Politicians sometimes get lucky breaks, David Cameron, George Osbourne et al must have been delighted with the outcome of the Mick and Mairead Philpott trial at the exact moment when the Coalition's Welfare Reforms begin to bite. They have capitalised on the story by repeatedly telling us that 'for some' living off benefits is a 'lifestyle choice'. There have been repeats of Anne Widdecombe's visits to the Philpott's home when she commented on the consumer goods they owned; and repeats too of Mick Philpott appearing on the Jeremy Kyle show. The Philpotts have been depicted as the epitome of real life 'Shameless' skivers. Politicians get away with this because, as they say themselves, the public believes a great many people do chose to live off benefits; they believe that benefits are generous and that people can live comfortably and never have to work.
There are no official records but it is thought there are fewer than 12 families of 10 or more children living off benefits in the whole of the UK. Only 2% of all single mothers are teenagers and 59% of all single mothers work at least part-time. The total cost of welfare benefits and state pensions is about £205 billion but at least 60% of it (depending on how you calculate it) is spent on retired people. There have been calls for Ian Duncan-Smith to demonstrate he could live on £53 a week, the real level of out-of-work benefits for a single person; inflation is 2.7%, people with low incomes spend proportionally more on food, heating and transport which are all rising faster than that, so the 1% cap is in fact really a cut. Less than 1% (about £2 billion) of the total welfare budget is lost to fraud, by contrast tax avoidance and evasion is estimated to be about £120 billion.
Politicians have carefully avoided talking about poverty this week, the discussion has been about welfare reform and fairness instead. I wonder if this is a tacit recognition that the public now realise that lots of people are in work but are still poor - over 66% of poor children live in working families. The public is well aware that most 'hard-working families' have not had pay increases for several years; and that food, heating and transport are all much more expensive. If politicians have realised this then perhaps the way is clear for a proper public debate about poverty, jobs and wages unhindered by myths about benefits claimant lifestyles.
Children North East will help to bring children and young people's experiences and views to such a debate. We have recently received a small grant from the Webb Memorial Trust to develop Hopebook – a social media platform about child poverty for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty. The MPs see Hopebook as a vehicle for getting voices of the most dispossessed children in society into the committee’s debates and for involving children and young people across the country in discussing poverty. We will be working on this closely with young people, Newcastle Live Theatre and the digital team who developed Hopebook which won the Culture Code hack in Newcastle last summer. Take a look at this preview of Hopebook: http://adayofhope.co.uk/intro.