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Sunday, December 14, 2008

It takes a rich man to pour such scorn on the poor

by Matthew Norman.

As the disability defiant Churchill would agree, an army must carry its wounded

Please don't take this the wrong way, by reading into it any witless cockney rhyming slang intent that isn't there, but the man behind this new assault on our benefit-dependent poor would appear to be a total investment banker.

Perhaps I do David Freud, architect of the White Paper on welfare reform, a disservice. Maybe, during all his years raising £50bn for the likes of Railtrack and EuroDisney, Mr Freud sat up night after night with the ProPlus, studying the issue until dawn broke over a lavish home far removed, we may guess, from the sink estates he claims he wants to salvage from workless despair.

And yet, by his own words, it seems not. "I didn't know anything about welfare when I started," he told The Daily Telegraph in February, "but that may have been an advantage... In a funny way, the solution was obvious." The special hilarity here, apart from the notion of any obvious answer to so ferociously complex a social conundrum, is how long he took to travel from absolute ignorance to omniscience.

Hired by the Works and Pensions Secretary James Purnell to address this small matter, it took him – wait for it now; just wait for it – three weeks to research and write his initial report. Admittedly by New Labour policy-creation standards, this is hardly a rush job. But by any more conventional measure, 21 days is on the brisk side for so monumental an intellectual challenge.

Still, let's not fall into that very trap by rushing to judge Mr Freud as a man prone to the lure of the simplistic. Indeed, writing in yesterday's Times, he touched impressively on the thinking behind the wizard wheeze of forcing long-term incapacity benefit claimants back to work. "Some of our greatest national heroes suffered from disabilities," he explained, "from Nelson with his lost eye to Churchill with his 'Black Dog' depression, to the physicist Stephen Hawking..."

So there it is. Should you happen to be one of history's greatest maritime warriors, or suited to safeguarding the country from Nazi tyranny while moonlighting as a Nobel literature Laureate, or the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics with rare insight into cosmology and quantum gravity, you really have no excuse for allowing a disability to keep you marooned on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle.

It's the rest I worry about. For every Churchill manqué, Nelson wannabe and putative Prof Hawking, there may possibly (I haven't spent three weeks on this, so excuse the caution) be others who aren't up to much on the work front. They might suffer from crippling back pain, arthritis, or agoraphobia. Plagued by chronic depression, but denied the spur of having Hitler's army poised across the Channel, they might lack the motivation to clean offices or ask "fries with that?" in return for the minimum wage.

Or they might simply be too battered and bruised by the confidence-sapping, skills-denying residue of a shameful apology for an education to care less. Inevitably a portion of the millions subsisting on a benefit designed to make the unemployment figures more palatable are, to borrow from Mr Purnell, playing the system. And while we might argue whether their reluctance to work makes them lazy or inadequate, we surely agree that they are the walking (or slouching) wounded too; and that, as that champion of disability-defiance Winston Churchill would agree, an army must always carry its wounded.

This, it seems to me, is the crux of the debate. To Mr Freud it may be about gaining the entrée into the peerage or quangocracy men with untold bonus millions tucked away often crave. For Mr Purnell, who mollifies on the record while briefing the papers off it that he's one tough muthah with one gigantic cudgel, it's presumably about ingratiating himself with the Sun and Daily Mail with his summer 2011 leadership campaign in mind. For some of us, however, it's about clinging to what vestiges of a civilised society remain to us.

The fact that nothing significant will change – that this Bill will have its teeth filed down to the stumps by that gallant cabal of backbenchers who remember why they joined the Labour party in the first place – is not the point. Nothing important will change because in this area nothing ever does. Soon after taking power, in the week he chartered a 747 to Seattle for £700,000, Mr Tony Blair floated the intention to trim "workshy" single mothers' benefits by £11 per week. He earned a few nice headlines, and the reflex disgust from the centre-left that was also mother's milk to him, but the political price of such malevolence was too high, and the proposal was quietly buried.

This latest sub-Thatcherite, far right-wing political posturing may come loosely disguised in the raggedy cloak of stick-and-carrot philanthropy, but it would come at a higher price still. The wilful stupidity of the timing, with at least a million poorly paid jobs about to vanish, needn't detain us. The concept of punishing the poor for receiving the assistance that is their right, by making them dig the gardens of the better off, feels like a pastiche of the vindictive nihilism of the rock-breaking Alabama chain gang.

What stinks worse than the idea is the tone. From the pious, cruel-to-be-kind brayings of the Freud-Purnell pantomime donkey, every word emanating from the rear end, they seem confused into thinking that the jobless have a lesser stake in this society than the employed, and believe in the deserving and undeserving poor. To watch a minister with a plumply padded pension and a free widescreen telly and, of all creatures, an investment banker threaten those on £69 per week is to observe the unspeakable in pursuit of the unemployable.

The only way to address the syndrome of long-term dependency is through education. It requires massive, sustained public investment in buildings, equipment and, above all, teachers, and knowing that's not going to happen either the grown-up government accepts, as an unavoidable fee for a moderately civilised democracy, that some people will take liberties to secure as much each week as Mr Freud might spend on a bottle of claret, if he was pulling his horns in.

In the absence of schooling worthy of a developed nation, you turn a blind eye to the alleged scroungers not only because the risk of denying the more deserving their dignity is truly unthinkable, but because the lazy and above all the children of the lazy deserve some dignity too. What you don't do is further stigmatise the poor, the sick, the illiterate, the weak, the befuddled and the inadequate for the delight of tabloid editors.

"Love and work, work and love... that is all there is," said Sigmund Freud, and in a utopian world all of us would have oodles of both. Back in the world as it is, meanwhile, another of his quotes comes to mind. "If you can't do it, give it up!" he said. It's advice James Purnell would have done well to consider before unleashing Siggy's great grandson on his three-week crash course in welfare reform.