Photo: Channel 4

Over the summer, I made the conscious decision to stop squandering my money on junk and chose to bridge the gap between my second and third years of study by spending some time abroad. 

Perhaps because I’d spent the two years prior to my trip on an American Studies degree programme, I decided to visit the United States, and there I met a friend who had been travelling the world in Los Angeles before travelling to Las Vegas to indulge in some pretty luckless gambling. 

By the time I returned to British soil three weeks later, I was so happy to be home I could have danced in the rain.  I’m not saying I loathed America, but by the same token I’m not about to admit I fell head over heels in love with it either.  My experiences simply reinforced the relief I often feel knowing I hail from a country which accepts that compassion should be a mandatory gesture of the state. 

Three months later, and I’m beginning to think I jumped the gun a bit.  After all, it was only last Sunday that the Conservatives – possibly still a little too excited at the prospect of pressing all the big buttons in government – unleashed their latest attack on yet another defenceless section of society: the jobless.  All of a sudden, the Tories’ unjust intentions for child benefit seemed rather passé as national newspapers detailed Iain Duncan Smith’s policy to force the jobless into compulsory – yet unpaid – community work placements.

Not that I should really be surprised.  Iain Duncan Smith and his ilk have, of course, been griping about the condition of the economy – and those that drink from it for free – for months, if not years. Still, if there is something I find even more depressing than the Conservatives’ hideous spending cuts and vacuous insinuations that the previous government are single-handedly responsible for the recent global recession, then it has to be the party’s morbid obsession with so-called ‘scroungers’ dependent on state benefits. 

Admittedly, there clearly is something of a problem, and to deny the existence of dependency culture would be nothing short of idiocy.  Around 1.4 million people are presently registered to receive Jobseekers’ Allowance, and every year the government is saddled with the responsibility of settling a £192 billion welfare bill.  Yet it would appear that the Tories are only too happy to deliver a remedy at the expense of compassion, decrying claimants for the alleged  ‘laziness’ which has ensured that unemployment now affects up to three generations of families. 

Yes, Iain Duncan Smith considers the therapy for long-term unemployment to lie in American-style community service. That is to say, in an attempt to break the “habit of worklessness,” the Conservative government intends to bestow advisers with the authority to sentence jobseekers to four-week periods of mandatory work within the community (think litter picking, and you’re on the right track).  And if claimants refuse?  They’ll be stripped of their benefits altogether. 

In my opinion, the government’s plans for the unemployed are abhorrent, not least because they imply that those who don’t claim benefits are completely free of the immoral ills which have supposedly infected jobseekers up and down the country. 

It’s a nice thought, I admit, but we know full well it isn’t true. I am, by all intents and purposes, the product of a middle-class family. I was born, raised and socialised in a predominantly middle-class suburb.  And yet I know plenty of people – humble taxpayers, no less – who are prepared to shirk their responsibilities wherever they believe they can get away with it. If they can work two jobs and avoid making the obligatory tax and National Insurance contributions on the second, they’ll do it. Obviously, it’s not everyone, but it’s become an almost accepted feature of our national life nevertheless – and somehow it remains tolerable because these people aren’t working-class ‘spongers’. 

And then there are, of course, the discretions of the politicians (and their pals) who so readily point the finger at Britain’s ‘freeloaders’. What was last year’s expenses scandal if it wasn’t ‘sponging’? Precisely what is George Osborne’s motivation when he knowingly avoids paying £1.6 million worth of taxes? Why is it acceptable for Lord Ashcroft to opt to bypass paying tax in Britain altogether?  And really, why are big businesses essentially entitled to view taxation as an optional expenditure? 

These are issues which I find just as – if not more – alarming than the length of British dole queues. Here we are, under the government’s strict instruction to worry unduly that the economy is on the brink of collapse, and we’re told to issue a huge chunk of the blame to the ‘leeches’ clinging onto the state’s piggy bank for dear life.  

But really, what is the difference between a benefit claimant and a tax dodger? If I was to sign on for the next twelve months, I’d receive £2696.20 from the government. Hell, if I was to sign on for the next nine years, I’d receive £28,509. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this just small change to George Osborne, Lord Ashcroft and even Sir Philip Green, who make tax savings equating to millions of pounds?  It certainly gives nothing to the argument that all jobseekers are scumbags. 

That, I suppose, brings me onto the latter half of my abhorrence, which lies with the government’s explicit intention to get ‘tough’ with benefit claimants. If the Tories’ stance isn’t inhumane, then it’s most definitely lazy (which is ironic, really, considering it’s precisely that which they view to be at the heart of the problem with state dependency). 

It should be obvious, but by pedalling sheer laziness as the sole cause of rocketing unemployment, the Conservatives will inevitably neglect to deliver an appropriate solution. After all, the “pockets of worklessness” Iain Duncan Smith so often refers to are seriously disadvantaged areas still reeling from the ill-effects of Thatcher’s legacy; communities in which a life on benefits has become ingrained upon society; districts in which there are often ten applicants to every job (or worse, there are no unskilled jobs at all). 

But has this happened because the majority of people in these areas are inherently lazy? I seriously doubt it.  Admittedly, I’m not about to argue that a lack of get-up-and-go doesn’t exist within Britain, but I am willing to challenge the assumption that such people are born ‘feckless’.  

Why doesn’t anybody want to get to the root of the problem, and figure out why people don’t want to work? Why does nobody care for the underlying causes, be it a lack of qualifications, a low IQ or self-esteem, drug addiction, alcohol dependency, or even undiagnosed mental health issues? These are all real setbacks which prevent hoards of people from finding work everyday, and I am surer than sure that none of the above will be eradicated by a pointless – and also very cruel – exercise in humilation. 

If the government are to successfully lift the hundreds of thousands of people Labour supposedly condemned to the grizzly depths of unemployment, then they need to demonstrate a little more compassion – the sort that I have always thought existed within Britain. Last time I checked, community service was reserved for criminals, not the criminally poor. But then again, I suppose this is the Tories we’re talking about: half-baked and discriminatory visions for the future seem to be their speciality.

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The Conservatives aren't getting tough, they're just being cruel

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