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Sunday, 5 February 2012

BENEFITS AND THE F-WORD

Never ever use the F word when you are discussing benefits. It’s not clever. It’s not grown up. It’s just lazy.

But in almost every piece you read now about benefits that four-letter F word is central to the argument - even if it is politely unspoken.

Take The Sun front page lead on Saturday 4 February 2012. Below the strap line ‘EUROMILLIONS SCANDAL’ the half-page deep headline runs “£10M LOTTO PAIR STILL ON BENEFITS. Jackpot winners claim £500 a month...6yrs on”.

As a family newspaper, The Sun does not actually use the word ‘f***’ directly.

If we turn to the “Full story - pages 4 & 5” we discover that 73-year-old Mick O’Shea won the Euromillions game in 2006. Ten years earlier the ex-builder had claimed Disability Living Allowance on account of his severe arthritis and, says his wife Jean, his eyesight.

Neither condition improves with age so he is still entitled to DLA which Mr O’Shea says is “about £500 a month”. That implies he gets the top rate for his care needs of £73.60 a week and the top £51.40 a week rate for his mobility needs, the latter being used to provide a suitable vehicle through the brilliant Motability scheme.

Could Mr O’Shea pay for these things himself? Of course he could. Does that mean the DWP should stop paying him? Of course it doesn’t.

Disability benefits are given because of the condition not financial need. Society recognises that severe disability brings its own needs and those of us who are not – yet – disabled pay a small amount to help meet those needs for those who are.

As Mr O’Shea himself says “I’ve worked for forty years and I’m entitled to it.”

But to The Sun Mr O'Shea’s DLA is a “disgusting abuse of the system by the mega-rich”. A neighbour asks if it is “morally right” and the head of the Taxpayers’ Alliance calls it “barmy that taxpayers are funding benefits and new motors for a multi-millionaire.”

At 73 Mr O’Shea and his wife will also be getting retirement pension. Should that be taken away? Of course not. He paid for that too while he worked. He can also get free treatment from the NHS, drive without charge on the roads, and rely on the police to protect him.

Should those rights all be taken away because he is rich and could afford to pay for them himself?

No.

But if you follow The Sun’s logic you might think they should be. After all, they are all paid for by hardworking taxpayers almost all of whom are far less wealthy than Mick and Jean. 

But that card is always trumped by our belief that the Government should use our money to build roads that are free to travel on, an NHS free at the point of need, and a state pension paid to all who have done a lifetime’s work.

In a similar way disabled people get a small weekly amount as a recognition of their extra costs. And whether they are rich or poor, destitute or lottery winners the amount they are given by the healthy is the same.

That makes me proud. 

If the O’Shea home was burgled or flooded would the insurance company say it wouldn’t pay up because he could afford to meet the loss himself? Would the Insurance-premium-payers’ Alliance wade in and add that it was barmy to take premiums off hard-working families to pay for this multi-millionaire to replace his carpets and television? No. Because he had paid his premiums and was entitled to the benefits.

And every day we live in the UK and contribute in our own way to society we pay our premiums. And that makes us entitled to the benefits when our circumstances – not our wealth – determine that we should get them.

It has nothing to do with fairness.

So never even think of the F word when arguing about benefits. It’s not clever. It’s not grown up. And it is lazy.