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Where is sympathy for least fortunate?

To the SECC this morning to chair a debate on The Future State of Welfare for the annual Gathering of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).

I admire these people. As the double whammy of cumulative benefit cuts and slashed council services crashes into the disabled and the poor, these are the folk scrambling to pick up the pieces: advice bodies, older people's charities, youth groups, mental health support projects, housing associations, disability groups. (As hunger reaches into every community, the symbol for our times is surely the Trussell Trust foodbank.)

On Tuesday SCVO published its latest members' survey. What do you suppose is the largest barrier to meeting demand? Being overwhelmed by sheer numbers? The lack of long-term funding? The shortage of volunteers? All these issues loom large but no. The biggest obstacle is "poor public awareness of welfare changes". Not far behind comes "negative public attitudes towards benefit recipients".

Previous recessions generated a degree of sympathy for the least fortunate among us. This time around the Government's false rhetoric about "choosing a life on benefits" and the ruthless demonisation of claimants by a section of the press appear to have stifled empathy. The Populus poll reported after George Osborne announced the sub-inflation rises (ie cuts) in working age benefits showed overwhelming public support for him. In fact, British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys since the early 1990s chart a hardening of attitudes towards claimants, especially the unemployed and single parents.

Ah, but isn't it different in communitarian Scotland where they believe no-one should be left behind? Relatively speaking, yes, but recent BSA surveys show a sharp fall, with only around 30% of Scots believing "benefits for the unemployed are too low and cause hardship", with a similar shrinking minority backing redistribution of wealth.

There are two parts to this issue: lack of understanding and lack of sympathy. The one Tory contention nobody disagrees with is that the current benefits system is too complex. Those administering them, those trying to live on them and even those advising on them often don't understand them and can't keep up with changes. And many benefits are interlinked, so cutting one can haemorrhage several more.

A useful example is the impact of "welfare reform" on disabled people in Scotland. Over the next three years 100,000 disabled Scots are likely to be moved off Employment Support Allowance and 60,000 more will probably lose entitlement when Personal Independence Payments replace Disability Living Allowance. What happens to their Blue Badges and concessionary travel? Around 74,000 stand to lose their Motability Component and an estimated 60,000 will be caught by the bedroom tax. Yet, although the vast majority will continue to have exactly the same impairments and long-term health conditions, the Department of Work and Pensions hasn't even done a cumulative impact assessment of these cuts.

Some newspapers and individual journalists have attempted to publicise this stuff but when I meet a neighbour at the bus stop, does he mention my column about the bedroom tax? No, he rants about last week's tabloid splash about a mother of 11 living on benefits in Gloucestershire. "How many such families are there in Scotland?" I ask. "Dunno." Has he ever heard of the bedroom tax? "Na. So long as I don't have to pay it," is his parting shot.

Nil desperandum. Take heart from Ben Baumberg of Kent University who studies public attitudes to social security. He concludes that recent contradictory poll results can be explained by the phrasing of the question. If they are put fairly and especially if groups such as the disabled, low-income families, the retired and unpaid carers are specified, the compassion rating zooms upwards. Meanwhile, those of us with a voice must continue to fight for the living standards of the poorest. That's what the welfare state is for.

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