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Wednesday 25 March 2009

The workers and the welfare state

We don't suppose there's anyone in the country today who doesn't know who the Chawners are. We particularly appreciated a thought-provoking article in the Times last week by Alice Thomson ...

Be afraid, be very afraid ...

Michael's alarm still goes at 5am every morning, by 7am he has cleaned his Notting Hill house, at 8am the children have a three-course breakfast and by 9 he has walked them to school and is sitting at his desk sending out his CV. Six weeks after he lost his job at Goldman Sachs, he still works a 14-hour day. He now waits tables at his favourite restaurant, sweeps the leaves from the communal garden tennis court and helps the neighbours' Filipina housekeeper to clear the drains.

Paul Bright, a factory manager for a paper doily factory in Essex who has also been made redundant, has the same drive. At 60, he could retire. “All I want to do is work again,” he says. “I am like a smoker who doesn't know what to do with his hands once he's quit. I need to feel useful.”

The Chawners wouldn't understand. Mr and Mrs Chawner and their two daughters insist that they are “too fat to work” because they have a combined weight of 83 stone - so they watch television all day living off their £22,000 benefits. In the past 11 years, only the youngest daughter, Emma, has attended a job interview and that was on The X Factor, where she was kicked out in the first round. Mr Chawner explains: “Often I'm so tired from watching TV I have to have a nap. I certainly couldn't work. I deserve more.”

These are Britain's two nations. Not those born abroad and those born here, not black or white, rich or poor, men or women, North or South, public or private sector. But those who belong to the world of work and those who are alienated from it, living off the taxes from other people's earnings.

In the past ten years a chasm has opened up between the workaholics and the quaintly named “work-shy”. Labour still isn't working, claims a revised version of the classic Tory poster, as unemployment passes two million. In fact, nearly eight million people of working age in Britain have been “economically inactive” for the past few years. More than 2.5 million of them are on incapacity benefit - of these 2,130 people are too “fat” to work; 1,100 can't work because they have trouble getting to sleep; 4,000 get headaches; 380 are confined to the sofa by haemorrhoids; 3,000 are kept at home by gout; and half a million are too depressed to get a job. According to Dame Carol Black, the National Director of Health and Work, one child in five now comes from a family where neither parent works, yet at the end of last year there were half a million job vacancies.

The BNP's message over the past decade has been loud and clear - your job is being stolen by the Somali next door. But it's just not true. The Somali and the Romanian, Chinese and Ukrainian are doing jobs that many British won't now contemplate. The majority of migrants to Britain - more than 80 per cent - are earning less than £25,000 a year in industries that have become unpopular for British people to work in.

That is why immigration in Britain rose by 2.5 million in the past decade and why English is now a second language for one in seven pupils in primary school. Immigrants have kept Britain working. It is also why the Tories couldn't turn immigration into a vote-winner in the past two elections. People recognised that we needed the Chinese to pick our strawberries, the Czechs to blow our children's noses, the Pakistanis to sweep our hospitals, the Afghans to drive our minicabs, the Australians to pull our pints and the Poles to put up the scaffolding.

Only last year £13 million of British fruit and vegetables went unpicked because farmers couldn't find enough British labour to harvest their crops, forcing the Government to raise the quota for migrants under the seasonal agricultural workers' scheme. As one man outside a Jobcentre Plus in Peterborough explained: “I'd prefer to sign on than do that. I don't want to work in no cornfield for £25,000 a year.”

Now, however, everything has changed. The new unemployed aren't those who don't want to work, they are the committed, driven employees who are horrified at the thought of no longer being able to commute into the office. They are the 3,000 people who are prepared to queue for 150 part-time jobs at Twycross Zoo in the Midlands and who bitterly resent having to sign on.

These are the unemployed who keep Gordon Brown awake at night. The millions of British citizens who are already economically inactive will be eternally grateful to the former Chancellor for having provided them with such generous pocket money, but those now joining the unemployment statistics won't be bought off so easily.

They are the newly unemployed dry cleaners in Didcot and Devon, the estate agents in Christchurch and Cornwall, the factory-floor managers in Swindon and Staffordshire and building contractors in Brighton and Bedfordshire - people who won't vote Labour again if they can no longer pay their mortgages and don't appreciate being forced to watch flat-screen TVs all day.

The Government's response has been to blame the immigrants who helped Britain for so long. Only this week Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, brought up Sangatte again. Yesterday, as the unemployment figures were released, Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities, suddenly announced a new migrant tax of £50 on overseas workers coming from outside the EU to pay for their public services.

But the answer doesn't lie in supertaxing the migrants, cordoning off the white cliffs of Dover or forcing Ethiopians on to planes at gunpoint. Like drugs, immigrants will find a way into this country if the demand exists. They may be putting a strain on the NHS but many services wouldn't exist without them. In 2008, 14.7 per cent of health and social care workers were migrants.

Attacking immigrants and talking about British jobs for British workers won't help anyone but the BNP. What is required now is the courage to push ahead with welfare reform despite the recession, and close the only gap that matters - between the active and the idle. Michael and Paul will find a job in the end, it's part of their DNA. Tackling the Chawners is the real challenge.

Of course this isn't the first time the Chawners have hit the headlines. Their younger daughter Emma took part in X-Factor (twice) and was swiftly booted out by judge Simon Cowell who, even if he is one of our most-hated celebrities, is no fool. Watch a film-clip here (if you must).

And the family made themselves so unpopular with their neighbours that last October they were evicted from their council house.

They don't seem to be disposed to make much of an effort for themselves. "We have cereal for breakfast, bacon butties for lunch and microwave pies with mashed potato or chips for dinner," Mrs Chawner told Closer magazine. "All that healthy food, like fruit and veg, is too expensive. We're fat because it's in our genes. Our whole family is overweight. We all love nibbling on biscuits. I once bought some pears, but they tasted funny".

They've become expert at playing the victim card. "I’m a student and don’t have time to exercise," Emma said. "We all want to lose weight to stop the abuse we get in the street, but we don’t know how."

Awful though this family is, and penetrating though Alice Thomson's article is, we'd like to suggest another scenario. We think the Chawners are just stupid.

They're so dim that they have completely swallowed the modern media's philosophy that all that matters in life is celebrity, that success doesn't have to be worked for, that all you need is a little luck and you'll be catapulted to fame and fortune, and that the fact that you "really, really want it" means you must be entitled to it. Most of us know this garbage for what it is, but to the Chawners it's real.

And they're so dim that they accept without question the modern left-wing belief in a benefits system that sprays money in all directions (unless, that is, you're an elderly invalid who has the misfortune to own a house, or a child whose parents are invalids and need caring for all the time).

They're so dim that it never occurs to them that while they and others like them live comfortably off the state, the rest of us are paying through the nose to fund their lardbucket lifestyle. It never occurs to them that the big white thing in the kitchen can do a whole lot more than just heat up supermarket pies and oven chips, or that millions of other people quite happily eat pears that "taste funny" so it might just be worthwhile persevering.

And they've bought in wholeheartedly to the modern craze for victimhood: if you're fat it's someone else's fault and you're the victim. If people shout at you in the street or snigger behind your back it's their fault and you're the victim. If nobody'll recognise your talent and give you a lucrative record contract, it's their fault and you're being victimised. If your shouting and caterwauling in the small hours of the night annoys your neighbours so they complain to the council, it's so unfair and you're the victim.

And they won't ever change, because in order to change you have to understand what the problem is. And the Chawners won't ever know what the problem is, because they're too thick.

Mind you, this is just a theory. We could be entirely wrong. Maybe they know exactly what they're doing. Maybe they've worked out what the system is and how to exploit it.

Maybe they're just having a laugh, and the laugh's on us.

Either way, it's possible that the Chawners are the face of the future, and that's very scary indeed. It makes you view Polish immigrants in a different light, doesn't it? When did you last see a fat Polish person?

We really are going to hell in a handcart. Why have I spent the last 43 years working to support these wankers? Have they no ounce of shame? Afraid not, they are the core labour voters, that is if they can get off that fat arses to waddle to the polling station.