The other day I attended a one-day conference at which I joined a couple of headteachers in a discussion about what strategies we use to overcome barriers to the integration of students from non-British backgrounds when they re-locate to the UK. The debate was chaired by an outstanding expert in parental engagement and her knowledge and experience made the session lively and interactive. It was during one of the breaks, however, when with a cup of tea/coffee in hand, some of the delegates approached me to voice their opinions. Their real opinions, I mean. This was the moment when I thought of perception. Most of my fellow practitioners had similar doubts: how to counteract the negative impression that we have more children from overseas than there really are in the UK nowadays?
By chance, I had recently come across an article by Peter Kellner in Prospect magazine entitled: “The truth about welfare”. In it the thought-provoking columnist debunks some of the myths surrounding the way we perceive our benefits culture.
Peter is the President of YouGov, an internet-based market research firm. YouGov was founded by Stephan Shakespeare and Nadhim Zahawi, two men who have played a major role in politics, especially right-wing politics in recent years. It goes without saying that YouGov is as far from the stereotypical muesli-eating, sandal-wearing, beard-sporting Guardian-reading leftie as it is possible. Yet, Peter’s article was as surprising as it was honest.
First off, he acknowledged that there has been a disparity between data on welfare claimants and the public perception of it. In his own words: “the public’s misconceptions about welfare colour their views of the overall impact of the system”. Which can be translated as “easier to slag off those we deem skivers than to see each case on an individual basis”.
|The real faces of the benefits culture (photo taken from mirror.co.uk)|
The numbers tell their own story. Britain’s total welfare bill was £205bn between 2013 and 2014, almost a third of government spending. Yet, whilst the average voter in the recent general election thought that benefits for unemployed people were the biggest component of the bill, it was actually the smallest, at 2% of the whole whack. Most people put it at 34%. Same with so-called “welfare tourism”, claims by people who come from overseas. The figure is thought to be between 2 and 3%. Also, as noted in a recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, immigrants are less likely to claim benefits. Still, the public perception is that the amount of foreigners “fleecing” the Exchequer is 23%. Disparity indeed.
What is going on, then? How come the former owner of the Conservative Home website, Stephan Shakespeare, and Stratford-on-Avon current Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi are debunking myths instead of slagging off “scroungers”?
My gut feeling is that this whole “strivers vs skivers” has gone too far. It was fine in the months leading up to the general election. It was useful for politicians of all parties (except, maybe for the Greens) to present scapegoats to the electorate so that they could direct their anger at these sacrificial lambs. But now with a Conservative government in number 10, the fact that the British people still thinks that there is a 22% of fraudsters who are fiddling the system (whether they are all concentrated at Westminster is not known, sadly) does not sit well with the tough image Prime Minister David Cameron wants to project to the UK and beyond. For another example, look at the way he wants to redefine child poverty.
My main concern in all this is that we are raising a new generation to hate one another. When I speak to people born and raised in the UK and the way this country was thirty years ago, they tell me about the breakdown in community spirit, about individualism taking over collective enterprise and about the creation of a “me, me, me” culture. The changes I am seeing now have as much of a detrimental effect as those of three decades ago. Even Tory pollsters seem to agree on that.
Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 1st July at 6pm (GMT)