apparently because older people vote more than do the under-25s, whose housing benefit is the only specific target announced in the new welfare cuts.

The subtext, apparently, is that this will paint Labour as "the scrounger's friend", ever-ready to squander the taxes of "hard-working people", to use another Tory catchphrase. Many in Conservative Party ranks, however, are unimpressed with the idea of balancing the budget on the backs of the working poor and those without jobs.

There is, however, a deeper subtext. It revives the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, of which our Victorian forebears were fond, with their Poor Law to incarcerate paupers in the workhouse.

Earlier in the life of this Government, Lord Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned against "a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of deserving and undeserving poor". Not all churchmen agree. His predecessor, Lord Carey, responded, in the Daily Mail, that "hand-outs given to the long-term unemployed" exacerbated the problem of a "bloated" system of "welfare dependency" that rewarded "fecklessness and irresponsibility".

The general public tends increasingly tothe latter view. The 2012 British Social Attitudes survey suggested that 37 per cent of the population thinks that most people who are on the dole are "fiddling". Some 62 per cent think unemployment benefit is too high and discourages work.

This is almost a threefold increase on what people said during the last recession, in 1993. The public now sees the occupants of the 340,000 households in which no adult has ever worked as idle caricatures from the TV series Shameless rather than people who, in Lord Williams's words, are not "wicked or stupid or lazy", but who need help "because circumstances have been against them".

Clearly there is a balance to be struck between the duty of solidarity with those in need, and the requirement to create incentives for individuals to take responsibility for themselves and their families. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has for years been grappling bravely with this issue.

The Office for Budget Responsibility and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have both said that Mr Osborne's new cuts will hit disproportionately the sick and disabled. This cannot be right. And both say that tax increases will be difficult to avoid, if the public deficit is to be reduced. Paying taxes is also a moral issue. It's odd, then, that we hear nothing from Mr Osborne, who previously cut taxes for millionaires, about the undeserving rich.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.

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