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Is It Immoral to Cut Welfare?

Author: Simon Duffy

I recently spoke on a BBC debate show The Big Questions. This was my first television experience and I was keen to do the best I could to help defend people from the outrageously unfair cuts that are now hammering down on disabled people and people in poverty. Of course I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to and some people might want to know the source of information I did share - so I thought I would publish it all here.

Being on the telly

I got lots of helpful advice from friends and family before the show and I suspect, as all these people know me it is no surprise that their main point was try and be simple and clear (rather than my normal - complicated and obscure).

My friend, Helen Collins, said "KISS them" - and I’m pretty sure she meant ‘keep it simple, stupid’ and my son also gave me a bit of coaching: “Dad, no, that’s boring, you’re going on far too long. Nobody will be listening.”

So, as I prepared for the debate I wrote down what I’d ideally like to say - simply and then I added in some notes and references for those of you who like the detail - like I do.

There was also one thing I really wanted to say, but didn’t see how I could weave it into the debate in the right way - it is a piece of Hasidic wisdom. Rabbi Shmelke said:

The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.

For me that represents the tragedy of our current situation precisely.

1. Government cuts target disabled people

The government said the cuts would be fair - but it turns out they are very unfair indeed :

  • 1 in 5 of us live in poverty - but the cuts fall on people in poverty 5 times more than everyone else,
  • 1 in 13 of us have a disability - and the cuts hit disabled people 9 times harder 
  • 1 in 50 have very significant needs and need social care - these people, people in the very greatest need, are hit 19 times harder

We are talking here about disabled children, families and carers, adults with learning difficulties or significant physical disabilities and older people. These are not ‘other people’ - these are our family, our friends, our neighbours.

And it could be any one of us - disability, accident, illness, unemployment - can hit all of us - all of a sudden you find yourself needing help and support.

2. Politicians are chasing votes, not doing what’s right

I don’t think these cuts have been targeted on disabled people because politicians hate disabled people - the driving force is electioneering. Politicians want to get re-elected and they focus their efforts on persuading swing voters, who are middle-earners, so they can win elections.

So cuts have been targeted on those areas don’t seem to touch swing voters and which nobody really understands. Most of the cuts hit just two areas - benefits and social care:

  • Benefits, which will be cut by 20% by 2015
  • Social care, which will be cut by 33% by 2015

Dangerously, politicians are also covering up their decisions by scapegoating disabled people and people in poverty. All political parties are guilty of this.

This is the motive behind the stupid rhetoric of strivers, alarm-clock Britain and the squeezed middle. It is the same motive behind the rhetoric of shirkers, scroungers and the under-class.

Sadly, human beings like to find a scapegoat, someone else to blame others for their own problems, and a way of feeling superior to others. But, if you look at the real facts, behind this rhetoric, you find that it is all absolute nonsense.

People in poverty and disabled people did not create our current economic crisis; yet it is they who are paying - by far - the highest price for it.[2]

3. We don’t know how poor some people really are

The UK is the 3rd most unequal developed country in the world (after the USA and Portugal). Our benefit system, certainly has many flaws, but it is certainly not too generous (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010).

The very poorest must somehow live on just £8 per day (before tax).

For the poorest 10% of families - 1 in 10 of us - have to live on £12 per day after tax. Incredibly, the poorest 10% of families also pay the highest rate of tax - 45%.[3]

We forget that people in poverty are still paying VAT, Income Tax, Council Tax and many other taxes. 

None of this craziness is necessary.

It’s our choice to live in this kind of society. It is the political and economic choices made by our leaders that lead to this injustice.

Inequality like this isn’t good for the economy, for our health, our happiness or for our creativity - it is good for nothing but stigma, blame and poor mental health.

It is turning us into an increasingly unattractive country - certainly not the Britain of decency and fair play.

4. There are lots of myths about welfare and benefits

There are lots of myths and false beliefs about benefits.

For example, when politicians tell us the benefits bill is too big they then add together pensions and benefits and come up with the figure of £180 billion - which certainly does sound like a lot of money.

However, what people don’t know is that £155 billion of all those benefits are paid straight back to the government as taxes. In fact the real net cost of benefits and pensions together is only £25 billion, only 2.5% of our national income - a tiny figure (Duffy, 2012).

Often politicians talk about the problem of benefit fraud, but official figures show that benefit fraud is a minor issue.

  • Benefit fraud is £1 billion.
  • Tax fraud is £15 billion (this is illegal fraud - not tax evasion).
  • Tax evasion has been estimated at £70 billion.
  • In fact £17 billion of benefits go unclaimed, because the system is so confusing and stigmatising - we could call this government fraud.
  • Lastly the cut to benefits will be £22 billion (Campaign for a Fair Society, 2012).

And lets remember - none of our economic troubles were created by our modest spending on fighting poverty.The economic crisis was create by a housing price bubble, too much borrowing by home owners and too much lending by the banks.

People in poverty, disabled people, the frail and older people are bearing the brunt of policy mistakes made by the powerful.

5. We are scapegoating innocent people

The ritual of the scapegoat - was a way of taking all the sin, greed and blame of a society and putting it all on the back of an innocent animal - who could then be sacrificed, cast out for the benefit of the whole nation.

It may seem a strange idea to us - but its a powerful image and its message is that we must avoid the blame game. For it will tear a society apart.

Human beings are at their ugliest when they scapegoat other people.

Society’s have done their very worst when they scapegoat weak and vulnerable groups. The medieval pogrom, the workhouse, eugenics and the Holocaust are all linked by this chain - the powerful blaming the innocent.

We scapegoat out of fear, we scapegoat those we fear but we also scapegoat because we want to be on the ‘winning side’ - it provokes the mob mentality.

Our current system is already designed to scapegoat. Why do we have a separate benefits system - when both the tax and benefit systems both give and take money? The benefit system is designed to be shameful.

Really we only need one system that treats everybody equally - poor and rich alike.

The idea of a Welfare Card is particularly shocking to me. I have just returned from working in Australia, where these cards are forced on Aboriginal people. These cards are despised - they are shameful and achieve nothing of value. The idea that people in poverty should be treated like a special underclass - with their own badge - like a Star of David - is appalling.

It's just not British to treat people like this. And it is based on prejudice. If we look at National Statistics Office data we find that the poorest spend much less on ‘sin products’ like tobacco and alcohol than the richest. [4]

6. We need a new system that provides security for all

My Grandad lived in the same terraced house in South Manchester all his married life. He was a working man, not political, never wealthy - but at the heart of a big and loving family. Before he died he wrote his memoirs, for his grandchildren, telling them what it was like to grow up in poverty and his memories of being a soldier in World War II.

One of the most moving moments in his memoirs was his memory of when the NHS was created. To him the NHS meant that ordinary folk could live without fear - knowing that, if they were sick, they would not be denied help.

This is what the welfare state should be about - all of us - guaranteeing to each other - that we need not live in fear. 

Our society is wealthy beyond the dreams of those who lived 100 years ago - there is no need for the fear and dependency created by the current system. There is no excuse for scapegoating the very people that a decent society should be protecting.

At the moment it looks to me that nobody is sticking up for people in poverty - all the political elites are failing the people in the greatest need. All parties are falling into the trap of scapegoating the very people who are not responsible our current problems. Churches are beginning to see the size of the problem, and so are some charities - but many other charities are also failing us and are too frightened to speak out.

There are lots of better solutions. We don’t need to use stigma and blame to solve our problems. 

Things we could we do instead are described by The Centre for Welfare Reform and many other independent organisations. Ideas include:

  • Merge tax and benefits get rid of stigma of benefits in one simplified system (Duffy, 2011)
  • Define a clear minimum entitlement for all citizens and make sure it keeps pace with growth
  • Redesign the tax system so its not biased against the poorest
  • Control public spending through better salary control at the top.
  • Raise salaries at the bottom to the level of the living wage

Final thoughts

Being part of a live television debate isn’t fun, but it is interesting. Three things I noticed:

1. The critics of welfare were very cavalier with the truth. Basic facts went missing in action and sweeping generalisations like “everyone is suffering” made it difficult for people to distinguish the wood from the trees. If we are going to defend people’s rights we are going to have be more thoughtful about our own rhetoric. We need to prick the bubbles of nonsense when they emerge and to find powerful ways to reveal what is really going on.

As one speaker said - “the poor are real people” - but somehow that basic reality disappears too easily.

2. Disabled people and social care simply vanished from the debate. Clearly people either do not know what social care is - or don’t care. Some of this ignorance and some of this is prejudice. I think this is less a direct form of prejudice against disabled people and more an indirect form of prejudice. In the imagination of the public disabled people are on the boundary between the ‘deserving and undeserving poor.’ As they don’t know what to think about disabled people they stop thinking altogether. 

This is very dangerous situation and it won’t get better by us just hoping the problem will go away.

There is a well of positivity and good will within the British people towards disabled people - but it is not being tapped. People have disconnected the reality of a Paralympic athlete, and all the millions of disabled people who are citizens of country, from the negative stereotypes promoted by Ricky Gervais and Little Britain.

3. Finally, one of our biggest problems is that the cuts are being justified by something that is true but irrelevant - that the current system is flawed. The one flaw our system does not have is too much generosity - that’s why we are the third most unequal developed country in the world. But we are allowing the government to target disabled people and people in poverty for further harm because, for years, government has refused to deal with the problems in the current system. 

It's like someone saying their car is designed badly - so they take the wheels off - madly illogical - but somehow effective as political rhetoric.To defend the welfare state we will need to positively critique the welfare state - we can’t just say “no that’s bad, don’t do it” - we are going to have to say “what you want to do is wrong, this is what we should be doing instead.”


[1] The facts and figures are set out in A Fair Society? (Duffy, 2013) This report, based on the government's own figures shows that the welfare cuts are unfair because they people those with the greatest needs:

  • People in poverty (1 in 5 of us) will see an average annual cut in income or support of £2,195 by 2015 (over £2,000) - 5 times the burden on the rest of us
  • Disabled people (1 in 13 of us) will see an average annual cut in income or support of £4,410 by 2015 (nearly £4,500) - 9 times the burden of the rest of us
  • Disabled people in the greatest need - the people who need social care - (1 in 50 of us) will see an average annual cut in income or support of £8,832 (nearly £9,000) - 19 times the burden on the rest of us.

[2]  This is happening because most of the cuts are fall on just 25% of the government spending - if you make deep cuts on only a few things - then obviously the impact is going to be devastating:

  • Benefits - which is to be cut by £22 billion, £18 billion of which falls on people in poverty. 30% of benefits are to help disabled people with the extra costs created by their disability - all of these benefits are being cut. (Duffy, 2013 Anon, 2012).
  • Social Care - which is 60% of local government expenditure - government have reduced their funding to local government by 40% and that has already been turned into a cut of over £4 billion (15%) to social care - that’s the support we give to disabled children and their families, help for people with severe disabilities and for older people, our parents, when they get frail and need help to be safe. (Duffy, 2013)

[3] Key facts include:

  • A young woman might have to live on less than £3,000 per year, that’s about £8 per day. (DWP, 2012).
  • The latest statistics from the Office of National Statistics show that the poorest 10% of families have an average income of £7,857 per year, £21 per day; 
  • But they then pay £972, in direct taxes, £2,547 in indirect taxes and £658 in intermediate taxes - that is £3519 in total taxes.
  • Leaving them with £4,338 per year, less than £12 per day (ONS, 2012)
  • This compares with the average family that has an income, after taxes, of £18,920 - more than 4 times better off.
  • Or the wealthiest 10% who have an income, after taxes, of £77,028 - more than 17 times better off and 30 times better off than the very poorest.
  • In fact the poorest 10% pay the highest percentage of their income in taxes - 45% - this is much more than any other group. 
  • The richest 10% of the population pay only 33% of their income in taxes (a similar percentage to most of us). Only the very poor are super-taxed in this way.

We forget that the poor are tax payers too - because we only focus on income tax. The three biggest taxes for the poorest 10% of families are:

  • VAT - £963 per year
  • Council Tax - £582 per yearIncome 
  • Tax & National Insurance - £390 per year [5]

[4] The poor also pay duties on tobacco and alcohol, like everyone else, but their spending is only 66% of the average. The wealthiest are paying double what the poorest are paying in ‘sin taxes’ - suggesting that it is not the habits of the poor we should be worrying about. (ONS, 2012)


References published by the Centre appear on the right hand side.

DWP (2012) Income Support, 2012/13
Estimate of Tax Research Network http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/
Office for National Statistics (2012) The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2010/2011 - Table 24 - Average incomes, taxes and benefits by decile groups of all households (ranked by unadjusted disposable income), 2010/11. Office for National Statistics.
Wilkinson R and Pickett K (2010) The Spirit Level. London, Penguin.

The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Is It Immoral to Cut Welfare? © Simon Duffy 2013.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.