Great word, isn’t it? And so many of them around, too. I mean, we all know one or two ourselves, don’t we? Don’t we?

So, where to start with all this stuff…Mr Byrne and Mr Miliband seem but the latest to come out swinging at all these parasites.

Problem is, like almost everyone else, the rhetoric and the thinking are all pointing the wrong way.

To see it another way, think of a few different…lines.

Imagine a line of people with the most ardent hardliner on “scrounger culture” at one end of it. He (just a wild guess, but it’s probably a he) will maintain that if you can’t support yourself, and have no family or handy charity who’ll help you out, then you shouldn’t exist. Harsh, but life is harsh…etc. etc. Under no circumstance should the state try to do so, given it will be funded by compulsory subscription from everyone else. It’s not their problem, is it?

At the other end of the same line is the biggest bleeding heart do-gooder you could possible think of. Great at writing cheques on other people’s bank accounts, especially if their money is channelled by a faceless intermediary in the shape of a paternalistic state. Who cares about a few “false positives” in terms of the needy being supported? Better that ten doubtful cases are helped than that one genuine person starves.

These are caricatures, of course. But we’re all on that line somewhere. Even if we’re not exactly sure where. Or change position over time, or according to the individual case we’re looking at. We’re all on it. The line of the judgers.

Imagine a second line, the line of the judged. This one has the genuine case at one end, and the complete liar at the other. We know the two extremes when we see them, of course. Because they’re extremes. And many of us think, from a distance, that we have a pretty good idea of where on the line we can draw that “magic” point: to one side, you’re deserving, to the other, you’re a scrounger.

A few problems creep in immediately: where you draw it can be based as much upon where you stand on the line of the judgers as where they stand on the line of the judged. And can you be a judger and judged at the same time? (Erm, yes.) Are you really judging circumstance, or character? Plight, or background? (I still wince when I remember that phrase from the old advertisements: “distressed gentlefolk”…)

But the real problem is that these lines aren’t lines in any geometric sense. The nice purity of division and classification falls apart like a cheap suit under any sort of scrutiny.

Think of the coastline. Yes, another line. Isn’t it? It’s obvious where it lies. One side land, the other sea. Now look more closely. Still sure about that? Still confident that you can draw, with perfect accuracy, a boundary between the two? One that doesn’t shift faster than you can study it? One in which every crevice, nook, cell and grain can be defined as being on one side or the other?

Of course you can’t. The coastline is a great theory, but a poor reality. It only exists at a distance, rather like our dividing line of the deserving from the undeserving.

No, like the coastline, both the judgers and the judged are fractals: the closer you look, the more complexity you see. And it seems to me that the national debate here totally overlooks what’s really at issue: these questions of judgement. It’s just infantile to keep on throwing around vague concepts like “a horde of scroungers”–because we find, time and time again, that when you look at the individual cases there are no easy judgements–if indeed you can be confident of a sound judgement at all.

Nobody at all, really, wants to reward the feckless. Or cause the needy to suffer, given that overall, we have resources to help them.

What we all want, surely, is accurate judgement.

And at this point, a problem creeps in. Our line of judgers is not symmetrical in its appetite for the dispensation of “fair” judgement. At its right-hand extreme, this looks like a further grotesque waste of resources, as only the state (or its agents) is really in a position to assess. And any effort by the state is itself a needless drain on everyone as a whole (they’d say). Whilst the inhabitants of the left-hand end would be happier to put more resource into fair assessment, and if savings had to be made, trimming the thresholds of entitlement. Not symmetrical.

So we see funny little tunes being played: we delegate assessment to the ATOSes of this world–close enough to the state to do the dirty work, but far enough away to take the drop if it all goes horribly wrong. We see campaigns for “class action” to entitle a whole group without the need for individual scrutiny. We get caught between facile statements like “ministers believe as many as one in four people claiming sickness benefit will be judged to be fit to work” and safety nets like the human rights legislation that we’ve fought to secure. Debates, clashes, contradictions.

Reality. A reality which will not be helped by any politician claiming to be able to stand at a distance from a line of people and to know where their worthiness lies.

So. Of course we love certainty. We like stories with endings. Some would rather have a few hundred deaths from malnutrition than all this pansying about trying to get it “right”.

I’m not one of them. I want to see a commitment from my leaders, not to more macho statements of generalisation, but to funded, forensic, detailed judgement. To the effective and sensible use of technology (in the right places) in supporting that judgement. To a separation of the person from the situation. To a more considered balance between individual rights and responsibilities. To an acknowledgement of the power of culture to make an impact here.

We don’t need any more of this “scrounger” crap. It’s divisive, demonising, and it gets us absolutely nowhere. And even worse than that, it distracts attention from any real effort on reviewing how we make these vital judgements.

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8 Responses

  1. frances says:

    Very interesting analysis. Can I tempt you in to considering one of the little eddies up a creek in the coast line somewhere.

    You are long term sick or disabled or a 24/7 carer – you have a situation that is expected to get worse and where stress makes it a lot worse.

    You have your own line – a line all for you. It goes from your best days when you feel at your best to your worst days which you don’t want to think about.

    The DWP drag you in for testing – employers will ask you about your worst days. Which end of your own line are you standing as they interrogate you.

    At some point I say that this bullying cannot be done in my name. What happened to compassion and duty of care. If you have a serious mental illness the stress of the testing and the judging could be enough to have you back in a mental hospital. If they cut you off benefits you fear will end up in prison or on the street again.

    Can other people who have not walked in their shoes judge these people. People with long term sickness and disability need a less judgemental approach – because it could be any one tomorrow -Mr Hardman at the judgemental end of the line could fall sick tomorrow – and because if you live life pushing yourself up and down your own line you are the person best placed to judge.

    See and sign Pat’s petition at –

  2. Gordon Rae says:

    On the contrary, I think ‘divisive’ is probsbly the quality that we do need. (I realise that the word ‘divisive’ is supposed to push my “I mustn’t agree with that” buttons; the positive word would be ‘discernment’.) The benefits system is largely about fairness, in one form or another, and the only way state intervention can deliver fairness is by treating people differently.

    At the moment the politicians are talking about the ‘scroungers’ and promising that the benefits syystem would work much better if only something could be done about them. But they have very little to say about the people who need and deserbe and benefit from support, the people whom the government’s filtrs should allow through.

    A few months ago, a close friend of mine had their benefits stopped. Whoopee, DWP saves at least a hundred quid a week! Except my friend was on a rehabilitation programme funded by another govermnent department. So three professionals had to take time writing letters to support my friend’s appeal. And then another part of the clunking bureaucracy had to ‘process’ the appeal, and a JP and a doctor had to reassess the evidence (and the report that the DWP had hired an external doctor to produce), and after spending many thousands of pounds to join all the evidence together, it was affirmed that my friend had been apropriately all along.

    And here is a scandal which the politicians don’t want to tackle, an elephant in the room which your analysis appears to have overlooked. the DWP is an almighty clunking bureaucracy which exists to implement the government’s policies on fairness by assigning people to the right categories. If we take the politcians’ rhetoric seriously, the real problem is that theelephantine bureaucracy finds it very difficult to tell a good ‘un from a bad ‘un.

  3. geri neale says:

    oh yes, absolutely. very well said. its so easy to make these announcements when your not looking the person in the eye that you are denying their entitled benefits. I want to see these politicians – and SHAME on the labour ones for joining in like this – go up to the person being assessed and have the guts to stand by a ‘decision’ not to approve a claim.

    thats a whole damn lot harder than speeches and articles in a biased press you know

  4. Sarah May says:

    The whole notion of scroungers rests on a view of humanity that says we all want something for nothing but we (the deserving) have learned that this is socially unacceptable. So we need to teach the same lesson to the scroungers by denying them support.

    As an anthropologist and archaeologist my understanding is that people thrive on work, challenge and contributing. Which is why every society does much more than they need to and create all sorts of wonderful uneccessary things like stories, beautiful buildings and horrible unecessary things like heirarchies and war. People basically like to be busy.

    Some people have been cut off from the possiblity of productive work either for medical or social reasons. They need to be supported both in terms of feeding and clothing themselves etc and in seeing that it will be possible to contribute again. But that is about supporting, not about pushing, or about judging.

  5. “I want to see a commitment from my leaders, not to more macho statements of generalisation, but to funded, forensic, detailed judgement.”

    I would totally subscribe to this, but I have no hope about this coming to our reality.

    Electoral politics (I would say “party”, but in a FPTP system this is not necessarily true) is about being divisive, about creating polarisation about issues, problems, people.

    I can’t think any of our major politicians any time soon embracing “forensic, detailed judgement” as their main way of doing politics: they much prefer slogan-based politics. Slogan gets them polarisation and attention. They are a replacement for people’s minds: simplified thinking, in a way, that most people enjoy because it takes their problems away.

    It’s much better to think of a horde of scroungers rather than surgically analysing who are they, where they come from, and if there is objective exploitation of the benefit system.

    However, posts like this give me hope that there are people around thinking in the right way. We have a long path of “educating” others, and by that mean waking them up.

    I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again: I’d like to see people with such ideas considering getting involved in politics.
    After all, thanks for writing this.

  6. ThinkingFox says:

    Great post Paul.

    From what I’ve seen, the State starts from a position of assuming that everyone trying to claim anything is at best a scrounger and at worst an out and out fraudster.

    From there they create hoops and obstacles, dressed up as “process”, to thwart even the most intelligent amongst us, and all seemingly designed to prevent people from claiming some or all of what they could be entitled to… (or as I like to phrase it “what they need to survive and get back on their feet”)

    It’s a pervasive culture from the way the government websites are designed and laid out, through each and every form and leaflet, all the way down to the lowliest employee of each Job Centre or Council Office.

    The State… is like a bank… is like an umbrella shop. Happy to take your money on a sunny day. Bloody difficult at the first sign of clouds.

  7. […] Scroungers – honestlyrealThink of the coastline. Yes, another line. Isn’t it? It’s obvious where it lies. One side land, the other sea. Now look more closely. Still sure about that? Still confident that you can draw, with perfect accuracy, a boundary between the two? One that doesn’t shift faster than you can study it? One in which every crevice, nook, cell and grain can be defined as being on one side or the other. Of course you can’t. The coastline is a great theory, but a poor reality. […]

  8. JJ says:

    A needlessly long winded description of a situation saying what we all know, followed by the amazing and ground breaking conclusion ‘I want things to be better’ without offering any new ideas.

    Erm. Right, there’s 5 minutes of my life I won’t be getting back.

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