As yesterday's post on Vodafone's teeny-weeny tax dodge shows, the coalition government's actions and attitude fly in the face of their claims about "fairness". At the coalition's inception, David Cameron said: "I want to make sure that my government always looks after the elderly, the frail, the poorest in our country." But the Vodafone scandal suggests otherwise.
It's curiously absent from national papers you'd expect to go large on it. Private Eye has a detailed explanation of what's happened, and the Daily Mail has also covered it (scroll down the page). But yesterday the Guardian's frontpage carried a story about how the Lib Dems have been given the green light to clamp down on tax evasion and while there's a story about Vodafone in today's Observer, it doesn't mention the issue of the tax bill. You might expect the Independent to be all over it, but a search on their website (haven't managed to leave the house yet today) turns up nothing.
According to the Guardian piece, a clampdown on tax avoidance among the super rich is being announced at the Liberal Democrats conference as part of a drive to show they remain committed to fairness. Danny Alexander is quoted as saying it's important to "make sure that everyone meets their obligation to pay tax".
But what does all this have to do with Where's the Benefit's remit, aside from the fact that the £6bn Vodafone isn't paying is greater than the £4bn of cuts George Osborne wants to make to the UK's welfare bill? Answer: it's the starkest proof yet that the coalition's talk about fairness and looking after those who need it is just that. Talk. In the Guardian article linked above, Danny Alexander is quoted as saying he "will not take a lecture on fairness from Labour".
Should anyone be taking a lecture on fairness from a coalition government that wants to cut the Disability Living Allowance caseload and expenditure by 20% despite the DLA fraud level being 0.5%; that repeatedly and spitefully misdescribes DLA as an out-of-work benefit; that wants credit reference agencies to snoop on disabled people; that is doing its best to convince the public that benefits are handed out like sweeties, more financially lucrative than working and a lifestyle choice; and whose party line is to assume that the increase in take-up of, say, DLA means it's "not reaching the right people" (as Steve Webb told me when I interviewed him for a piece in Disability Now, despite the stringent assessments involved and the fact that increased take-up may be down to increased awareness); a government that tells us we need to tighten our belts and accept deep cuts; and then lets Vodafone out of paying £6 billion in tax.
Anyone whose own political leanings were already unsympathetic to the Tories might have expected all of this: sympathy for big business, not poor people. Attacks on the "benefits culture" the coalition likes to talk about (forget the recession, or employers' attitudes to disability - clearly anyone not working is out of work because they can't stop watching the flatscreen TV the taxpayer bought for them). Decimation of vital public services. But did anyone expect there to be such a stark contrast between the talk and the walk? How much sheer Chutzpah is needed to claim that you are committed to fairness when your actions suggest anything but?
Ever since the coalition started its war on disabled benefits claimants, it has been putting everything down to money. We're told that we need cuts. Labour cleaned out the coffers and left the Conservatives a mess - a claim many people are happy to swallow, without stopping to think about the fact that the old and new governments like to take pot shots at each other and the new one spends a little too much time whining about how Labour smells and implying they would somehow have done a better job, a convenient claim to make as nobody will ever be able to test it out. When I spoke to Steve Webb, he told me that if the government had a choice, of course they wouldn't cut disability benefits, it's just that they have to. It's all down to money, apparently.
If it's all down to money, how can they afford to let Vodafone off this tax bill - yet they can't afford to not stigmatise and persecute disabled people?
If it's all down to money, why are they being the least lenient to the most vulnerable people in society?
There are two possible answers here. Either it is all down to money, but - for whatever reason - the government is not pressurising HMRC to collect the tax Vodafone owes and is, for whatever reason, happy with their decision. Maybe it's to do with job creation. Maybe it's because, if anyone's going to be given a hard time over money, the government would rather that happened to disabled people, not big business.
Or maybe it's not down to money at all, which is a far more frightening thought. The coalition government is selling its cuts to the public on the basis that they are supposedly absolutely necessary, helped along by plenty of nasty, spiteful pieces in the likes of the Daily Mail to convince the public that people on benefits are all feckless frauds, thus allowing people to absolve themselves of any guilt or worry about the cuts, because they're repeatedly encouraged to think they're necessary for reasons other than money. That what the coalition is doing is morally correct and necessary. That fairness and attacking disabled people are one and the same thing.
Whether or not the Vodafone scandal slips by unnoticed, one thing is very clear: the coalition's war on disabled people is about more than just money. And that is truly terrifying.