Tag Archives: Policy Exchange

Tories’ ‘Benefit Street’ event ‘encapsulates all that is wrong’ about the social security debate



No benefit: After Middlesbrough FC supporters heard the new series of Benefits Street was to be filmed on Teesside, they flew banners attacking the decision at the club’s next match. That’s how popular the series’ approach to benefit recipients has been with the public.

This is utterly perverse. The Conservative Party conference is to play host to a ‘debate’ (we won’t dignify it with any acceptance that it really is one until after it has happened) on social security that is more likely to be a piece of theatre intended to lay blame on the vulnerable.

According to Ekklesia, a debate titled ‘Benefits Street: What more needs to be done to help people into work?’ will feature Mark Hoban MP, the former Minister of State for Employment, Steve Hughes, Head of Economic and Social Policy at Policy Exchange, and Deirdre Kelly, described on the event’s promotional material as ‘Deirdre Kelly, (White Dee) Television Personality, Benefits Street.’

The ‘debate’ will be chaired by Allegra Stratton, political editor of Newsnight, so her card is now well and truly marked. Those of you who are still burdened by the belief that the BBC is a hive of socialism, take note.

There are so many ways this can go badly wrong – especially from a moral standpoint. Let’s look at what Ekklesia’s Bernadette Meaden has to say about it:

“First, the title of the debate. It seems based on the now very tired assumption that the unemployment rate is not actually a function of the economy, beyond the control of individuals, but the fault of unemployed people. If this is not the assumption, why not call the debate, ‘How can we create more jobs?’ And why make the association with Benefits Street, a programme notorious for stigmatising people on benefits and unleashing a stream of hostility towards the people who took part?

“Secondly, the composition of the panel. Mark Hoban was Employment Minister in 2012 when a more punitive sanctions regime was introduced for unemployed people. At the time he promised a “rude awakening” for claimants, and wrote, “I make no apology for this. I am clear that for too long some people have taken benefits for granted as a way of life rather than as a safety net.”

“Another thing Mr. Hoban did not make any apologies for was the contribution of hardworking taxpayers to his own way of life. After introducing a sanctions regime which has been blamed for causing soaring demand for foodbanks and payday loans, Mr. Hoban was allowed to keep just under £133,000 profit he made when he sold his taxpayer-funded second home.

“By my calculations that amounts to thirty five years worth of Jobseekers Allowance, on top of his considerable salary. And yet, on this panel, Mr. Hoban will presumably be the guardian of the public purse which funds the ‘lifestyles’of benefit claimants. It is unlikely that he will be under scrutiny for the considerable benefits he has received from the taxpayer.

Steve Hughes of Policy Exchange has an economics degree and previously worked at the Bank of England, the British Chambers of Commerce, and in Parliament. Policy Exchange has made many proposals to cut the social security budget, including lowering the benefit cap outside London and the South East, capping child benefit at four children, and a ‘smarter’ sanctions regime. Policy Exchange has contributed to an approach which is tough on benefits claimants, not tough on the causes of benefit claims.

“The third member of the panel, Deirdre Kelly, became a ‘TV Personality’ when she featured in the documentary series ‘Benefits Street’. Ms Kelly, a single mother of two, was employed until five years ago. Post-natal depression and bereavement have contributed to her mental health problems, and it has been reported that she is under the care of a mental health team. She can be outspoken, and her agent (who presumably gets a percentage of any fees she earns) says, ‘In classic Dee style, she said she won’t think about what she wants to say until the actual debate. She shoots from the hip, Dee, and that’s what everyone likes about her. This will be a great way for her to get her ideas out – and hopefully she will get to go for a drink with David Cameron.’

“To me, this panel seems disturbingly unbalanced, and perhaps designed to attract publicity. To have the voice of a working class person who has actual experience of the benefits system heard in such a forum is welcome and long overdue. But to engage in a public debate with an experienced politician and an economics expert would be a daunting prospect for anybody. With two of the panel instrumental in social security cuts and stricter conditionality, is it left to the non-professional to defend the unemployed, sick and disabled, who suffer when such policies are implemented?

“For balance, would it not have been fairer to include another panel member, who could counter the well-honed views of the ex-Minister and the professional researcher? Or perhaps Ms Kelly agrees with the two other members of the panel, in which case it won’t be much of a debate.

“Of course, it is the job of the person chairing the debate to ensure that everybody gets a fair hearing. The person chosen to fill this role does not inspire confidence. In 2012, around the same time as Mr Hoban was introducing tougher sanctions, Ms Stratton conducted an interview with Shanene Thorpe, a young single mother from Tower Hamlets. She quite aggressively questioned Ms. Thorpe why she was living in her own flat, claiming Housing Benefit, when she could be living at home with her mother. After the interview, Ms. Stratton spoke directly to camera, saying, “The government is thinking of saying to young people: if you don’t have work, don’t leave home.”

“The clear implication was that Ms Thorpe was unemployed and living off benefits as a lifestyle choice. She was actually working full time, and had been in work or work-related training since she was sixteen, but this inconvenient truth was edited from the interview. After Ms Thorpe complained that she had been misrepresented and humiliated, Newsnight eventually issued a public apology. So, as a Chair for a ‘Benefits Street’ debate, Ms. Stratton does not inspire confidence.

“In conclusion, let’s imagine the tables were turned. Would an MP who had received the equivalent of 35 years of Jobseekers Allowance, thanks to a public subsidy and a rising property market, agree to a public debate on MPs expenses with, for example, two people on benefits, chaired by a member of the Occupy movement?

“It is impossible to imagine such an event taking place, or even imagine anyone proposing such an event; and that speaks volumes about the way the whole welfare debate has been framed for the last four years.”

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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Osborne’s big plan: falsify unemployment figures under the Workfare banner

A swivel-eyed loon, earlier today. [Picture: Left Foot Forward]

A swivel-eyed loon, earlier today. [Picture: Left Foot Forward]

So Gideon wants the long-term unemployed to go on Workfare indefinitely, does he?

Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but doesn’t this mean the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s big announcement – at this year’s Conservative Party Conference – is a tawdry plan to massage the unemployment figures?

I’m indebted to The Void blog for the following information, which I recalled while reading reports of Osborne’s drone to the swivel-eyed masses. An article from May stated that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had been forced to admit a rise in unemployment was down to a fall in the number of people on Workfare.

“According to the Department, the number of people in work fell by over 47,000 over the last three months – which they say ‘reflects’ amongst other things a drop of 16,000 in the numbers on Government employment schemes,” the article states. As far as I know, this is still correct – if a person is put on Workfare, they are removed from unemployment statistics, even though they only receive social security payments for the work they do.

Putting the long-term unemployed on Workfare indefinitely, therefore, will effectively wipe long-term unemployment from the national figures. This will make Osborne’s administration look very good indeed – despite having done nothing to improve anyone’s chances of finding a job. In fact, those prospects will have worsened because every Workfare place removes a paying job from the market.

And what will this do for the Bank of England’s scheme to raise interest rates only if unemployment drops below seven per cent?

Wait – it gets worse. We can also see a now-traditional Tory ‘bait-and-switch’ going on, supported by a justification narrative based on a bit of voodoo polling. This one pushes lots of our favourite buttons!

Osborne’s rationale for imposing the scheme – the justification narrative – is simply that people want it. He’s basing his reasoning for this on a voodoo poll by the right-wing Policy Exchange, as described on The Void today.

“The general public’s opinions on workfare have been grossly distorted by the nature of the questions asked in this survey – of which there were only two,” the article states.

“The first question asked whether people thought ‘The government should require people who are unemployed for 12 months or more to do community work in return for their state benefits.’ The truth is that only just over half agreed at 56%. But the public were not asked if this workfare should be full time. In fact it does not even specify that the work should be unpaid – previous workfare schemes have come with a top up payment to benefits attached. Whilst those engrossed in welfare policy might assume workfare to mean 30 hours a week, every week, without pay, there’s no reason a survey respondent would think that. They might think yes, they should volunteer in an old people’s home for an afternoon a week, or do a couple of days a month helping out in the local park, for reasonable expenses. This 56% in no way gives a mandate for full time unpaid workfare.”

It continues: “The second question is even more dubious. The Policy Exchange are attempting to use the answers to this question to claim that only 22% of the public support disabled people being exempt from workfare. That incidentally is disabled people “who are capable of working” – another devious phrase as who is and isn’t capable of working is clearly open to debate as the Atos scandal has shown. The obvious inference from the from this figure is that 78% of the public support workfare for disabled people. Yet in question 1 only 56% of people support workfare for anyone at all. There must be something in the going on to explain this bizarre discrepancy.

“Question 2 asks respondents to imagine that compulsory workfare exists and then questions who should be exempt. Now a disabled person completing this survey may think well if I have to do workfare then why shouldn’t a lone parent, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean they support workfare, it means they support equality, of a sort.

“There is no option available for those who think that everyone should be exempt from workfare, although it is possible to answer that every group of claimants given should undertake unpaid work.”

So: Extremely dubious findings, used to support a dubious claim that the public supports increasing Workfare and this is why the Coalition is doing so. In fact, this is a thinly-veiled attempt to falsify unemployment statistics and trigger an interest rate rise.

The swivel-eyed loons must have lapped it up.

Now, why wasn’t Vox Political‘s best friend, Iain Duncan Smith, making this announcement?