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Feature Christmas 2011: Food for Thought

Hand-out Britain

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 21 December 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7828
  1. Steve Reed, council leader
  1. 1Lambeth Council, London SW2 1RW, UK
  1. Correspondence to: S Reed steve.reed100{at}

Has a dependency culture made us sick, asks Steve Reed

Our society operates on the basis that you make the rich work harder by paying them more, but you make the poor work harder by paying them less. Compare the multimillion pound bonuses handed out to London’s City financiers with the benefit cuts intended to encourage the poor into work.

The British government is cutting incapacity benefits because of the vast sums lost to alleged benefit cheats. Let’s put the problem in perspective. According to the charity ActionAid, more than 12 times as much money is lost through offshore corporate tax havens as through benefit fraud.1 Yet the government is planning to relax legislation aimed at reducing tax haven abuse.2

Of course there are cheats in any system and they deserve to be exposed. But Britain has high numbers of people receiving incapacity benefit not because of an over-generous welfare system but because the way we treat poor people makes them ill. People who have had power taken away from them are more likely to have high levels of stress. Many poor people are denied the chance of a decent job and a decent home, yet they see all around them a voracious consumer society that has locked them out.

And the poor shall be sent empty away

Many of the coalition government’s reforms are making life harder for the very poorest people. Caps on housing benefit are moving poor families away from where there are jobs and people they know to unfamiliar areas with higher unemployment. Proposed cuts in council tax benefit will hit the working poor hardest. Job cuts in the public sector are disproportionately affecting low paid women, while working women are being clobbered with more responsibility for childcare and care for elderly relatives as public services are reined back. Cuts to local …

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