These were the words of the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith on the introduction of the £500 per week benefits cap in April 2013. The Tory initiative, egged on by their friends in the media, saw a reduction in the maximum amount a family could claim in benefits as, they said,
“a strong incentive for people to move into work and even before the cap comes in we are seeing thousands of people seeking help and moving off benefits.”
This cap, of course, ignored three main problems. Firstly, the big reason it was possible, apparently, for some people to live more comfortably on benefits than on a working wage was that wages are too low; over a fifth of workers in the UK earn less than the living wage.
Secondly, much of the money that the estimated 40,000 families claiming above the cap were eligible for was actually for Housing Benefit. In other words, they didn’t see a penny of it. All the money goes to landlords, already wealthy people in many cases who are directly profiting from the state.
Thirdly, and this is where I want to look at, getting a job is easier said than done for many. Especially those who have been out of work for a long time.
Meet Lee and Katrina Parker and their seven children from Colchester in Essex. Six years ago they were moved into a four bedroom house, at a rent of £930 per month, as a temporary measure by Colchester Borough Council. Unfortunately, at around the same time Lee was made redundant, shortly after switching jobs having worked for Asda for 13 years.
This was not a family who fit the tabloid stereotype of a couple banging out child after child and making the state pay. They were a working family, yes with a lot of children, but a working family nonetheless. And they fell on hard times, as can happen to any one of us.
Thankfully, they had a safety net, the Welfare State. Their rent was paid and money given for food etc. whilst Lee applied for jobs.
And more jobs.
And more jobs.
Hundreds of job applications, all of which were rejected.
Now, I don’t know why he was rejected for these jobs, but he was. He wasn’t sitting on his backside “sponging” off the state. He wanted to provide for his family. But, while it all came to nothing, that safety net was still there.
Until Mr Duncan Smith came along. £500 per month meant they couldn’t pay rent and feed the kids. As it was, as Katrina says, they dressed in second hand clothes, didn’t smoke or drink and didn’t take holidays. Now, however, they needed emergency help from the council just to pay the rent.
Then, last autumn, the discretionary payments stopped. The Parkers couldn’t cope financially and, at the end of May, they were evicted from their “temporary” home of six years.
A family of nine made homeless due to circumstances seemingly out of their control. In one of the richest countries in the world. A scandal, no?
Well, not according to Facebook,
A few sympathetic comments, but many taking delight in this family’s plight. Some making assumptions about how hard Lee had looked for a job. Some saying they chose this lifestyle. Some blaming immigrants (for no apparent reason). Some focusing on the fact that one of the girls had a laptop (possibly bought, but just as possibly borrowed or from her school).
I have not qualms in posting names next to the comments. The post this came from was public, as were their comments. They are, I presume, proud of their views.
I wouldn’t be, though. The sheer lack of humanity here is scary. This is not a story of someone wanting something for nothing. Lee worked before falling on hard times and has been looking for work ever since. This isn’t an underclass of people, it is a family of fellow human beings, including children who, if the article is to be believed, are working hard at school because they want to get on in life.
If any one of those commenters (and there are over 35,000 of them) found themselves in difficult times, something which happens to any of us, they would want the taxes they have paid to help support them as they try to get back on their feet. That is where the Parkers find themselves.
This is the real failure in the morals of this country. Yes, there is a “me me me” attitude, but it is held by those who can afford to feel that way as they sneer at those less fortunate. They read their papers, see the stories on Facebook, watch the “poverty porn” on TV and listen to the rhetoric of IDS and they think that they are the deserving and those in trouble are the undeserving underclass. This is where we are at as a country, where our poorest are seen as less than human, deserving to be put out on to the streets, deserving our anger and scorn. They chose this because they are scum, goes the cry.
This is Cameron’s Britain. This is Murdoch’s Britain. This is the Daily Mail’s Britain. This is Iain Duncan Smith’s Britain.
This is not my Britain. Please don’t let it be yours.