Merryn's Blog

A classic example of the entitlement driven welfare state

Many Britons have become obsessed about their 'entitlements'. But these demands are piling further burdens on our already overstretched welfare system. And they're making state spending cutbacks harder.

A few weeks ago, I referred to the "entitlement driven welfare state" in my editor's letter. A reader took offence (you lot do this quite a lot). The idea that there is a sense of entitlement amongst the general population was he said "tiresome" and "trite" political nonsense. Is it? I wondered a little.

Then I got in a Twitter row with someone over the price of gluten free bread. You might remember a story a few months ago about how the average loaf of gluten free bread doled out on prescription to sufferers of coeliac disease (who can't eat gluten) costs the taxpayer £32. This turned out not to be the case. The £32 referred not to the cost per loaf but the cost per prescription which usually includes 10-11 loaves of bread. This still makes the cost of the loaves higher than they should be but not insanely so.

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However, the real question raised by this to my mind was why on earth are we paying for coeliacs to have special bread in the first place? I tweeted this. My coeliac critic said I didn't get it. He needed the free bread "to help afford life." The prescription he said "takes a financial burden from the cost of living." Really? Not only is gluten free bread not that much more expensive than other bread (about £2.25 vs £1.30) but it isn't actually necessary.

Gluten free food is generally pretty disgusting. The thing that makes bread rise (and therefore be nice to eat) is gluten. Bread made without it tends to be very heavily processed and have an insanely high gylcemic index(some breads have a higher GI than a can of coke). Eat too much of this kind of stuff and a careless coeliac can easily find himself adding Type 2 diabetes to his other woes. That doesn't seem to me to be the kind of business the NHS should be out touting for, particularly given that their own statistics suggest that one in a hundred people could have coeliac disease. It is also perfectly possible to live without gluten based grains or indeed, bread. Why can't coeliacs after carbs eat rice or potatoes? What about cornbread or corn cakes? Quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth?

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Finally, a great many medical conditions require special diets and the NHS doesn't cover them. Do diabetics get free sugar free food? No. My critic wasn't having this. Coeliacs he said "shouldn't be ashamed to receive help when it is offered." If it is there, take it. And as for my views? To him my suggestion that the taxpayer shouldn't pay for his breakfast somehow reflected a suggestion that, because I am (he assumes) better off than him, I should be allowed to live longer. It was a master class in missing the point.

But of interest, because at no point in our discussion did he recognise that getting free bread was not an absolute right but a burden on the taxpayer. He might not be on benefits of any kind or part of what we consider to be the welfare state (I have no idea) but this man (who, from a quick scan of his tweets, seems delightful on most levels) is still very much a part of the entitlement driven welfare state. And that's one reason why making cuts is quite as hard as it is.

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