LAST night’s Commons vote on capping rises in benefits exposed not only a political divide, but also a divide in the general public’s world view.
It is the divide between those who believe people receiving benefits should think themselves lucky to be on the receiving end of society’s benevolence, and those who recognise claimants as the most vulnerable in our society and who subsequently believe they are deserving of our support.
Those in the first category will no doubt be relaxed with the idea that benefit recipients will have to get by on less (let us be clear, a 1 per cent rise is a real-terms cut) as their contribution to getting Britain out of economic crisis. Whereas those of a different view will see the coalition government proposal as an unwarranted attack on those least capable of defending themselves, and who rely on society as a whole to help them in difficult times such as these.
Should this vulnerable section of British society be asked to suffer as part of the Chancellor’s austerity drive? The answer to that is no. Our sense of decency and basic humanity should preclude it.
We are all familiar with stories about those who abuse the system for personal gain. These people are criminals and they deserve all they get when the law catches up with them. But for every person taking unfair advantage of benefits, there are hundreds more who are legitimate claimants who rely on their payments to get by. Let’s be clear, if we think people should rise or fall, eat or starve or live or die entirely by their own efforts and fate then let’s scrap the benefits system altogether. But if we think society should care for the disadvantaged then let’s give them what they need. They do not need less now.
One of the key arguments used by the coalition government in this debate is a bogus one. Why, it says, should benefits rise at a higher rate than wages in the world of work? It is a clever argument, and one that invites people to see benefit claimants in opposition to those in work, as soft-soaped scroungers compared to those engaged in honest toil.
As well as being based on a misnomer – many millions of benefit recipients are in fact working families struggling to stay above the bread line – this fosters a them-and-us attitude that is unbefitting a civilised society.
There is no legitimate sense in which a benefits payment can be compared to a wage. For the vast majority of benefit claimants, the sums they receive cover the minimum of necessities. To force people to make that go further because of a slowdown in increases in wages is a twisted distortion of the politics of envy.
These kind of decisions act as a litmus test for society, and that test should reveal ours as an enlightened one. This doesn’t.
Police reformer caught flatfooted
One of the last remaining pieces of the jigsaw that will eventually reveal the shape of the new single police force for Scotland is the exact detail of its processes to ensure accountability to the public, both at national level and at a local level. That there is already a power struggle over this does not reflect well on how this reform has been handled by Scotland’s Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill.
Had the lines of responsibility and accountability been clear, spelled out in detail and beyond any need for interpretation, we would not have the bizarre sight of Stephen House, the new force’s chief constable, and Vic Emery, chairman of the new police
authority, battling over who has ultimate power over key areas of the new organisation’s administration.
Both men have taken legal advice on their respective positions in what can only be described as an old-fashioned turf war. There are reports that the confusion is even leading to some functions being duplicated in two rival power structures. This is not a good start for two men who will have to have a good working relationship if the new force is to operate at its most efficient, making the maximum possible contribution to law and order on Scotland’s streets and savings to the public purse. Accusations of “empire-building” have been thrown about, but this sorry mess is more a consequence of poor drafting of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 than it is about any particular individuals.
Mr MacAskill, as the man who instigated this reform and the man who will ultimately be judged on its success or failure, needs to step in to clarify roles in what has become an unseemly spat.