The Sunday Times

March 13th, 2011

Behold, the avenging angels of scrounging will claim us all

Avenging angels come in strange forms these days. Two of them appeared last week in the popular press, with — as the book of Daniel describes them — faces like lightning, eyes like flaming torches and words like the sound of a multitude. But one might easily have failed to recognise them because superficially they seem quite ordinary. One is Stanley Clifton, 31, of Darlington, and the other is Sorche Williams, 19, of west London.

Stanley Clifton is a perfect paradigm of welfare man. He has never worked in his life, he has produced four children with a woman who is too depressed to work and he is on incapacity benefit for alcoholism, even though he claims he has not had a drink for a year. All together, the family receives £18,000 a year in benefits, including £100 a week incapacity payment.

Last year Clifton was convicted of common assault and sentenced to 100 hours of community service, but he failed twice to turn up, at which point probation workers found him unfit for community service because he was on incapacity benefit. However, last Tuesday he found himself up before Judge John Walford at Teesside crown court. Sentencing Clifton to a three-month supervision order, the judge vented his indignation by accusing him of “sponging off others” and being “the embodiment of the welfare-dependent culture”. Clifton’s response was to demand to know how the “f****** radge [irritating] bastard” would like to look after his four children all day long.

Sorche Williams is, as she appeared in the press last week, a perfect paradigm of young welfare woman. Her face is angelic; her approach to life is anything but. With a criminal record for assaulting a policeman, she has never worked. “I get money from my mum and my dad and anyone else who has a job in Britain,” she says without the slightest shame. At the beginning of a BBC3 television documentary in the Working Girls series, she says she can’t be bothered to look for work — it’s “just like being a slave”. Nor can she be bothered to get up: she spends her benefit on drinking in bars and clubs.

Extreme cases though they are, Williams and Clifton stand like flaming emblems for the people who depend needlessly on welfare, and feel entitled to do so, at such overwhelming cost to the taxpayer. They are the angels who deliver the awful message that this country has brought upon itself the evils they stand for.

Forty years of decadent attitudes have undermined the culture of education, work, self-reliance and self-respect here, and as a result this country has produced a critical mass of people who won’t work and who feel not the slightest shame about it.

Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling some sympathy for Clifton and Williams. In exploiting the system as they do, they are each making a rational choice, to use a term sociologists like. So are countless people like them. If the choice is between a tiring, boring, low-paid job on the one hand and getting just as much money for doing nothing — with no blame attached — it is entirely reasonable to choose to take the money and sleep in, or to have lots of lovely babies that someone else will pay for. The welfare state has made it entirely possible for people to waste their own lives and exploit other people’s as a seemingly rational choice.

So has the education system. Quite apart from a failing system that leaves countless school-leavers unemployable, there are two ways in which pupils learn to be no-hopers.

In the first, they are taught that they are all creative, that they can achieve whatever they want and are entitled to fulfilling, interesting work from the start; therefore they are not obliged to do unfulfilling, uncreative or unsatisfactory jobs, not even as the first step on a ladder. Alternatively, children in the worst schools learn from a complete lack of guidance and encouragement that they might as well stop trying and give up on life early.

Only in the best schools are children taught about the rewards of self-discipline, hard work and, of course, deferred gratification — that well-worn sociologists’ term for what distinguishes the aspiring middle classes from everyone else.

Putting aside pleasure for later and getting up early to study for exams or train for a sport, or starting as a gofer at the bottom of a company, is the only way to get on. Even then, it’s not a guarantee. But success in anything is impossible without it. Somehow, just getting out from under the duvet seems to be a big problem for young unemployed Britons. No one has obliged them to accept authority, or to do things they don’t enjoy in the hope of achieving better things later on.

The excellent BBC3 programme in which Williams appeared made this very clear. Given interesting work placements in the fashion trade, she and another girl at first feel positively insulted when told severely that they must turn up on time and do whatever they’re asked. “F****** dickheads,” says Williams.

But, rather movingly, both girls are soon turned around by inspiring employers. They suddenly discover the fun and self-respect that goes with work, even modest work; they find out that they are far from useless, as they’ve always feared. Williams gives up the attitudes of which she was publicly accused last week. All this makes it clear how much could have been done for these girls, and millions like them, earlier in their lives. Encouragement works.

Unfortunately, though, there are very few inspiring people around, either at school or later. Good mentors are in short supply. The harsh truth, politically speaking, is that while carrot is best, stick is often unavoidable. The coalition’s plans to get as many people as possible off incapacity and other benefits are a start. But what’s needed is more in the way of sanctions. Just having benefits withdrawn is not the same as being punished for knowingly ripping off other taxpayers.

A change of public attitude might also help. It often seems that many people have little idea of where government money comes from. If everyone truly believed that someone scrounging benefits was ripping off you and me and their own hard-working neighbours, then the old censoriousness might return. It is high time it did.

For too long, the better-off have been rather relaxed about scrounging, seeing it as the price of a civilised state. In fact, welfare scrounging is quite likely to help bring down this civilised state altogether. That’s the message of Stanley Clifton and Sorche Williams, those unlikely angels.