Greg Wright: Why we need to stop demonising people on benefits

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NOBODY loves a scrounger, especially when times are hard.

There are no shortage of stories about benefit cheats who enjoy life-styles that hard-working families can only dream about.

But is there a danger of demonising everyone who relies on benefits? TV shows about people who live off benefits, are, apparently very entertaining, but do they paint a distorted picture?

Lisa Pickard, the chief executive of Leeds & Yorkshire Housing Association, certainly thinks so.

“Poor people seem to make good television,’’ said Ms Pickard, who grew up in South Yorkshire during the miners’ strike.

She can provide graphic evidence of the damage negative media attention has inflicted on honest people who need benefits. In one instance, a group of tenants from Leeds were spat at and called “benefit street scum” when they got on a bus near their homes, according to Ms Pickard. Shocked and disturbed, they asked the housing association for advice about how they could provide a more positive image of people on benefits. Ms Pickard believes the political focus on “scroungers” has simplified the debate over welfare reform. That’s why she has helped to establish the Real Life Reform study group, which casts a critical eye over the latest round of welfare reforms, and in particular, the Coalition Government’s aim of ensuring that “work pays”.

“It’s partly to help understand the real impact on people who live in social housing,’’ she said. “One of the big aims was to give those people more confidence to speak out. It’s changing hearts and minds.”

The UK’s economic data has been a lot more encouraging, but is this leading to brighter times for people at the bottom of the social ladder? The latest Real Life Reform report, which was published last month, would suggest not.

Ms Pickard, said: “One of our aims was to track whether the intention of welfare reform - to get people into work, while protecting the most vulnerable -was working.”

Last month, Ms Pickard reported that there were fewer of the survey’s case studies in employment than when the research started in late 2013.

Paul Scholey, of Leeds-based trade union law firm Morrish solicitors, echoes many of Ms Pickard’s concerns.

He told me: “It’s clever politics for the Government to point to benefit fraudsters as the root of all evil – it distracts us from some inconvenient truths. Like the contrast between the £1.2bn lost to that fraud, and the £25bn lost to wealthy tax dodgers. Over four million benefit claimants are in work; their income is topped up by the state because low rates of pay or short or zero hours of work mean, for many, that ends can’t be made to meet. Many carers and genuinely ill and disabled people claim benefits in addition – ought we not to judge ourselves by the way we treat the ones who need our help the most? Nearly all of our clients are in work of some sort. But very many are benefit claimants. I’m all for stopping the benefit cheats, but by itself that will do nothing to tackle the problem of rising inequality.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has banged the drum for universal credit, which aims to simplify the benefits system and encourage more people to find work.

Last month, these flagship reforms were branded a failure as it emerged that just 18,000 people have been taken off traditional benefits - at a cost of £700m, according to a report from the Public Accounts Committee. The Government has insisted that the reforms are on track and making good progress, with universal credit claimants moving into work faster and earning more.

The vast majority of people on benefits are honourable individuals who want to do the best for their families. You will always find those who abuse the system. But the colossal harm caused by the greed and stupidity of the big banks is the real morality tale of our times.