Sympathy for the scrounger? How austerity is shaping the welfare reform debate


The public's suspicion of benefit 'scroungers' seems to be fading – potentially giving critics of the coalition's welfare reforms a louder voice in the debate.

New polling out this week shows a significant shift in mood, with austerity and the recession apparently responsible for a little more public understanding of the problems benefit claimants face.

Fifty-one per cent supported the view that benefits for unemployed people are 'too high and discourage work' in 2012, down from the 61% seen in 2011, according to the the 30th edition of NatCen's annual British Social Attitudes survey.

That's still an overall majority, of course. Those concerned by the negative state of the debate about benefit 'scroungers' can't help but blame the critical media for their coverage of claimants.

Some newspapers, like the Guardian, allow benefit claimants to tell their stories with guaranteed anonymity. This protects them from social stigma or mud-slinging by less sympathetic papers. Most media outlets, though, don't follow their lead.

Many commentators are acutely aware the problem is part of a much bigger headache. "The welfare bill is too high," Owen Jones said this week at CPAG's annual welfare rights conference, "but the benefits crisis is a threefold crisis. It's a housing crisis, a jobs crisis, and a wages crisis". Newspapers will always be able to find individual cases to point to, but the government has to take at least some responsibility for the broader problem.

This is the context for case workers' concerns about Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit, which faces heavy criticism even though the work and pensions secretary insists the project is "on time and on budget".

The on-the-ground experts at the welfare rights conference seem far from reassured. The biggest worries are lack of internet access (particularly in light of concerns that the universal credit scheme could be implemented alongside library cuts and closures), the complex yet critical nature of timing in putting forwards an application, and the wide potential for misuse, coercion, or even domestic abuse left by the single payments to just one partner in a couple.

There are also technical concerns, not least about security. In particular, claimants with no internet access will have to share very private information online, using public computers. Public access computers often actually warn the user not to share personal information over their servers, and yet this is what many applicants will be forced to do when the universal credit is rolled out. These security concerns are heightened by the absence of any delivery record – the claimant will have no proof of their application, should technical glitches or administrative errors occur.

There are safeguards, of course, but even these are said to be problematic. The reliance on crisis loans, according to one CPAG welfare expert, amounts to a 46% cut in comparison to what would have previously been made available through the social fund before it was scrapped.

When it comes to disabled claimants, and claimants diagnosed with a mental illness, the potential cost of unintentional injustice is even bigger. If two partners in a couple both qualify for the disability component of the universal credit, only one partner can actually be paid it.

This amounts to a big real-term cut for those people, and it has even been suggested that this aspect of the policy might add so much pressure to relationships which are often already under huge stress and strain that far from being pro-family, it actually encourages partners to split up.

It also leaves partners open to disempowerment or abuse. Women's Aid says disabled women are twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence and under this system, their partner may well be, in practice, handed full control over their finances.

But it seems the worst fears are grounded in a fundamental mistrust as to whether sick and disabled people will be given access to any benefits at all. Most disability-related components of universal credit are dependent on the person in question qualifying for personal independence payments (PIP) in the first place. With so many controversies surrounding Atos' work capability assessments – the appeals against Atos decisions cost the taxpayer £66 million this year – very few will be resting comfortably at their future being placed so firmly in Atos' hands.

It is, critics say, the biggest squeeze in living standards since Queen Victoria sat on the throne. But the coalition is showing no signs of shying away from its controversial welfare reform agenda. Amid the grimness of austerity Britain, voters' media-prompted kneejerk hostility is starting to soften – a trend which, if it continues, could make the government's hardline position increasingly uncomfortable.