Voices: What Suella Braverman said about people on benefits isn’t the truth – it’s prejudice

·4-min read

By the time this column is published, Suella Braverman may have already withdrawn her application to be the next leader of the Conservative Party – and prime minister of Great Britain. Her candidacy is (or was) hardly a serious bid; depending on your perspective it is either an audacious punt or the sign of a stupendous lack of self-awareness.

Whether or not she remains, her presence is notable because she has used it to start wielding one of the great Tory untruths that can define an election campaign.

Discussing her policy proposals – though, strictly speaking, they were complaints about her own party’s 12 years in government rather than actual ideas – Braverman told ITV news that there are “too many people in this country who are of working age, who are of good health, and who are choosing to rely on benefits”.

It’s not the first time you’ll have heard this claim parroted by Conservative MPs. Or a Labour MP, for that matter. It’s a shorthand that politicians use to capture public attention because it plays directly into one of the great myths about tax and expenditure that, despite all efforts to explode it, just will not die.

Though such individuals do not exist in any economically significant numbers, the figure of the Great British Benefit Scrounger still looms large in Westminster.

Now Braverman has dragged that zombie up once again, it will outlast her bid for the leadership and sneak its way into the campaigns of the two remaining candidates when that decision is put to the rest of the party. Particularly if one of the last two survivors is Rishi Sunak, against whom any other candidate will pitch themselves as a cutter of tax and state.

So let’s explain why Braverman is peddling myths, not sharing uncomfortable truths. The reason politicians get away with sharing falsehoods so often is because elements of what they say can feel true. In this case, it is absolutely correct that some benefits have seen a steeply rising proportion of claims in the last two years.

For now the most accurate detail we have is for the year to August 2021. In that time, the number of people claiming job seeker’s allowance (JSA) rose by 57 per cent. It sounds troubling but it merely accounts for a large number of people experiencing sudden job loss during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. (Remember, JSA can be claimed by anyone for a period of six months, irrespective of their savings or household income, as long as they had been paying regular national insurance contributions in their previous job.)

But the peak for JSA claims came in August 2020, when 340,000 people qualified for the benefit. By February 2021 there were 260,000 claims. Now it is lower, at around 140,000, and since then unemployment rates have reached a record low. But instead of trumpeting those successes, the Conservatives – who have been in power for over a decade – seem to be blaming themselves for failing to cut the benefits bill.

Other benefits which are means-tested, designed to prevent households slipping into extreme poverty, are primarily paid to people who are in work. They are most often wrapped together as a single universal credit payment, and include housing benefit, tax credits and other stipends designed to recognise each family’s unique circumstances. Of those claimants, almost half (40 per cent) are in paid work. They qualify for benefits because work doesn’t pay them enough to survive.

As the cost of living rises, any incoming prime minister expecting to reduce the benefits bill is going to face a moral question: cut the tax bill, or allow your poorest people to work desperately hard to survive and yet still experience destitution.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

Here’s yet another barely mentioned statistic: as of March 2021, there were 58,000 people claiming bereavement support payments – an increase of 8,000 compared to the previous year. No wonder; these figures account for the first year of a global pandemic that was leading to a spike in death rates.

And I haven’t mentioned pensions, because even writers for The Spectator accept that this forms the major cornerstone of the benefits bill – and a completely uncontested one.

But these are not the sort of figures that Braverman and her colleagues want to talk about. When they drag up this fictional figure of the lazy benefit claimant watching TV all day, they are creating a scapegoat for what is to follow: a devastating raid on an already asset-stripped public sector and state safety net.

When the rest of the candidates parrot Braverman’s loaded words, they are not demonstrating pragmatism but prejudice. Benefits cuts won’t lead us out of a cost of living crisis set to sink even the previously comfortable. Don’t let them convince you it will.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting