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Tuesday, July 03, 2012 

Because they're worth it.

Here's a teaser: when does a journey of 542 miles cost £19,583? Stumped? Staggered that even the most exclusive charter company would ever dream of demanding nearly 20 grand to take a couple from Aberdeen to London? You shouldn't be. For this couple were, of course, members of the royal family. In the aftermath of last year's riots, it was decided that Charles and Camilla were needed to travel to the capital to show some sympathy for those who had lost everything. Rather than thinking it would make better sense to go first class by train and perhaps delay the feel your pain tour for a day, with the money saved going to a fund for the victims, they of course jumped straight on a plane. Today the Graun reports that thousands of claims for compensation following the riots have been rejected, while one couple whose flat was destroyed by fire received less than £2,000 in damages.

£19,583 is, it must be said, relatively cheap when set against the £67,215 expense of chartering a jet to fly Big Ears to Saudi Arabia to commiserate with the lovely ruling clique there on a death in the family. The Duke of Gloucester meanwhile went on a similar jaunt to Tonga, costing an incredible £91,381, while Edward and Sophie went to the human rights paradise Bahrain, a snip at a mere £18,068. Overall, £6.1m went on ferrying the royals about the place in the style to which they've become accustomed.

We have to keep in mind, you see, that as individuals we only pay 52p each a year for the entire shower, a sum which will now barely get you a Mars bar from the local corner shop. Frankly I'd rather have the chocolate but we have to accept that for some strange reason that the first people to be famous simply because they're famous are incredibly popular. Who cares if all they do is wander around, shake hands with the occasional unpleasant person and then go back to being waited on for the rest of the day? £19,583 is clearly a small price to pay for the effect that Chaz 'n' Cams must have had on those they visited, even if Haringey isn't exactly what you'd call a hotbed of royalism.

Why then should be we worry about little things like how that £19,583 could have paid for a whole year's worth of Jobseeker's Allowance for 5 people unable to find work? Quite clearly we shouldn't because, to judge by the number of sanction referrals coming from those companies contracted to provide the Work programme, most of those on the benefit are workshy ingrates who need some very tough love to get them back into the jobs market. Collectively, they asked the Jobcentre to sanction claimants on 111,000 occasions, with the advisers agreeing with their decisions less than a third of the time. Sanctions vary from benefit being cut to being stopped all together, for periods ranging from a week up to six months. As Richard Whittell from Corporate Watch put it, at the current rate more will have lost their benefit through the Work programme than been employed through it.

This it seems is the new reality of the welfare state under the coalition. Where Labour brought in the Work Capability Assessment, administered by Atos, currently inflicting misery on thousands of the disabled and sick who are being told they are in fact fit for work, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have turned their attention to punishing the unemployed despite there not being enough jobs to go round, or the economic growth needed for the Work programme to operate with even the slightest chance of success. It doesn't matter that this is self-defeating, as shown by how a small percentage of those placed on Mandatory Work Activity ended up on Employment and Support Allowance as an apparent result of being forced to work for their meagre £71.00 a week, it goes down well with the hard pressed that do have jobs. An ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph found that an overwhelming 56% thought the benefit system was too generous as it stands, with only 12% saying it should be more generous, and 24% thinking it was about right. 48% said that JSA should be time-limited, with 36% disagreeing. There were more even splits on some of the other specific policies David Cameron set out in his speech last Monday, but nothing that will make the Tories think again about trying to ram through such changes.

For as John Harris sets out, to be on benefits at the moment is an incredibly lonely place. About the only support you're likely to receive is from the unions, as politicians of all hues are terrified of being seen as soft on scroungers. The Labour party, rather than directly opposing the abolition of housing benefit for the under 25s, instead concentrates on criticising the administration, rather than the changes in criteria, seeing this as a "safe" area where it won't face the opprobrium of the Daily Mail. Those on the Labour benches who have previously spoken out, such as Emily Thornberry, brought up on a council estate by a single mother reliant on benefits, have gone silent. Individual MPs, whose constituency caseloads must be overflowing with the fallout from those told they no longer qualify for ESA, are also being slow to admit how many people the system is currently failing.

As the largesse thrown towards not just the royals but also the Olympics shows, the idea that there's no money left or that we can no longer afford an "unreformed" welfare state is a nonsense. It comes down to a choice of how we want our society to look like, as David Cameron acknowledged last week. When we can subsidise the chartering of jets by our social betters to foreign climes simply because another royal in a far away land has died, or pay the likes of A4E the equivalent of £11,000 for every person they manage to get in work, then we must be able to provide people with living standards that ensure they don't have to rely on food banks. My fear is the same as John Harris's and that of the police: that rather than improving, things have only got worse since last year's riots. The exclusion some are going to feel when Olympics fever is shoved down their throats is hardly going to help, and with the police liable to being even more trigger happy than usual while the greatest show on earth is on, it's hard not to see the potential for a situation similar to the one in the aftermath of the shooting of Mark Duggan arising again. And if it does happen, they can't say this time that they haven't been warned.

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