Polly Toynbee and the polarisation of the benefits debate

This morning I found myself almost without thinking ‘liking’ a friend’s post on Facebook which shared Polly Toynbee’s piece from Thursday’s Guardian “Benefit cuts: Monday will be the day that defines this government” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/28/benefit-cuts-monday-defines-government). That in and of itself is an interesting departure as I have never been Ms Toynbee’s greatest fan, having felt for years that she wrote and spoke from an instinctively partisan perspective. So why this morning and why on this subject did I choose to support her comments?

I know that my politics have moved distinctly away from the small state libertarian that once I was. I have grown-up and – be it as a magistrate, elected councillor, charity volunteer, or simply through friends and acquaintances – faced the reality of people’s lives which has given me a far greater understanding, empathy, and acceptance that government does and should have a legitimate role in supporting those unable to provide entirely for themselves.

And now the ferocity of the cuts that are being made to benefits as well as to other forms of support such as legal aid do move me to be concerned at the inequality that is becoming a permanent feature in our society. As a magistrate, I know that high quality advocacy can make all the difference to the outcome for someone before me in court and the idea that access to proper legal representation and advice will be restricted by Monday’s swingeing reductions in legal aid horrifies me.

Polly Toynbee, as ever, articulates well the challenges facing the disadvantaged and the way in which the necessity for the cuts has been painted in aggressive and intemperate terms using the language of ‘cheats and idlers’ to describe many benefit recipients. But equally her stance on this topic comes seemingly from a position where everyone is an angel and no reduction in government welfare spending should ever be contemplated.

It is this polarisation of the debate that probably troubles me most of all. The fact that we only have talk of ‘scroungers v strivers’ on the one hand and of an ‘earthquake of social destruction’ on the other puts the case far too simplistically.

As I see it, government spending during the previous administration did get out of control, but not all that ‘excess’ spending was on welfare, though a fair chunk of it was. At the same time, we have allowed the taxation system to become overly complex, which has permitted the creation of loopholes that individuals and companies (advised by their well paid consultants) have used to avoid paying their fair share to the national pot. We have also allowed spending to continue on vanity projects and certain aspects of defence and security (e.g. Trident) which are really unnecessary given the changing economic and geopolitical circumstances we now face.

From a macro perspective therefore, there must be steps that government could take to reduce the deficit and repay borrowing that may not involve hitting those in poverty as hard as Ms Toynbee predicts the April 1st cuts will.

But at a micro level, there is surely also a case for questioning whether every person in receipt of benefits really needs that support, or whether they need it at the level they currently get. Are we at risk of having created a culture in Britain where some people would rather stay at home and claim, rather than take even a part-time job which would pay the same or slightly more than they receive from the state? Am I the only person who questions why so many jobs in the service and construction industries are filled by friends from other EU nations (as well as those further afield) rather than by British citizens?

I am not a psychologist, nor a sociologist, nor an economist, but merely a politician desperately trying to seek answers and solutions to these most intractable of problems and to do so from the centre ground, rather than the polarised extremes that seem to have become the home of this debate.

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