Monday 13 August 2012

National Insurance and "Taxpayers' Money"

An article I wrote appears in the latest issue of The Occupied Times and can be found online here. This is the unedited version I originally submitted, posted with kind agreement from the OT.

On the day that I’m sitting down to write this piece; an article largely about me and my fears over welfare reform appeared on the US Huffington Post. With it being the US site most of the commenters were Fox News viewers banging on about how Obamacare will introduce Death Panels and nothing to do with what the article was actually about.

There were some supportive comments from decent people who thought the UK welfare cuts were too much. There were some deeply disturbing comments from the pro-eugenics people saying that I shouldn’t be allowed to live at all. Aside from the Fox News fans, the other large group of commenters were the people who said either “well, it’s sad that people have these conditions; but why should they get taxpayers money?” Or “she says she can’t work but she also says she can do her own shopping. If she can leave the house to shop she can get a job and doesn’t need taxpayers money.” Because hitting the supermarket for 45 mins on a good day is exactly the same as working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. But I digress.

The recurring point there is the one about “taxpayers money”. We seem to have developed this cultural notion that people who claim benefits are not taxpayers, and never have been. This isn’t true.

Because “please don’t dismantle the welfare state and leave people undergoing cancer treatment completely destitute” is considered an extreme left position these days I occasionally get pitted in radio debates against libertarians who are completely opposed to a welfare state because they don’t want to spend “their taxes” on paying benefits to other people. At some point I always end up screeching “it’s called National Insurance for a reason! That’s how insurance schemes work!”

I didn’t get my first job until I was part-way through my degree. My impaired mobility meant I couldn’t do the kinds of work young people traditionally do like bar work or stacking supermarket shelves. So I claimed benefits until I was educated enough for people to be willing to give me a job within my physical limits. I started paying my own National Insurance contributions halfway through my final year at uni and continued to do so for several years.

I was in my mid-20s when my health started to deteriorate. Over the next few years, bit by bit, I reduced the amount of work I was doing until, when I was 28, I reached a point where working was something I’d become completely incapable of. So I’ve now reached a point where I’ve claimed back from the National Insurance pot more than I ever paid in, but that’s how the insurance business works.

Some people buy annual multi-trip travel insurance every year and never make a claim. Other people take out a fortnight’s insurance for their first ever oversees holiday and have to make a claim immediately for a suitcase and contents that were destroyed on the outbound flight. Sometimes that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

I am not just scrounging taxes from others; I paid my taxes and my National Insurance contributions when I could, and now I can’t I’m living under the protection that the insurance scheme offered.

During one of the aforementioned radio debates I was up against a guy who felt that the idea of a third of tax spending going on welfare was absurd. His suggestion? Rich people take out private income-protection insurance instead and only us filthy poor people claim from the state.

Private insurance premiums would cost more than National Insurance contributions. Private insurance companies also try extremely hard to not pay out. If there’s an element of self-infliction to your condition - for example if you drunkenly dived into the shallow end of a pool and broke your neck – your insurer will probably not payout. The welfare state traditionally has paid out to all who needed support, regardless of how the need for support arose. He’d rather people pay more for poorer quality cover just for the satisfaction of saying “yeah, well, at least we’re not spending a third of our taxes on welfare!”

Wealthy people paying for private insurance and not claiming state benefits if they become ill or impaired would further undermine what little will there is among the rich to keep the welfare state going. A rich person has a motivation to pay their National Insurance contributions if they know they’ll get their £90-odd a week should they develop cancer; even though they’ve got their own means to not need it. With strict means testing for people claiming Employment and Support Allowance having come in, this gives the rich further grounds to be hostile towards the poor for claiming what they see as “their taxes”.

Some disabled people have never been able to work and will never be able to work. Some might argue that someone like me who only worked for a few years and has claimed back more than they paid in should at least be eligible because that’s the nature of insurance. What about those who’ve never paid and will never pay even one week’s National Insurance?

The answer to this question is something brought up by a different radio debating partner of mine and also is brought up several times by commenters on the Huff Post article telling me that I don’t deserve state benefits: It’s a family’s responsibility to look after a disabled child.

Of course, what they mean is that a parent should pay to meet every one of the disabled child’s needs for life and the state shouldn’t be forced to pay for a quirk of genetics, a traumatic birth or an accident. But I see it differently: If I’d never been able to work at all; the National Insurance premiums my parents paid would cover me. Radio Rightwinger said that she’s made private insurance arrangements to protect her family, how does National Insurance differ? Both my parents worked in factories and paid their National Insurance, how is that any different to Radio Rightwinger’s private insurance pot?

With people of means no longer able to claim Contributory Employment and Support Allowance for more than a year if they’re deemed capable of possibly being able to work at some point in the future it not only undermines support for National Insurance as I’ve already mentioned; it’s also a remarkable bait and switch. A comparable situation is public sector pensions: Public sector workers were sold a pension scheme and now the government is trying to change the rules. You have to have paid a minimum amount of National Insurance contributions to get Contributory ESA – the clue is in the name – but disabled people are not getting the same outrage and support over this changing of the rules. Two million people striked over pension changes, but because we’re seen as “scrounging taxpayers money” rather than “people who paid into an insurance scheme” I don’t think we’ll ever see the same amount of support in fighting the changes.


  1. A huge amout of Welfare money is paid to pensioners, a lot more than is paid to the sick and disabled, but you never hear the right wing calling for the abolition of the old age pension because they know they will receive it one day.They seem to think they can't get sick.

  2. This is all part of the Government's agenda of dividing the working class against itself. The rhetoric is all about the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor; by getting the working poor to hate on the non-working poor the Government and their corporate chums hope to distract the workers from the real threats they face, that being the erosion of workers' rights and security. Workfare forms a key part of this. By effectively bypassing the minimum wage laws they can undermine entirely the concept of a minimum level of security for workers. And when opponents of workfare speak out against what amounts to modern day slavery the media will throw up the "taxpayers' money" argument - a line repeated frequently by Cameron, IDS and Grayling.

    We are slowly returning to the bad old days of labour relations - a culture of low wages, insecure work, and for those who are unemployed, the threat of mandatory, unpaid and punitive "community work/service" that not only stands as a punishment for the "workshy" but also as a threat to those fortunate enough to have a job, as an example of what awaits those who risk standing up for their rights in work.