Someone once said 98% of all statistics are made up, which might explain why the Dorset public seems to support the government’s welfare changes, even though seven million working families will hit by cuts.
This week saw the scrapping of the Disability Living Allowance as well as, for the first time in history, welfare benefits and tax credits not rising in line with inflation. Instead they have been capped at 1% – an realtime cut that will cost 9.5 million families £165 a year.
This is on top of last week’s introduction of the bedroom tax (660,000 people in social housing will lose an average of £728 a year) and the scrapping of the 50p tax rate for high earners, effectively handing millioniares a £100,000 tax cut.
And next week, the welfare benefit cap will be introduced – a controversial policy that some say will make 800,000 households homeless.
So why, when the government is attacking the lowest-paid and giving tax-breaks to the highest-paid, are these changes popular?
One of the reasons must be the distortion of the debate in the media. Ministers’ tactics of division (“skivers v strivers”) are lapped up by a tabloid press only too happy to horrify readers with tales of individual benefit cheats.
And as broadsheets solemnly toe the Downing Street line about a “culture of dependency”, is it any wonder people’s views on benefits are based on widespread ignorance?
The TUC comissioned a YouGov poll that showed most voters do not understand the true picture about welfare spending, unemployment, the generosity of benefits and the level of fraud.
The survey showed on average people thought 41% of the welfare budget went on benefits to unemployed people (the true figure is 3%) and that people thought 27% was claimed fraudulently (true figure is 0.7%).
The real figures tell a different story, with 46% of the welfare budget going on pensions, 10.65% going on housing benefit (direct to private landlords), 7.86% on Disability Living Allowance and 3.1% on Job Seekers’ Allowance.
The trouble is people think the system is much more generous than it is in reality, is riddled with fraud and is heavily skewed towards helping the unemployed, who they think are far more likely to stay on the dole than is actually the case. Indeed if what the average voter thinks was true, I’d want tough action too.
But you should not conduct policy, particularly when it hits some of the most vulnerable people in society, on the basis of prejudice and ignorance. And it is plainly immoral to spread such prejudice purely for party gain, as ministers and their advisers are doing, by deliberately misleading people about the value of benefits and who gets them.
The TUC believes the government should be prioritising support for working families.Cutting tax credits is not the way to get our economy moving again but is part of a wider assault by ministers on vital family benefits. Making families poorer is no way to start an economic recovery.
Nigel Costley is the regional secretary of the South West TUC.