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Thursday, May 30, 2013 

Exactly as they intended.

There is some news that simply isn't welcome.  If you want to read the full, gory details about the shocking murder of a child by a stranger, then you're spoilt for choice.  We don't know what Mark Bridger did with the body of April Jones, but we can read the full spectrum of gruesome speculation from the police, who don't believe his almost confession to a priest in prison that he left it in the swollen river Dyfi.  That might make their extraordinary 7-month long unsuccessful search for April's remains look questionable.

If on the other hand you'd like to know that we've now reached the point at which 500,000 people have used food banks over the past year, then there's far fewer places where you can do so.  Sure, it made the front page of the Independent, the Graun covers it on its second page, and the BBC news website has a "feature" on the report by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam, if not an actual piece on its front page, but elsewhere you'll look in vain.  There's no mention of it on the Telegraph website's front page, nor on the Mail's.  The Mail does by contrast have space for a story on the "jobless mother of 4" who "screamed racist abuse at her OWN children", the truly important news that Nick Clegg has put on weight, and a report on a "lesbian benefit cheat", all clearly far more relevant to the average Mail reader's interests.

Easily forgotten is that just a few years ago there was much discussion and worry at the report by Unicef that the UK came bottom of a league table measuring child wellbeing, below even the United States.  It was about the same time as the number of shootings carried out by teenagers in London seemed to be spiralling, and both issues were woven together to criticise Labour, justifiably enough on the former issue.  And now?  A big fat nothing from the right-leaning press.

Certainly, we can question some of the conclusions of the Walking the Breadline report.  The benefit cap is still being trialled and the "bedroom tax" has only just been introduced, so neither can be blamed as yet.  Inflation also needs to be taken into account: food prices have risen by 35% in 5 years, and are likely to increase further following the harsh winter and late spring.  It's also rather facile to home in purely on tax avoidance, or "tax dodging" as the report refers to it, as something that can be easily cracked down upon.

Their wider point though remains.  It is unquestionable that this government's policies, both directly through cuts to welfare and indirectly through wider austerity have increased the number of people who are having to rely on handouts from charities.  Also unquestionable is that the increased use of sanctions, whether down to league tables and pressure on Jobcentre Plus workers or not, is having an effect, as has the abolition of crisis loans.

Moreover, things are likely to get worse, both with the full rolling out of the benefit cap and then the introduction of universal credit, which could yet make other government IT failings look benign by comparison.  Something else that has received no attention other than in the latest Private Eye is the slipped out research from the DWP on the changes to housing benefit which came into effect in 2011: rather than landlords bringing down rents as the government claimed the cap would, the burden has predictably fallen on tenants.  Meanwhile, house prices are once again increasing, the average cost in London having reached £500,000.  The gap between the comfortably off and those struggling looks increasingly like a chasm.

The quandary is whether or not this increase of those in such desperate need will be tolerated, and the sad answer is most likely that it will.  We've moved from being a society where sympathy for those without work rises during recessions to one where the opposite is now the case.  We hear from a former senior doctor at ATOS, the firm that carries out the government's reassessments of those on sickness benefits of the pressure they are under to declare people fit for work, from those administering the work programme of people referred to them who should clearly be on ESA rather than JSA, and yet all the while these stories of the harsh reality of welfare reform are shouted down by the reports of those few caught cheating the system, or the striver vs scrounger rhetoric that the government reached for at the start of the year.  We see and hear all about the outrage of the European Commission taking the UK to court over restrictions on payments to those from other EU countries who have worked here and should be entitled to benefits and have instead been refused, but not that 500,000 people have taken the drastic step of having to rely on the charity of others to eat.  The answer to John Harris's question of what sort of country are we becoming seems to be: the one that most people want.

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