I like this idea, but i don’t think we will be seeing a UK version anytime soon.
In France it could soon be illegal to discriminate against people in poverty. Under proposed legislation – already approved by the senate and likely to be passed by the chamber of deputies – it would be an offence in France to “insult the poor” or to refuse them jobs, healthcare or housing.
Similar laws banning discrimination on the grounds of social and economic origin already exist in Belgium and Bolivia, but the French version is said to be the most far-reaching. Anyone found guilty of discrimination against those suffering from “vulnerability resulting from an apparent or known economic situation” would face a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a fine of €45,000 (£32,000).
It is easy to judge the proposed French law as showing the worst excesses of the state, or to bemoan the practicalities of how difficult it could be to implement. But most of us are content to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, or sex. Is it so ridiculous to add poverty to that list? And if it does feel ridiculous, why is that?
Whether it’s the discrimination of people in poverty or how government should respond to it, this is not a problem just for other countries. “People think that because we are poor, we must be stupid,” Oréane Chapelle, an unemployed 31-year-old from Nancy, eastern France, told Le Nouvel Observateur. Micheline Adobati, 58, her neighbour, who is a single mother with no job and five children, said: “I can’t stand social workers who tell me that they’re going to teach me how to have a weekly budget.” One study reported by The Times found that 9% of GPs, 32% of dentists and 33% of opticians in Paris refused to treat benefit claimants who lacked private medical insurance. Doctors say they are “reluctant to take on such patients for fear that they will not get paid”.
Does any of this sound familiar? These are attitudes – and even outright discrimination – that have been growing in Britain for some time. You can hear it in stories about local authorities monitoring how much people drink or smoke before awarding emergency housing payments. Or when politicians respond to a national food bank crisis by saying the poor are going hungry because they don’t know how to cook. It is there in the fact that it’s now all too common for landlords to refuse to rent flats to people on benefits. Britain is front and centre of its own discrimination of the poor – whether that’s low-income workers, benefit claimants, or the recurring myth that these are two separate species.
Economic inequality cannot survive without cultural prejudice. The media and political rhetoric surrounding the new round of cuts – from the benefit cap to child tax credits – shows this well enough. Benefit claimants “slouch” on handouts as hardworking taxpayers toil away to pay for them. Families on benefits should reproduce – or “breed” – as little as possible. Benefit sanctions – a system in such dire straits that Iain Duncan Smith’s own advisers have warned that it needs to be reviewed – are based on the very premise that the feckless poor need an incentive to get themselves out of poverty.
It is reflective of the success of the demonisation of people on low incomes or benefits that discrimination against these people could be seen as less damning than when it happens to other groups. Equally, to believe that “the poor” do not deserve protection from such prejudice buys into the myth favoured by our own government: poverty is a personal choice that the individual deserves to be punished for.
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