Today, the latest British Social Attitudes Survey (for 2011 to 2012) has been released. If you want to read it in full, click here. I am intending to deal with one section of it in this post – attitudes to Welfare.
The survey report shows some alarming statistics. In 1991, 26% of the people surveyed believed that if benefits were reduced, people would learn to stand on their own two feet. In 2011, this figure rose to 54% (roughly 6 in 10 people). A whopping 37% of respondents (4 in 10 people) believed that “most” people on benefits were “fiddling” the system (i.e. claiming benefits fraudulently). Finally, and probably most alarmingly, support for extra spending on benefits for disabled people who cannot work has fallen by 21 percentage points since 1998, and by a stunning 10 percentage points just in the last three years.
Why has all this happened? In my opinion, the answer is simple – we have been subjected to one of the biggest campaigns of misinformation in recent history, both by our government and trusted sections of our media. Case in point: Shanene Thorpe. Ms Thorpe is a young mother with a 3-year-old daughter who works for Tower Hamlets Council. She is forced to claim housing benefit in order to be able to pay the extremely high rent she is charged for her small flat, simply because she lives in the capital. Back in May, the BBC’s flagship news programme, Newsnight, asked if they could interview her about her situation. She expected, because it was the BBC (and we can trust them to be impartial, right?) that she would be given a fair hearing and the report would focus on cuts to housing benefit and how this will affect people living in high-rent areas such as central London. The interview itself turned out to be very different (click on her name above to watch the interview), and when it was aired it had been edited in such a way as to imply that Ms Thorpe was not only claiming housing benefit fraudulently, claiming that she and her daughter could live at home with her parents, but it also failed to mention her job. In other words, they made her look like a scrounger who expected the state to pay for her poor life choices. She has since raised an online petition and been given a full on-air apology by Newsnight, but when the very institutions who claim to be impartial, and who we have grown up to believe we can trust, can behave in this way it’s no wonder that social attitudes have changed. Sadly, Ms Thorpe’s case is not an isolated one either.
This campaign has been a sustained and brutal one. The government claims that the increase in people claiming disability benefits (30% in the past few years, according to the work and pensions secretary, Ian Duncan Smith) does not fit with the estimated increase in instances of illness and disability. The ignorance in this one statement is astounding. In an article in The Guardian on 14th May 2012, Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns with Disability Rights UK, points out that the biggest areas of growth in claimants are down to the ageing population and the increase in the rates of survival of disabled children. In other words, medical advances mean that we can save more people who would have died previously and some of these people need care and benefits to enable them to continue to live.
Amidst all this misinformation and hysteria, it is not surprising that the majority of us will be taken in. My message is: don’t allow yourself to be one of them. In 2011, the Department for Work and Pensions’ own estimate of the percentage of benefit claims which are fraudulent was a tiny 0.05%. Yes, you did read that right. And most of these fraudsters (who should rightly be condemned) are caught and dealt with. If they weren’t, we would never hear about them, would we?
In the meantime, genuine claimants, many of whom are severely ill, are penalised for the actions of these few criminals. Personally, I will never forgive the benefits office which stopped my disabled sister’s benefit simply because a stranger with known mental health problems, who lived on her street and had previously assaulted her with no provocation, accused her of working in the pub at the bottom of her road. She had reported her assault just a few weeks earlier and had been granted a restraining order against him, and yet they took away the money she needs to live on until she could prove that his allegations were untrue. This “guilty until proven innocent” attitude is widespread. It causes immense suffering and poverty all over the country and largely stems from the state’s over-emphasis on benefit fraudsters. It tars everyone with the same brush.
So, the next time you hear someone in authority spouting statistics about benefit claimants, don’t take them at face value. As a famous person once said:
“The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.”