“Let them eat…tinned food?!”

December 20, 2012 11:30 am

hmrc_2382696bAt a time of great austerity, you’d be forgiven for looking for ways to cut our national expenditure. Yet, of all the suggestions made since the current worldwide economic downturn began to unleash its vicious grip, the suggestion made by Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke is probably the most ludicrous. In the House of Commons today, Shelbrooke called for a ‘Welfare Cash Card’ that effectively dictates what benefit claimants can and cannot purchase with their state provision. Luxuries such as satellite television, tobacco and alcohol would be thrown out the window. Instead, claimants would only be allowed to use their benefits for the basic amenities such as Food, Travel and Energy. The justification? Why should benefit claimants have access to such luxuries as tobacco and alcohol when these are the very things that “hardworking” families have to cut back on during times of austerity? Listening to the speech made by the MP for Elmet and Rothwell, it’s hard not to laugh at these ridiculous proposals when they’re placed against the official government ideology of collectivism. Indeed, it would seem “we’re all in this together” unless poorer people want a cigarette.

The thing that stands out most about Shelbrooke’s speech is his distinction between “hardworking” families in employment, and those who are unemployed. Judging by the assertions made by Shelbrooke and, earlier this year, George Osborne, it would seem as if there is a general consensus amongst the government that those who are unemployed sit at home all day in luxurious surroundings, devouring their benefit-funded Waitrose kumquats whilst watching Jeremy Kyle. The shocking reality, is far from this. Many of the unemployed are struggling to pay mounting debts and bills, and almost 300,000 more people will be plunged into fuel poverty before Christmas. Thus, the idea that the ‘hardworking’ families; families who, for the most part, have warm, comfortable housing and relatively decent prospects as a result of their financial security, are somehow the most pained victims of the economic downturn, to me, is laughable. The myth that unemployed benefit claimants are people living an extravagant high life at the taxpayers’ expense is a predictable divide and rule tactic that is based around prejudices that have plagued the very core of successive right-wing government policies.

The issue I have with this idea is that by introducing the ‘Welfare Cash Card’, we’re effectively attempting to tread down a very dangerous route; an unadulterated, out and out segregation of those who have, and those who have not. Although we’ve trod dangerously close, we’ve never quite got to the stage where we remove the spending power of those who are on the receiving end of state benefits. It’s all well and good for the likes of Telegraph columnist Alexandra Swann to talk of how the spending of benefits on such luxury items as tobacco and alcohol is wrong, but we need to ask the question why people are in this position in the first place before demonising them, and removing their ability to spend how they choose. When reading Swann’s delightfully archaic views on this topic, you’d think we’d be talking about providing convicted murderers with hits of cocaine; not the unemployed with a packet of Marlborough Lights and a pint of beer. “It bothers me little if anyone makes the personal choice to drink, smoke, gamble or be merry” she barks. “By all means spend all your money doing so until you face certain destitution – but not when the taxpayer is footing the bill”. This view, shared I’m sure by Shelbrooke, seems to suggest that the taxpayer is doing the poorest a favour; that benefit claimants are indebted to us in someway. Yet, this is where my understanding of the argument drifts.

Surely, there is a reason as to why people are unemployed? The economic downturn has effectively eradicated a significant proportion of jobs that would have once been available to the many jobseekers in our country, and the current government policies have hardly worked wonders for the prospects of the poorest in our society. The main reason that so many people are currently unemployed is due to one key reason – the worldwide financial crisis that was totally outside their control. Who could have stopped the economic crisis from spiralling so violently out of control? The very people who are now attempting to paint benefit claimants as lazy slobs who sit around waiting for their benefits to come piling in. Meanwhile, the very bankers who took such disastrous risks in the selling of sub-prime mortgages and what not, subsequently causing widespread unemployment, are now reaping the rewards of the coalition’s plan to cut the top rate of tax from 50% to 45%. You simply couldn’t make it up.

Yet, the most laughable aspect of this all is that Alec Shelbrooke himself currently recieves a state handout; a handout in the form of his taxpayer-funded MP’s expenses, as well as his taxpayer-funded salary of £65,738 per annum. If the principle is that no unnecessary, luxurious items should be purchased on the back of taxpayer funded finances, then surely the same should apply for Shelbrooke? After all, how would we, the ‘hard-workers’, feel if Shelbrooke bought a bottle of red wine and some cigarettes with our hard earned taxes? I do hope he doesn’t have a Sky TV subscription. Even if Shelbrooke claims not to have spent any of his taxpayer funded cash on luxurious items, the many stories of Duck Houses, Moat Cleaning and dodgy second-home rent claims from the MP expenses scandal still ring very clearly in the electorate’s ears; the claims demonstrate that MP’s are in no place to claim a moral high ground on the issue of the use of taxpayers’ money.

The age-old ‘us and them’ concept has been used time and time again by politicians, but this time it has a particularly sinister role to play. Indeed, alcohol_and_cigaretteswhilst the millionaire’s tax break goes ahead, MP’s who most probably have no idea what it is like to live off of welfare are debating whether or not to dictate what things benefit claimants can, and can’t spend their money on. At a time of great economic uncertainty, this blatant attempt to demonise those who receive social welfare is undeniably transparent. If you were take the words of Conservative MPs to be true, you’d believe that benefit claimants sit indoors all morning with the curtains closed (re: George Osborne’s ‘workers versus shirkers’ debate), until they decide to take a trip to buy some alcohol and cigarettes before placing a quick bet; all before heading home to watch pay per view television all evening. You just have to take a look at the applicants to jobs ratios; the queues at job centres and the television documentaries on those living on the breadline, or on the streets as a result of the worldwide financial crash to prove this isn’t the case. Of course, most won’t be fooled by the divide and rule, ‘us and them’ approach to those receiving social welfare that is being propagated. Yet, it just seems unequivocally distasteful, and rather saddening that, sick of blaming the Labour Party, or the worldwide financial institutions that actually caused the mess we’re in today, the government is beginning to fire its aim at society’s most underprivileged of all. A shocking, but hardly surprising turn of events.

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