Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Mean, Petty and Counter-Productive

I read on John Hemming’s blog that people on benefits who are good enough to volunteer their time for worthy causes will be encouraged and valued by… Having to declare any money for food or free cups of tea, so the Department for Worthless People (as New Labour consider it) can cut their benefit. Gee, great idea. This comes from a Daily Mail-fed mindset that anyone on any sort of benefit is a cheat, who must be punished (except, of course, for pensioners, who Get A Raw Deal). John’s right to say how ludicrous it is to starve helpful people. It’s also to humiliate them.

The DWP’s mean, petty claim is that the level of benefits (far from generous in the first place) is already meant to cover the cost of basic needs, including lunch. Obviously the likes of Age Concern, who boggled at this lunacy and asked John to take it up, are likely to throw hundreds of pounds at these people for champagne and caviar instead of the gruel they deserve. No, wait…

John rightly calls this “bureaucracy gone mad,” and that “Minor changes to benefits rules that won't benefit the DWP will considerably undermine voluntary organisations,” noting that it’s more difficult to get lunch out than preparing it at home. It stands to reason: you can prepare food at home that stretches your budget much less than food and drink that has to be portable, and this makes it much less likely people will help out in vitally needed services (usually the ones the government can’t be bothered with).

But this nastiness isn’t just about awkwardness and extra expense. You might expect people in a volunteer culture to be more sociably-minded than average, so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that volunteers might go out for lunch together, even if it’s just for a sandwich or the greasy spoon round the corner. If voluntary organisations give you a couple of quid to help out, that’s easy; if you have to shell out yourself several days a week when you’re already at subsistence level, you either starve yourself the rest of the time to afford it or have to back out because you’re too poor.

I expect the people who drew up this mean little regulation have never experienced the humiliation of being too poor to be even mildly sociable. I hope that it’s just not entered their heads rather than being vindictive, but I fear it struck some bright spark as a clever extra way to degrade people who should be out getting a nice McJob to fatten Gordon’s economy, rather than wasting their time being public-spirited.

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