Give us a job: no skivers here, say families desperate for work
So, the whispers are – according to my well informed colleague Gary Gibbon – that the government wants to tone down the language it’s been using to win support for its welfare reforms.
You’ve got to hand it to them – it’s been catchy stuff. The strivers and the skivers… the workers and the shirkers.
Throughout the coalition’s efforts to reform the benefit system, they’ve constantly been reminding voters it’s all about fairness. Why should hard working families (Mr and Mrs Striver, say) pay for the lazy so and so who’s lying on the sofa watching daytime television, and generally living it up on benefits (old Johnny Skiver)?
The beauty of this sort of stuff is its simplicity. There’s a goodie and a baddie and only the insane would put their hands up to say “yes – I’d really like to pay more tax so someone else needn’t bother shifting their backside to go out to work.”
Come to Newcastle for the day though and the simplicity of the argument becomes its undoing.
Here in the north east unemployment stands at 9.5 per cent- the highest in the country. People move in and out of employment – on and off benefits.
The line between those in work and striving and those out of work – skiving? – is clearly more blurred.
Single parent Lee Davison was unemployed for years. Unable to find work which allowed him to look after his daughter at the same time, he relied entirely on benefits.
He’s been working full time since April and would doubtless now count as a fully paid up member of the “strivers”. But the bruising experience of life on benefits – financially paralysing and personally isolating, he says – means he’s not willing to castigate the men and women he’s left down at the job centre.
“I think the government are unfairly stigmatising the ones that they’re calling skivers and scroungers, ” he told me. “I certainly don’t think I was a scrounger when I was out of work. I am absolutely appalled that the public are swallowing this. It beggars belief.”
And talking to the public in Newcastle town centre, quite a few people did seem keen on the government’s plans to cap benefit rises.
“If you’re working, you’re contributing. If you’re not working, you’re scrounging,” said one woman with the certainty of an ad agency slogan writer.
But what about people who’ve worked all their live sand have been made redundant? I asked.
“That,”she said, with rather less certainty, “was a different situation.”
And that’s the difficulty of the striver/skiver argument. How many of the unemployed are the sofa huggers watching day time telly? No one questions that they exist but do they represent ALL the unemployed ? Some? Who knows? If the Government have figures it would be helpful to see them.
Because for Peter Matson, a single parent of two young girls, the idea of being “lumped in” with people who don’t want to work, is “cheeky” , he says, determined not to be rude.
He’s been made redundant twice in four years and has seen his income drop from a salary of 30,000 a year to around 200 pounds a week. Under the cap he stands to lose around 5 pounds a week.
“I’ve put a lot of money into the system..all those years of national insurance and tax. I’m not one of those who lie in bed all morning. I would love to get back out there and get a job.”
Now Peter does buy the government’s fairness argument – he says if they want to cap benefits they should look at doing it differently.
“I’ m getting the same as someone who hasn’t worked for ten years. I think they should sit down and have a think about those people who have put in for years and those who can’t be bothered to work.”
Ministers have been out and about all day saying the cap is fair and right. Labour oppose it but – the government argue – offer no credible alternative.
The cap will raise £1.9bn. But for the families it will affect, the hundreds of pounds they will lose may seem to dwarf that.
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