Party before people – the problem with backbenchers


Let’s look at my constituency MP, Roger Williams. He is a backbencher, not directly involved in policy matters, but he is also an illustration of what is wrong with the Coalition government.

I have no doubt that Roger genuinely wants to help people. Unfortunately loyalty to his party (the Liberal Democrats) and the Coalition means that something happens whenever he gets into the Commons chamber, and his concern for his constituents gets left at the door or perverted to mean something else.

Look at his performance during the food bank debate. The first thing he said was, “I felt very uneasy that some of the most vulnerable people, such as those I have met in my constituency, were being used as a political football across this Chamber. They would not have wanted that. They often feel a sense of indignity about going to food banks. They feel that it is in some way their own fault, but in many cases it is not their fault at all.”

There are worse things to be than a “political football”, Roger. If you are in serious financial plight because of government decisions, for example, it is far worse to be ignored.

He seemed woefully ignorant of the number of food banks in his Brecon and Radnorshire constituency, naming only the facility established by the New Life Church in Llandrindod Wells (which officially opened last summer but had been running itself in since the early months of the year) and one that is planned in Brecon.  The food bank in Knighton was established in October 2012, and there are others in Hay-on-Wye and Ystradgynlais. I believe Rhayader is covered by a ‘satellite’ of the food bank in Llanidloes, across the Montgomeryshire border. This means almost all the major towns are covered, and I know efforts are being made to bring coverage to as many villages as possible, also.

Rather than discuss how the government could help rid his constituency of the need for food banks, Roger unwisely decided to talk them up as valuable additions to the community: “Before the food bank was established in my constituency, I had no organised place to refer people to… At least now I can direct them to somewhere they will get help.”

That is not the point; they should not be necessary in the world’s seventh-largest economy. There is no less money in the UK now than there was in 2010 – clearly somebody is hogging it all for themselves. Shouldn’t Roger – and his fellow backbenchers – be trying to secure a more equitable redistribution of wealth?

Perhaps he thinks this can be found through work, which he said “is the best way out of poverty”. We all know that, under the Coalition government, this has become a hollow lie – more working families are in poverty than workless or retired households put together, because of the policies of Mr Cameron’s government.

At least he agreed that “work is not always available for people”. This provided him with an opportunity to discuss the benefit system, whose failure is an equal cause (with poorly-paid work) of the need for food banks.

Guess what? Roger thinks his government is “making progress to make it better”. You may find this observation delusional when coupled with his next observation – that “Jobcentre Plus seems to be using different criteria in different towns to impose sanctions on people. Obviously, when sanctions are imposed, people are left in great difficulty.”

These statements are mutually exclusive. The government cannot be improving the benefit system for claimants when its staff are deliberately bending the rules to cut payments for those who need them.

In the final analysis, Mr Williams appears confused and bewildered – a poor representative of his constituency but an excellent example of the Coalition government’s policies.

He acknowledges that people hate having to attend food banks, but welcomes their growth in his constituency – even though he doesn’t know how many are here already.

He follows the party li(n)e that “work is the best way out of poverty”, in the face of all the evidence that his government’s policies are worsening in-work poverty.

And he tells us benefit claimants are getting a better service – then criticises Jobcentre Plus for the arbitrary and underhanded way it removes that service from people who have nothing.

Perhaps he will be better-informed after he meets ministers “to find out why the sanctions in different jobcentres have different criteria; why they have different systems for writing to and contacting people in order to encourage them to attend meetings; and why, if people do not attend those meetings, they get sanctioned”.

But he will probably leave those concerns at the door, next time he enters the House of Commons.

12 thoughts on “Party before people – the problem with backbenchers

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  2. fkreid

    I suppose he’s never heard of the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ either. This seems to be a personal problem with most politicians, whether they toe the party line or not. These double standards, however ‘honestly’ held, makes them ‘accidental hypocrites’. Most politicians seem unfit for public office on this criterion alone, except some of them are obviously deliberate hypocrites. I don’t need to name them as they are well known for occupying the front benches.

  3. Jim Round

    This has been the case with party politics since it’s creation, but will it ever be got rid of? It’s the only soloution?
    As for foodbanks, they have little meaning for those who do not require them, they very rarely make the news and the I’m alright Jack’s of the world ignore them.
    Until this changes, there is little to look forward to.

  4. Lolly

    The reason why the sanctions in different jobcentres have different criteria, and have different systems for writing to and contacting people in order to encourage them to attend meetings, and why, if people do not attend those meetings, they get sanctioned is because jobcentre managers, and sometimes even junior jobcentre clerks themselves, decide what criteria they follow in respect to individual claimants, often engineering criteria in order to trip up particular claimant and sanction them in order to meet targets and make themselves of their jobcentre look effective.

    The “claimant commitment” that people have to sign that specifies precisely just what steps an individual has to take in order to maintain their entitlement varies from person to person at the whim of advisers. Everything is fluid and can be changed at a moment’s notice; claimants have great difficulty in knowing what they are supposed to do and when. Little wonder hundreds of thousands of people make trivial mistakes and end up summarily sanctioned.

    So: Why so many sanctions?

    Well: If you can’t get people into gainful employment, but do want to cut the benefits bill, one particularly devilish way to achieve this is simply to strip benefit from claimants for failing to scrupulously stick to their “claimant commitment” to the letter. Thus if a claimant has agreed to apply for, say, three jobs a week between signing days – so six job applications as a minimum per fortnight – he/she could well get sanctioned if he/she applies for two jobs during the first week between signing and four jobs during the second week. Why? One too few jobs applied for during week one and one too many applied for during week two! I am not making this up. It really has happened.

    The regime has been designed expressly to create ambiguity in respect to claims and give jobcentre staff the latitude to “catch people out”, especially for “not actively seeking work” diligently enough to please jobcentre staff and to inflict almost intolerable levels of stress in claimants who live in fear of being punished for some reason they cannot fathom. If Universal Credit ever really gets going this kind of insecurity will be extended from the unemployed to part-time workers and the self-employed.

    The current system is diabolical, literally.

  5. hugosmum70

    not quite on this subject but on back bench members in general. i just received a letter from my own local MP, an opposition frontbench member, shadow secretary of state for transport. i had written to ask if she would be voting on the EDM 62 “support for people during reconsideration of ESA refusals”. it seems that she is not allowed to vote/sign anything that a backbench member puts forward no matter what the issue may be. i find this shocking. as it means my views and others in this constituency plus those whose MP is also a frontbench member will not have representation on a number of important issues. she includes a letter she got from Mike Penning,minister of state for disabled people, which basically tells me little more than most people know about ESA and what happens when found fit to work. basically it says still that if you ask reconsideration of such a decision youv dont get paid for upto or more than 4 weeks only going onto reduced money if it goes to appeal AFTER the DWP have done this new evaluation IN THEIR OWN TIME.they say 4 weeks at most. we all know this probably will amount to much more given the numbers that this will affect. 1 week without money in these circumstances means debt, no food, no heat no light to these people. and the longer it goes on, homelessness /destitution. and we all know i am not exaggerating here. so with back benchers like this one above, WHAT CHANCE HAS ANYONE GOT? SEEMS TO ME THE WHOLE PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM IS BOGGED DOWN WITH RED TAPE,PETTY RULES AND POMPOUS JACKASSES
    My MP Mary Creagh writes :-
    As shadow secretary of state for transport ,i am a member of the opposition frontbench.EDMs are used by backbench MP’s to highlight a particular issue to the Government and therefore i am unable to sign EDM 62.
    can only be red tape preventing her surely?

    1. Kerry Davies.

      EDM’s are basically for backbenchers letting off steam and mean little in terms of voting.

      I can understand why front benchers don’t normally sign or vote on them since very few reach the vote and they tend to be critical rather than constructive. I would not be too concerned but would write back asking her to state her own position clearly in plain English.

  6. Kerry Davies.

    Hi Mike;
    I am terribly proud of the fact that we hosted a meeting at which Roger Hugh displayed his “Movember” and restrained myself. Didn’t hit him or verbally attack him but following his inept performance her indoors, a lifelong Liberal voter, sent him another of her emails. He’s had a few since he failed her with ATOS/DWP and she had to use the Independent Case Examiner.

    He claimed that Tesco were donating 30% to the public donations and failed to understand that was for two or three days only. Also failing to comprehend that Tesco has stopped subsidising foodbanks but stepped up collections so that they could retain the profits from goods bought in-store. When they were subsidising them sales dropped so they took action.

    I sometimes feel sorry for Roger Hugh but that doesn’t last. A former Labour member who votes for the Welfare Reform Act and the Health and Social Care Act while representing South Powys needs treatment.
    You have a good Solstice and be well, at least that nuisance of a Brecon mayor is the Labour candidate so things might get interesting.

    1. Mike Sivier

      I’m not all that hopeful about “that nuisance of a Brecon mayor”, I’m afraid. After all that talk we’ve heard that people don’t want more besuited young MP candidates, brandishing their degrees in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, who have hardly done a scrap of work for anyone other than sitting politicians, we got a besuited young man with a degree in PPE, whose CV consists mostly of work for sitting politicians. He was selected by a process that involved the selection committee ensuring that he was the only candidate able to proceed to the hustings meeting and the vote.

      You may think this reaction is sour grapes (I was the other candidate), but when you consider that the selection committee asked me just three questions – all regarding campaigning – then told me I had not displayed enough knowledge about the role of an MP in a rural constituency (a completely separate issue), and also consider that my request for further information about the decision (in accordance with Labour guidelines) has been met with stony silence other than an email from a single committee member, acting on his own, that amounts to a character assassination that has appalled everyone who has seen it, you may come to a separate conclusion.

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