By Chris Clements
MUM-of-two, Sarah-Jane, 34, runs a Glasgow health and fitness spa and enjoys the nice lifestyle she has worked hard for, but remains proud of her roots.
AWARD-winning entrepreneur Sarah-Jane Walls enjoys a luxurious lifestyle, but says she needed the benefits system to be able to escape the poverty trap.
I’M not old enough to remember it, but there must have been a time when we were proud of our welfare state.
Back then, it stood for a nation’s shared pursuit of compassion and fairness.
That pride has gone. These days, when you hear the word “benefits”, you’re likely to hear the words “scroungers”, “cheats” and “fraudsters” too.
Britain’s perception of our social safety net has been bent grotesquely out of shape – largely by a vicious right-wing media and a ruthless Westminster Government.
Attitudes range from suspicion to contempt.
So think about this.
The Department for Work and Pensions estimate that benefit fraud costs £1.5billion a year. Granted, that’s a lot of money.
But set it against the £200billion spent on social security last year, and do the sums. Fraud accounted for 0.75 per cent of the total.
Even those who think social security is an unnecessary evil – and there are plenty of them – should surely admit that all the noise and fury about benefit fraud is wildly over the top.
But all those who rely on welfare are indiscriminately tarred with the same brush.
I grew up in a benefits family. I was born into a poverty trap. And without welfare, I would never have escaped it.
Of course, hundreds of thousands of people who depend on benefits have been unable to get out. They are often hindered and frustrated by a heavily bureaucratic, unfeeling system.
But although those who brandish the tar brush will find it hard to believe, there are many others who, like me, have found benefits to be both a lifeline and a ladder.
We have a more prosperous and self-reliant future thanks to welfare, but those who despise all claimants want to stigmatise us. I refuse to accept that.
I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s on the Fairhill estate in Hamilton. There was nothing “fair” about it. People wanted to work but our industries had been taken away, so being “on the social” was common.
Unlike many Fairhill men, my father always had a job. He made a decent living as a painter and decorator.
But he spent much of his wages on alcohol, which fuelled domestic violence.
When he eventually walked out, my two siblings and I had to look after each other as well as a mum made ill by his abuse.
We were robbed of large parts of our childhood and we had to grow up very quickly. If it hadn’t been for my maternal grandmother, who lived five minutes away, I’m certain we’d have ended up in care.
Throughout those years, we relied on welfare support and the disability living allowance my mum still gets.
Far from being ashamed, I’ll always be grateful. It gave me the chance to stand on my own feet.
I left school at 17 with three highers and went on to do an HND in hotel and catering management and study health and fitness. The state paid for all my education and supported me with benefits throughout.
Today, my husband and I have two gorgeous daughters, a nice home and a good business. Our house near Cumbernauld isn’t all that many miles from Fairhill, but it could be a world away.
We work to make sure we’ll always be able to support our children. But if things were different, as they are for so many families, and I needed benefits to care for them, I’d be petrified.
I feel rising anger at the Coalition’s assault on welfare and those who depend on it. What kind of Government callously and wilfully punishes the most vulnerable?
They are cutting benefits at a time when the gap between the richest and poorest keeps widening, when billions are being spent on weapons of mass destruction, and when even working families have to rely on charity to feed their children.
What kind of Government does all that, while allowing and promoting the scandalous lie that welfare dependants are a threat to society?
The UK Government’s latest wheeze, the bedroom tax which threatens 600,000 Scots, shows how low they can sink.
Britain spends more than £22billion on housing benefit. The tax is meant to save half a billion.
No one would argue that the housing benefit bill is sky high, but it’s nothing to do with “scroungers” for “fraud”.
It’s because jobs are scarce (in some places, non-existent), wages are too low, and private rents are too high after years of under-investment in housing.
Just as an example, let’s add one more ingredient to this toxic mix – the cost of child care which often makes it impossible for parents to return to work.
Now, isn’t it clear that welfare is not a choice, but a necessity?
When I hear Westminster politicians talk about everyone having to pay their fair share to help the economy recover, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The UK is now the fourth most unequal country in the developed world. Yet, according to an analysis of figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Scotland could be one of the most prosperous nations in the West.
That is a powerful reason why I support independence.
For me, it has nothing to do with breaking anything up. Westminster is already broken.
It has everything to do with the chance to build something – a country which matches our values, and a Scottish welfare state to make us proud again.
Sarah Jane is a member of the advisory board of Yes Scotland, the organisation leading the campaign for a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum.
Disabled James was given a Christmas benefits bonus of £10 in February
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