Friday, 23 November 2012

Always the Pall-Bearer, never the Corpse - Lord Freud & The Risk-Taking Poor

This week, Lord Freud, parliamentary Undersecretary for the Department of Work and Pensions, has been talking once again about the lifestyle choices of benefit claimants and the fact that poor people simply don't take enough risks.

In an interview for House Magazine, where he speaks sensibly about the need for better guidance and clarity within the system, Freud continues to reveal his profound naivety about the lives of people on low incomes. 
“You know, the incapacity benefits, the lone parents, the people who are self-employed for year after year and only earn hundreds of pounds or a few thousand pounds, the people waiting for their work ability assessment then not going to it – all kinds of areas where people are able to have a lifestyle off benefits [sic.] and actually off conditionality.”
Clearly, none of these situations are ones of choice.  Nobody chooses to be incapacitated for work, the majority of lone parents are not even single, let alone impoverished, out of choice.  The self-employed example is an interesting one, because it puts such a porky pie to this rhetoric of risk.

Being a creative type, I've known many self-employed people on very low incomes. I've come across three categories of circumstances:
  • People who are earning a very small amount, but have other support, such as a decent pension, a high-earning spouse or financial support from other family. Sometimes these people are hobbyists who produce more steampunk tea-cosies than they can give away, some are pursuing a lifelong dream and others are just pleased to earn a few quid commission on tupperwear or sex-toys.
The risks these people take are highly variable, but they're not close to needing benefits.
  • People on benefits who are earning such a small amount that they are only able to reduce the amount they claim on benefits, but are working hard with a view to becoming completely free of benefits at some time in the future.
  • People who are earning just enough to stay off benefits for now.  I know these people include at least one of the Where's the Benefit? gang and what they have achieved is pretty amazing.
These second two categories of people are all major risk-takers.  Having helped close friends with the paperwork in these circumstances and having done small amounts of paid writing work myself, I can tell you that any unconventional work, including self-employment, does not mix with the benefits system; until you have done the work, been paid and filled in multiple forms, it is sometimes impossible to know
  • how much form-filling is necessary (after writing one piece, I endured a six month paper trail with the DWP, taking up far more time and energy than the work itself.)
  • whether you're going to inadvertently break a rule and get into trouble.
  • whether your capacity for a little work is going to bring you under suspicion for fraud. 
  • at what point you'll lose your benefits.
  • how difficult it could be to get back on benefits, if you lose them and need them again.
Meanwhile, the benefits system is much stricter - and less sensible - than the tax system when it comes to expenses and overheads. Often, money is counted as earnings if it passes through your hands, even if you have to spend it to keep your business going. Some of this stuff actually looks like it might improve with the new systems, but it's still a mess now and it always has been. 

So why would anyone bother?  Well, only because they can't do conventional work, but they have the skills and just enough energy to do something. These are usually disabled people, or those caring for disabled people, who have much less time or energy, or much less reliable time and energy, than they'd need to work even part time, employed by someone else.

Providing that there is work available, it would surely be far easier and far less of a risk to do conventional work, if one has the capacity to do so. The idea even benefits claimants who are actively working, thus reducing the amount of benefits they claim and contributing to the economy, can be described as lazy or cautious, is completely ludicrous.

Freud said,
"...people who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks, they’ve got least to lose."
This is nonsense. This is like saying we should recruit soldiers from people who are sick and have shortened life expectancies, because they have less to lose - what's a limb here or there if you're heart's going to give out any minute?  We need our soldiers to be healthy because, as well as being better equipped for the job, they are unlikely to lose as much - they are much less likely to be killed than someone with pre-existing ill health. Similarly, in terms of major financial risk-taking, that's entirely for the likes of Freud and his peers, who have a soft plump pillow of inherited cash and savings beneath them.

When people on benefits are afraid of taking work, it is because they are afraid of being left with literally no income or savings. Of being left homeless and hungry, with absolutely nothing. Sometimes even nothing minus debt.

And finally, on the subject of terrible analogies, Freud defends his massive personal privilege that some  consider disqualifies a person to pontificate about the behaviour of those so very much less fortunate than themselves.
"I think you don’t have to be the corpse to go to a funeral, which is the implied criticism there."
This is true, but you're more likely to be welcome if your understanding of the world hasn't filled you with complete contempt for the deceased and his loved ones.

It helps if you have some understanding of mortality.


  1. Thanks for this, it sums up what I was thinking and you write much more eloquently than me!

    I'm one of those who are self-employed earning a few thousand a year if that. I choose to do so in order to manage my disability, and also to follow my dream and calling as a therapist. I don't claim any benefits as I don't think I'm entitled to any, having been self-employed for too long. I have an understanding husband who earns just enough for the two of us. The thought that some jumped up twat of a politician who wouldn't know a fair day's work if it bit him on the bum wants me to flog myself to an early death, and poke his grubby little nose in to my family life makes me want to heave. Does he really know what trouble he is storing up for himself and his cronies?

  2. I'd love to see some of these pontificating, self absorbed smegheads manage for 6 months on benefits. I think the best benefits system in the country is parliamentary pay and expenses. How many of our "representatives" would stand for parliament if they had to manage on the pittance that people like us receive. I propose that all of them have to receive the equivalent in state benefits as their remuneration. that should stop all the "expenses" fraud!!!!! Talk about hypocrisy.