Opinion: Tory plans to curb benefits for obese people and addicts is the opposite of enabling people to get on in life

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through charity work, in two different countries, it’s that imposing your moral code on other people simply does not work. Sometimes, people are going to do things that seem wrong, or misguided, or utterly reckless, to us. When they do, it’s our role not to judge them for it, but to give them the information they need to make their own informed choices.

That’s why I was so annoyed this week just past. In Spain, a colleague of mine told me that the media had whipped up frenzy around our organisation teaching young people to use condoms correctly. Meanwhile, back home in Britain, we have the Conservative party trying to push its own moral code through the benefits system. Both examples neatly explain what the problem is with moralising narratives in society.

If we truly wanted to help people – we would be doing everything we could to keep them safe.  Young people have a habit of growing up and becoming adults. Once they have become engaged in risky sexual practices, you can’t turn back history and intervene. ‘Just say no’ doesn’t prevent HIV/AIDS and it doesn’t prevent underage sexual activity. Being honest and open about sexual education allows people to make their own choices that aren’t based on myths. I swear, the Spanish Red Cross has taught me more about sex and gender than my schools back in Scotland ever did.

Which brings me nicely onto the current situation in the UK. Excuse me for being a party loyalist for a minute, but I’m going to use SEFS. A stronger economy and a fairer society – but with the most important bit missing. Enabling everyone to get on in life.  That last part is what sums up my politics. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done in life – I want you all to be able to reach your potential. Cutting people’s benefits because they’re overweight or suffer from addiction? That’s the opposite of helping people get on in life.

To make a change in your life, and most importantly to keep that change going, you have to want to do it. There are a multitude of reasons why someone may feel like they can’t take that step at this point in their lives, and none of them are going to be improved by the looming threat of severe poverty. If David Cameron is so concerned about costs, I would politely advise him to consider the costs of sending people on treatment programs that will prove futile. Overcoming addiction and losing a lot of weight are not easy things to be done overnight, and it requires a rather large amount of privilege to assume that those who cannot currently bring themselves to do so are lazy and workshy.

As a society, we absolutely must get over this shoddy, tabloid mindset. Shock horror! Children taught about sex! Woman takes drugs! Fat person on benefits! Man drinks alcohol! When you write it like that – it’s incredibly clear how reductive that is. People read things and get into a 20 minute hate, which doesn’t help anyone or make a difference. What makes the difference is listening to people, giving them the information and helping them to make their own choices. There is no one size fits all answer to these kind of social and health issues – but a good place to start would be to show just a little bit of human kindness and understanding.

* Hannah Bettsworth is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats Council for Europe, and the Liberal Democrat Federal International Relations Committee. Outside of politics, she works in European affairs consultancy on health policy.

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  • Surely the key issue here for policymakers is ensuring good sources of help are available for those who want to quit their their particular demons. It is all well and good to defend those who are not “ready” to take that step, but in the real World I have recently had to move house to escape the negative effects of drug users who are not “ready” to take that step yet. We all have to take responsibility for our actions to ensure we don’t risk making a less fair society for those accidentally caught up in the effects of those not yet ready, willing or able to take responsibility for their actions!

  • Perhaps it is time the NHS gave out pills to increase peoples willpower!

  • Excellent article, Hannah Bettsworth!

    You are absoutely correct to say – ” Cutting people’s benefits because they’re overweight or suffer from addiction? That’s the opposite of helping people get on in life.”

    I am pleased to say that over the last twelve months I have lost more than 3 stone in weight.

    My weight loss was nothing to do with my will power, or me being more deserving, or the need to remain on benefits — I just happened to have been diagnosed with a severe cancer which required some drastic treatment.

    It is difficult to guess how my experience fits in with David Cameron’s attitude of “screw the poor because they must be punished”.

    I even have a flat screen television !

  • Jenny Barnes 18th Feb '15 - 12:01pm

    I think the idea of guaranteed work for neets is a good one, but working for “benefits” of less than £2 an hour is punitive. Minimum, and preferably living, hourly wage at least. Let’s stop pretending there’s an epidemic of lazy, idle, fecklessness that sweeps the country whenever there’s a recession.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Feb '15 - 12:56pm

    I am concerned that some of the approach to alcoholics and addicts (with whom I have worked) ignores the fact that beyond a certain point, there are some addicts are close to or effectively medically incapable of avoiding the thing they are addicted to and is physically destroying their bodies; so should we strip away funding from them and cruelly leave them to die uncared for as paupers?
    Already social services, health and housing are engaged in many local authorities in games of buck-passing to try and avoid legal responsibility for what are ultimately human beings not defunct resource units. I don’t see these much-trumpeted dog-whistle policies doing anything to make that situation worse or drive such already desparate people to such extremes of desperation so that they end up in prison or mental health care.
    Who is going to do a mental capacity assessment in such cases to see if people understand the decisions they are being asked to make when the sanctions are applied? What is dignity in such a context? What is duty of care?

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Feb '15 - 1:15pm

    ” Let’s stop pretending there’s an epidemic of lazy, idle, fecklessness that sweeps the country whenever there’s a recession.”

    I don’t think those proposing this believe that. I suspect they believe in some way that the poor and disabled are inherently lazy and feckless and that therefore we should withdraw all but the most shaming support from them so that in a recession they can be burned off by some sort of ghastly Malthusian cleansing process.

    I am still waiting for someone to re-propose the workhouse; these rules would bring that date forward.

  • It’s already happening. I haven’t seen so many homeless people since the 80s.

  • Paul in Wokingham 18th Feb '15 - 1:33pm

    Clearly the Tories have established who exactly are the deserving poor and who are the undeserving poor.

    The deserving poor include those over 65 who are so poor they can only cough up £20K to stick into granny bonds returning 4% per annum compounding for 3 years. The undeserving poor include the lumpenproletariat who have nothing to do but sit around watching daytime telly on flat-screen tellies and … oh, hold on…

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Feb ’15 – 1:15pm
    ” …. they believe in some way that the poor and disabled are inherently lazy and feckless and that therefore we should withdraw all but the most shaming support from them …”

    That’s right Matt, you have perfectly encapsulated the worldview of the Secretary of State at DWP.
    I am sure that there are regulars in Golf Club Bars throughout Surrey and the rest of the Home Counties where no end of people will affirm that what IainDuncanSmith thinks about the lazy and feckless is indeed true.
    Hanging is too good for them.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Feb '15 - 2:11pm

    It’s not restricted to any one class, John; those who feel they have escaped from poverty or addiction by their own efforts can be (possibly entirely naturally but still not very attractively) truly vindictive to those whom they feel have evaded responsibility and cheated the system or natural justice.

    With regard to addicts, many addicts are addicts by a past choice; but that historic choice is one they are no longer physically or mentally capable of altering – is the State and the benefits system to be made by the Conservatives to be their judge, jury, torturer and executioner?

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Feb '15 - 2:15pm

    Sorry, in my post of 12:56, I meant:
    ” I don’t see these much-trumpeted dog-whistle policies doing anything BUT make that situation worse or drive such already desperate people to such extremes of desperation so that they end up in prison or mental health care.”

  • Good point, Matt.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Feb '15 - 3:12pm

    Matt (Bristol)
    ” Let’s stop pretending there’s an epidemic of lazy, idle, fecklessness that sweeps the country whenever there’s a recession.”
    I don’t think those proposing this believe that.

    Well, no — but it’s like the “lump of labour fallacy”: no one actually believes there is a fixed stock of work to be done regardless of how many people are doing it, but many people will support or argue for policies that depend on that as an unstated assumption. Likewise, I’m sure that no one presented with the proposition above would say, “Yes, that’s what I believe”; but their attitudes to episodes of high unemployment and ideas for dealing with it only make sense on the basis that it is true.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Feb '15 - 3:28pm

    Malcolm, I was intending to amplify Jenny’s point by suggesting that in fact those proposing these measures feel that benefits should be taken away from the ‘feckless’ in all situations, whether in recession or not.

    I think I see your point, but I had understood the Conservative proposals were being argued for on the basis that this is what we should have been doing all along (if I heard Cameron right) and it’ll be morally good for us all whether or not we are in high unemployment or not, because to offer people benefits at all is Bad in itself.

  • I was furious when I heard this proposed policy announcement. I spent my entire Sunday afternoon and evening engaged in a furious debate with some halfwit on Conservative home, whose opinion basically boiled down to.
    If your over weight or obese but NOT on benefits and you are a NET tax payer, then it is fine and none of anybodies business, However, if you where on benefits then he regarded all obese people as “fat slobs”

    This policy announcement has absolutely nothing to do with getting people the support and the help that they need, it was about a headline grabbing right wing pandering benefit basher.

    What do the tories mean when they say “refuse treatment” are they referring to treatment to see a dietitian on the NHS or a mental health counselor? Or are they referring to sending people to a weight loss club like Weight Watchers? Worse still are they planning on allowing private providers like A4E to devise weight loss classes and it becomes compulsory to attend as part of the work program? I would not put anything past the Tories.

    What really gets my blood boiling though is, Do some politicians really think that ALL obese people are happy about their condition and are happy to do nothing about it and it is just a lifestyle choice?
    As a person who suffers from weight issues as a result of mental health disorders ( Binge eating is a form of self harming) When you can not cope with emotional pain and intrusive thoughts,
    Many people will know from my posts on here, that I have had awful experiences in accessing mental health services through the NHS. I have wrote about those experiences several times.
    Whenever I have been in therapy, we have never been successfully able to address my relationship with food.
    My weight got so bad at one point (21.5 stone) I was pleading with my GP for help, although I met the criterion “physically” to be able to be referred to the obesity specialist, I could not be referred because my “mental health” is not stable.

    This is why this policy announcement from the Tories concerned me so much. The Tories and their right wing supporters are not going to be interested in the underlying causes of someones addictions or obesity. All they are interested in is stigmatizing the deserving and undeserving poor.

    The number of people claiming sickness benefits for Obesity as the primary condition is 0.07% of claimants, Which in my opinion tells me it’s all about the headlines rather than about saving money.

    Then there is of course the ethics involved in forcing someone to undergo treatment, I thought there were very clear guidelines from the NHS when it comes to these matters, It’s called abuse.
    Where do we draw the line? What about a Cancer patient who has reached their physical limitations and no longer wish to seek treatment and wish to die rather than prolong their life? Do we refuse them benefits because they are refusing treatment?

    When I watch PMQ’s there are a fair few members who in my opinion are seriously overweight or obese.
    These people have their foods subsidized twice by the tax payers. Once through an MP’s expenses and again through the subsidies that are paid to the house of commons bars / restaurants in order for them to supply cheep food and plonk. Why is it acceptable for these people to be obese at the expense of the tax payer?
    I guess like everything else in life, it is one rule for them and one rule for us

  • matt 18th Feb ’15 – 4:59pm

    You are right to be angry. But remember Cameron has “previous” on this. When he was Leader of the Opposition, hugging huskies and hoodies and being sweetness and light to everyone else he still managed to lob abuse at fat people. It was he said “their own fault” and public health initiatives to tackle obesity were in his view “a waste of public money”.

    The real Cameron showing through! Usually we get the actor and the false carefully fashioned image but occasionally the real Cameron shines through. His prejudice against anyone who is overweight is a matter of record.

  • @JohnTilley

    You are so right about Cameron.

    I think it is also very telling that the Data for the Office for National Statistics’ Households Below Average Income (HBAI) publication will not be released until after the election.

    For a Government that has been vocal and carried on about delays to inquiries during the Labour Years in Government, one has to wonder why they do not hold themselves to the same standards that they spout.
    Of Course, one would have hoped that with the Liberal democrats in Government, they would have done all they could to get this data published, especially since they are strong advocates of transparency and a new kind of politics.

    P.s John, Had no Idea that you have been battling Cancer, but then there is no reason I should know. I always like reading your posts as it is reassuring that there are still some people in the party carrying on the fight within against the right wingers and It makes me admire you even more for your dedication and passion to holding your party to account all this time and the energies you put into that.

    Best Wishes


  • Eddie Sammon 18th Feb '15 - 7:30pm

    A good article. I thought the Conservative policies announced this week attacking poor young people, obese people and addicts were genuinely offensive. They are not attacking rich people in the same circumstances.

    However when it comes to addiction I have seen people afraid of authoritarians from across the political spectrum. Minimum pricing and bans harm some people too.

    When it comes to sex education: I am fully in favour of teaching young children about sex, but I winced at the idea of giving 13 year olds condoms. I will listen to the professionals, but I couldn’t help but think that child abusers might be able to take advantage of this.


  • matt

    that is very kind of you but actually I have found LDV a great diversion. I started posting comments in autumn 2013 in the last few months before my transplant. One of the “benefits” of being virtually housebound for some months is that I have lots of time to read and comment.
    If I am lucky enough to achieve a return to anything like normal I will spend less time here — for that reason I expect some people might be looking forward to my complete recovery even more than I am. 🙂

  • @John Tilley

    Don’t be so modest. It takes a great strength of character to be able to look outwards and to be concerned for the well being of others and provide a voice for justice especially when faced with such personal trauma which can make many a man want to curl up in a ball and shut the outside world out.

    I wish you all the strength and courage in the world and I for one hope you will always remain a vocal advocate for the social justices that I have seen in your writings over the last couple of years. I am sure a majority of LDV readers feel the same way 😉

  • Jane Ann Liston 19th Feb '15 - 10:09am

    What I find depressing is the apparent theory that (a) there are vacancies (b) therefore if people do not get a job, they must be something lacking in the applicants, and that all that is required is to identify this shortcoming and correct it. (Wasn’t there a TV programme on recently, luridly described by a tabloid as featuring ‘too fat to work couple given lavish wedding paid for by taxpayers? Cameron must have been watching it.)

    Whereas as any’ jobseeker’ knows, the preferences, sometimes apparently capricious, of employers and sheer luck play a large part, but as they cannot be controlled and ‘corrected’ by the DWP, they are ignored and the burden placed wholly upon the shoulders of the unemployed.

  • @john Tilley re.” Surrey golf club bars”
    Sadly the vilification of the poor is much more widespread. It is convenient for the affluent – and even relatively affluent – to accept the labelling of the poor as undeserving thereby avoiding any obligation to address poverty . It is the natural evolution of Thatcherism.
    It is a cruel irony that many pensioners of my generation are often so self righteous about those on benefit. They conveniently forget that they experienced full employment when it was regarded as normal to get a job after school and when welfare regarded as a right.

  • It’s easy to jump on ill judged generalisms supporting a half cocked appeal to core Tory voters. But are we seriously claiming that there are no lazy and feckless people claiming benefits. And some of those genuinely lazy and feckless folk will be both working class and obese. Others who have been vilified in the press recently are distinctly middle class and formerly wealthy and just as unsympathetic. Some are not obese. The easy route is just to knock the Tory approach but they won’t mind that as they can portray this party as giving solace to the lazy and feckless and obese. The thoughtful approach should be to spell out a more rational and effective method of identifying, and separating out, and sanctioning those who abuse the benefits system. Where is that thoughtful approach and if it exists why are we not discussing that rather than a Tory policy designed only to reinforce their core so they don’t care what we think. We need to fight the Tories with better policies than they have rather than fighting them with scorn.

  • Neil Sandison 21st Feb '15 - 11:33am

    i think Camerons got a bad dose of the nanny statism ie if you dont fit into their model of the perfect property owning human being .Then they will coerse you by starvation and homelessness by removing any help you get from the state in order that you conform to the model they deem is appropiate .

  • “….The thoughtful approach should be to spell out a more rational and effective method of identifying, and separating out, and sanctioning those who abuse the benefits system”
    Stevan Rose 19th Feb ’15 – 11:57pm

    A “thoughtfully approach” ??? How much “thought” did you give it?
    When you used words like — “…separating out, and sanctioning those who abuse the benefits system..”, what were your thoughts?
    Do you have the same thoughts about “…separating out, and sanctioning those who abuse the HSBC industrial scale tax dodging system”. ?
    Or is your spite and prejudice only reserved for the poor?

    If you are really concerned about the “genuinely lazy and feckless folk” what is your proposal for Prince Charles and Prince Andrew? Or are you one of those who closes their eyes to the facts whilst doffing their cap to royal scroungers?

  • As Zoe Williams in The Guardian put it —

    “…The Joseph Rowntree Foundation as good as predicted this in 2010, when it wrote of benefit sanctions as a whole: “In countries where policy objectives are more closely connected to taxpayer buy-in irrespective of empirical evidence, one could argue that even the best specified impact results are of little, or at least secondary, importance to the political impetus for reform.” 

    Or, in simpler – though inevitably more “politicised” language – governments that aren’t bothered what happens to people and are just trying to curry favour with what they think of as a vindictive electorate don’t tend to care much about data. And so it came to pass. 
    People have died as a result of these sanctions: they have taken their own lives, citing destitution as the final straw, and they have died of starvation. 
    This makes it particularly hard to countenance that the legislation might have been made entirely on a whim.”


  • I remember a time when Liberal Democrats would have opposed any move towards compulsory medical treatment – and that’s what these proposals amount to.

    How much choice do you think people threatened with benefit sanctions will have over the course of treatment and medication prescribed for them? And once the principle is established, it will be easy to take it further so that, for instance, other people suffering from other mental illnesses (and addiction to drugs, alcohol or food is very often a mental illness) will be compelled to undergo particular treatments, even if they themselves find them counter-productive or ineffectual, because someone has decided that treatment will make them look harder for work or work more hours. Today the attack is on addicts and on fat people; tomorrow it may be on people suffering from depression and anxiety.

  • Philip Thomas 21st Feb '15 - 6:32pm

    How much will it cost to administer this system? How much in hardship payments to compensate those sanctioned? What of the extra strain on health, social services and the charitable sector from reducing payments to the poor and vulnerable? As the Tories didn’t bother to do this analysis for the last round of sanctions (for those on JSA), I doubt they’ve bothered this time. Probably total savings are minimal at best. Meanwhile the 2/3 of the welfare budget spend on pensions continues to increase on an inflation-plus basis.

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