Britain’s welfare state under threat

Published Apr 08, 2013 11:47am

AS I write this, the Grand National at Aintree has just been run. I scanned the sports pages of the Saturday papers for tips, and thought that Tarquinias, at 66-1 — and considered by the Guardian racing correspondent — had a good chance.

This is an annual ritual: every year, I put on a few pounds on an outsider to keep my interest alive in England’s most popular horse race. The National is run over 4.5 miles, and has 30 hurdles, so it is a very demanding course. Favourites hardly ever win, so I look for a possible outsider with long odds.

Tarquinias looked promising, but if I had bet on another dark horse, Auroras Encore, I would have had good reason to celebrate: the beast won by nine lengths, also at 66-1. Oh well, Tarquinias was seventh, and actually finished the race, which is more than other horses I have backed in the past can say. Indeed, some of them have fallen at the very first hurdle.

We arrived in a cold, bleak England a few days ago after nearly six months in Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Pakistan. The minute I stepped out of Heathrow, I wished I had stayed in Karachi. The drive to our home in Devizes was through some dreary, grey countryside. This has been a very cold winter in most of Europe, and friends have been emailing us, warning us to delay our arrival.

For the last few years, we have been deliberately missing the winters in the UK, and have timed our arrival with the beginning of Spring. No such luck this year as we have been ambushed by the coldest March for the last 50 years.

This bleak backdrop has made an appropriate backdrop for the government’s ferocious attack on Britain’s welfare state. In a series of new moves to reduce the cost of benefits doled out on account of housing, health, unemployment and child care, Ian Duncan Smith, the pensions secretary, has just spelled out cuts and changes that have made the left apoplectic with rage.

Articles and editorials have raged against the injustice of these measures.

Government spokesmen from Chancellor George Osborne downwards have responded by saying that what they have done is to rationalise a system that has encouraged idleness. The top benefits have been capped at 26,000 pounds per year, which is higher than most people get as a starting salary.

The point the Tory government is making is that by paying far too much in benefits, the state actually discourages people from going out to seek work. While it is true that many have abused the generous welfare system, the number is far lower than the right-wing media makes it out to be.

Another controversial reform relates to the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. This reduces benefits by 14 per cent if the beneficiary of subsidised housing has an extra bedroom. The purpose of this is to induce people to move to smaller dwellings to make way for larger families. But critics say there just aren’t enough small housing units to accommodate all those who would be affected. Others object that over the years, they have made improvements to their houses and it would be unfair to force them to move.

The British welfare system, introduced by the Labour government just after the Second World War, was among the first to put a safety net under the poor and the unemployed. In conjunction with National Health, the elaborate system that provides free health care to millions, the British state became a pioneer in protecting the most vulnerable sections of society.

Inevitably, the cost of such a system is bound to be high: today, about a third of public spending goes on pensions, unemployment benefits, housing and health. In these days of austerity, the Conservative government has unleashed a wide range of cost-cutting measures. Although the majority supported the government in its determination to reduce the huge public debt, people are now feeling the impact of these policies.People are also seething over the fact that while they are being asked to face the brunt of these cuts, bankers and corporate types — widely seen as being responsible for the current recession — have gone scot-free. Indeed, newspapers are still reporting on the obscene bonuses and golden handshakes these robber barons have received recently.

The bitter cold and the recession have emptied the high streets of shoppers, adding to the chill retailers have faced these last few years. Many familiar shops in Devizes are shut, and the only new enterprise I have seen is a new antiques shop.

The government received a boost for its radical policies from an unexpected source. Last year, in a shocking incident, six children were burnt alive as they slept, and the parents barely made it out of the house alive. Later, it turned out that Mike Philpott had cooked up a scheme with his wife Meade, and a friend, to set the house on fire, and rescue the children.

The idea was to accuse Philpott’s lover who had earlier left with her five children. The fire raged too quickly for the children to be pulled out of the house, and they perished before rescue workers could arrive.

The idea behind the plot was to blame Philpott’s lover for starting the fire, and once she was arrested, take custody of her children. Philpott had fathered 17 children, and collected benefits for them. According to some reports, he raked in a total of over 50,000 pounds annually, and had not worked in years.

After he had been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to life imprisonment, the right-wing media had a field day, accusing the welfare state of encouraging such behaviour.

The Times has called for child benefits to be limited to two kids per family. If this reform is carried out – and it seems to have widespread support — it would badly affect Muslims who tend to have large families.


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