Oct 2007 29

A morbid and depressing display… funded by taxpayers

Meet Alison Goulding. She has "five tellies – including a £1,000 widescreen – a hi-fi, Sky TV, two Play-Station 2s and four DVD players. Her huge garden boasts a full-size trampoline, two sets of swings and FIVE mountain bikes.

She also has 8 kids from two failed marriages, and "her family pocket more than £20,000 a year in handouts, even though none of them has done a day’s work this century. They pay NOTHING for their three-bed house, which boasts a new ultra-modern kitchen."

Alison, 38, lives with her lover Ian Hurditch, 40, in Beeston, Nottingham. Sadly, Mr Hurditch has an unusual back condition which prevents him taking paid employment. True, it did abate long enough for him to erect a new porch for their house. And it must have also let up enough for him to father Alison’s ninth child, which she is now carrying. But paid work is out of the question.

Now you’re in the picture, there are a couple of particular points we should highlight.

First, Alison’s not at all grateful for the support we taxpayers give her: in fact, she’s incensed we’re so niggardly. Those £10 Boots gift vouchers we send each of her kids at Christmas? "Rubbish – you can’t get anything decent for that from Boots."

The second point is that her kids are her meal ticket. Thanks to Labour’s grandiose and half-baked plan to "eradicate child poverty", each one means big money.

And Alison is an expert on entitlements (no doubt assisted by the summary benefit rate card helpfully provided by her local authority). Right now, she’s working to have one son diagnosed as "socially backward", which will mean she can cop a special £2,366-a-year handout. And she’s trying to have another diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which will deliver more housing points and force town hall chiefs to meet her demands for a bigger home. As she says:

"My sister has nine kids and the council gave her two houses knocked into one. Then she moved to Cornwall and the new council bought a private house for them. I don’t know why they can’t do that here."

It’s as simple as that: the more kids she has, the more cash she gets:

"I love giving birth – it’s always so quick for me. People say I should stop breeding but it’s not their business."

Not their business? Even though they’re the ones having to pay?

Is your blood boiling yet?

OK, let’s remind ourselves of the big picture.

There are currently 5.4m people of working age who are not working but drawing benefits instead- ie being supported by us taxpayers. They cost us £16bn pa in benefit payments alone*, plus the further cost of lost tax revenue. And despite endless programmes and pledges to get them into work, their number has remained roughly unchanged since 2000 (see this blog on the hopeless New Deal).

The major benefits they draw are for unemployment (Jobseekers), incapacity, and lone parenting.

Traditionally, unemployment benefit dominated. But that’s declined sharply from the levels recorded in the 1980s and early 1990s. These days, Government figures show that by far the most widespread benefit is Incapacity Benefit (IB), with 2.7m recipients.

Now, as everyone surely knows, many of these IB claimants are actually disguised unemployed. In terms of "incapacity" they are typically men with "bad backs", and women with "depression", both conditions which it is apparently impossible to diagnose objectively. And they are heavily concentrated in three weak economy areas- Scotland, Wales, and the North of England. Those areas together account for 50% of IB claimants, even though they only account for 37% of the overall population.

Precisely how many IB recipients are capable of work is unknown. In 2005, the Department for Work and Pensions estimated around one million, with Labour proposing they should somehow be found jobs (A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work). On that basis the real unemployment figure- ie working age people who could be working but are claiming benefit instead- is around 2m.

That still leaves out of account "lone" welfare parents like Alison who could in theory work. Plus various other able-bodied groups included in the 5.4m total.

Overall, it seems reasonable to assume that at least half of these 5.4m welfare dependents could work- call it 2.5-3m who could be supporting themselves rather than sponging off the rest of us.

So why don’t they?

Is it because there are no jobs?

At first blush, you might think that was a big part of the explanation. But after 15 years of economic growth, the facts say otherwise. For example, 0.7m of these people (14.4% of the working age population) live in London, where it is absurd to argue job shortage: indeed such is London’s demand for labour, a net 400,000 immigrants have been sucked in over the last five years alone. A further 0.9m live in the East and South East, where the argument is nearly as absurd.

In Alison Goulding’s area, the East Midlands, there are 0.4m non-working but working age welfare claimants (13.6% of the working age population). Yet in five years, labour shortage has sucked in a net 64,000 immigrants. And even in the supposedly severely incapacitated North East, there was net immigration of 13,000- taking jobs which could have been filled by locals.

Clearly there’s something else going on here. And that something else of course is the curse of welfare dependency.

If Alison and her back-challenged boyfriend went out to work, by the sound of it, they’d be looking at the minimum wage. On that basis, if they both worked a full-time 35 hour week, they’d gross a combined £20 grand pa.

But since they’re already getting £20 grand pa net, why would they bother? After all, they’ve already got careers producing kids and knocking up porches. What’s more, instead of going out on a cold wet morning to wait for the bus to work, they can sit at home in the warm watching the Jeremy Kyle Show on the big screen telly. Work is not a rational option.

Sure, you and the government can go on about how work is good for you, sets a good example to the kids, and gives you the prospect of a better future. But against Jeremy Kyle and a plateful of hot fudge sundae Pop Tarts, it’s a non-starter.

Last week at the Public Accounts Committee, the DWP’s Permanent Secretary was asked if the government’s New Deal welfare to work programme would get better results if there was a bit less carrot and a bit more stick (see this blog). Predictably, he declined to answer the question, but he did admit that many benefits are "not sanctionable"- ie recipients can go on drawing them irrespective of whether they cooperate with attempts to get them a job. There are no consequences.

That’s clearly barmy. But more fundamentally, it’s barmy to have a welfare system that incentivises people like Alison to stay off work eating Pop Tarts and having nine children.

And what life chances will any of her nine kids have? I think we know the answer- at best, they will become the welfare dependents and porch builders of the future; at worst, they could end up inside.

Let’s take it as read that there is no magic bullet. But the current welfare system for people of working age is a social and fiscal disaster.

So what to do?

As a minimum, we should abandon the arbitrary and wildly unrealistic definition of poverty as 60% of median income, and revert to the traditional 50%. Nobody would starve at that level and it would hugely increase the relative attractiveness of paid employment. What’s more, it would save taxpayers about £50bn pa, or £2 grand pa per British household (see this blog- £50bn equals abolishing Inheritance Tax and slashing 13 pence off the standard rate of Income Tax).

In addition, Frank Field’s four key welfare reforms (blogged here) are all worth pursuing:

  • welfare benefits to be time limited, as under Clinton’s reforms in the US
  • authority over welfare spending to be localised- closer to the coal face (again cf US)
  • incapacity benefit to be decided by local officials, not doctors, but current recipients to retain benefit for a year after finding paid work
  • immigration to be tightly controlled so more jobs can go to current welfare recipients already here

Painless? In the short-term, no. But nobody has come up with a real world alternative. And unless we implement a radical programme along these lines we’ll find ourselves dealing with more and more Alisons.

And her children.

All the way to eternity.

PS Yes, we realise there is another highly seductive approach, in the shape of the Citizens Basic Income. But sadly, we still hasn’t found a way of making the sums add up (see this blog). We must get back to work on that.

*Footnote- do you think £16bn pa as the benefits cost of these people sounds too little? We do too. It is the figure calculated by the NAO, but against stories like Alison’s it feels very light. We know there are around 3m households like hers that are workless and living on benefits. And if they all get £20 grand pa, that adds up to £60bn. Even halving it gives £30bn. We suspect the NAO has omitted some key items- we will investigate further.

Oct 2007 29
Better value at 40p
"More than £50,000 has been spent on the famous "red boxes" used by government ministers over the past few years, according to an MP’s survey.

Prices of the boxes, which are used to store government papers securely, ranged from £385 to £750 each." (BBC: HTP Heather)

The biggest spender was the totally useless DTI – now the Department for Business – which spent £13,337.50 on 18 boxes, 740 quid each.

Why? The Depratment for Business "only" has seven ministers.

And why are we spending such ludicrous amounts on these small wooden boxes which seem to last no time at all? Yes, we know some are covered in roan deer leather, but again, why?

And what about security? You could probably break into one of those things armed only with a plastic knife and fork.

Compare that to the SHOCK-ALARM SECURITY LEATHER BRIEFCASE from Ralph Thomas of Austin Texas. For a mere £200 (special offer, bulk discounts possible) that has all kinds of hi-tech security features. Under prohibitions imposed by Thomas Inc, we’re unable to list them all, but suffice it to say they include remote arming of a 30,000 volt whole-surface pulse electric shock. In the event of theft, the rightful owner simply presses a button on the master control to deliver a serious jolt to the thief, and also sound an 85 decibel alarm.

But virtually anything would be better value than a £750 wooden box.
Oct 2007 29

Margarent McCartney’s article in the Financial Times on superbugs is well worth reading.  In particular, this section gets at how the inexperience and lack of subject knowledge associated with political management is crucial to the failure to control hospital infections:

"Politicians are tackling MRSA with campaigning zeal. Gordon Brown has pledged to instigate a “deep clean” of hospitals to reduce hospital-acquired infection such as MRSA. Health secretary Alan Johnson is setting up a committee to look into the issue and has also said healthcare staff should be unclothed below the elbow. Unfortunately, there is the delicate issue of evidence for these politically inspired “initiatives” which is not so apparent. Johnson’s statements on uniforms seem to contradict a publication from his own department, “Uniforms and Workwear”, which says “there is no conclusive evidence that uniforms pose a significant hazard in terms of spreading infection”.


Lack of handwashing might seem an obvious culprit, but at a lecture I attended recently, the futility of pursuing this as a cure-all was made apparent. “Handwashing does make a difference,” says Dr Stephanie Dancer, a consultant microbiologist in Glasgow, “but think. The doctor washes his hands and then pulls close a curtain. The curtain is covered in MRSA. Or he touches the bedside cabinet. That’s not been cleaned recently either. And there you have it, the transmission of MRSA.” Dancer says that while cleaners do a sterling job in tackling all general surfaces and floors, they are not responsible for cleaning lockers, bedside tables and curtains. “In addition”, she says, “there aren’t enough cleaning hours and there are problems with recruitment of domestic staff. The latter is understandable when you look at pay. You could go and stack shelves in a nice clean supermarket for more.”

Unlike most politicians, Dancer is an expert on the subject. One thing is for sure, none of us is sterile. We are all covered in millions of bacteria and shed thousands of them with each step we take. “Probably 5 per cent of us carry MRSA. But where there are outbreaks of MRSA, it doesn’t seem to be the ‘staff’ strains that usually infect patients,” says Dancer. Many factors affect how and where bacteria are spread. Ward design is crucial and inadequate maintenance can make them hard to clean. Open doors or windows create “more turbulent airflow and the possibility that MRSA could be lifted from surfaces and blown all over the ward,” she says. “Fans, very popular in hot wards, are very effective in shifting MRSA around.”

Oct 2007 28

Consultants don’t do flood defences
In the news this week:

Defra blows another £1.1bn on consultants- "Vital flood defence funding was cut while ministers spent a record £1 billion on management consultants… Defra spent £140million on consultants in 2002-3, reaching £290 million in 2006-7. It has spent £1.1 billion since 2002. The bill is three times the amount the Environment Agency spent on building flood defences last year, despite warnings of severe weather that culminated in the this year’s disastrous downpours." (Sunday Telegraph 28.10.07)

£87.43m on MPs’ expenses- "Official figures on the annual claims made by MPs showed that parliamentarians recorded an average £10,000 increase in the amount they claim in expenses on the previous year. Each MP picked up an average of £135,773 to cover the costs of second homes, groceries, postage and office staff. The total cost of the MPs’ expenses has risen by an inflation-busting five per cent to £87.43 million in the past year… The Cabinet’s golden couple claimed more than £300,000 in expenses in the last financial year, including £30,000 for the cost of their "second home". The six-figure expenses bill was racked up by Ed Balls, the Children’s Secretary and his wife, the Housing Minister Yvette Cooper. Despite typically spending the working week in London, the couple are able legitimately to claim that their "main home" is in Mr Balls’s constituency of Normanton in Yorkshire." (Telegraph 26.10.07; see also the TaxPayer’s Alliance here and here)

EU lobbyists bunged £0.5bn pa- "The European Commission pays out €800 million a year – more than half a billion pounds – to 10,000 lobby groups, such as Friends of the Earth. According to the environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, this is necessary to remedy Europe’s "democratic deficit" by ensuring that their voices are heard "at European level". How strange that Mr Brown and his colleagues seem so determined that our views on the EU treaty should not be heard "at European level". (Sunday Telegraph 28.10.07; see also Business Week 18.10.07)

£5bn lost to benefits fraud and error- "Benefits worth £500 million were paid out in error last year. In a decade, £5 billion has been lost through fraud and error. Prisoners, students and those with jobs and money in the bank have all enjoyed payouts to which they were not entitled. Since 1997, more than £17 million has been wrongly paid to prisoners, who are not eligible for many benefits during their incarceration. Students have received £33 million while those who are in hospital for the long term – and are not entitled to Jobseeker’s Allowance or Income Support – were handed £10 million. More than £1 billion has gone in benefits to those who have jobs and are not entitled." (Mail 26.10.07)

Total for week- £6,687,430,000

Oct 2007 26

ClownsYesterday a council instructed a community-aware couple not to tend to a grass verge by their house because it prevented council staff from ‘monitoring’ when it needed to be cut. Today Oakley and Deane Parish Council have ordered residents not to feed the ducks because, and I never knew this, apparently feeding the ducks “puts a strain on the entire eco-system”. So those few out-of-date slices of bread you take to the pond to feed the ducks with is creating a catastrophic imbalance in the local environment. Who’d have thought?  Though, tell me if I’m wrong, but it’s beginning to sink in that meddling officials in local government aren’t performing a public service as such, but are turning into an annoying public nuisance.

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