From an anonymous correspondent
As welfare ‘reform’ and housing cuts bite ever harder, when do we reach the point where the government concedes that the hardship caused is an inevitable consequence of rebalancing the public finances and reducing the deficit? So far, they seem to be in deep denial. This contrasts with the Thatcher era, because when she increased unemployment as a tool of economic policy, she at least admitted that the growth in joblessness was a price which was (on her reasoning) worth paying.
The Cameron government seems either to deny that there is any hardship or to blame anyone other than the ministers who have instituted the cuts. Whenever some new example of the horrendous effects of their policies (here’s a good example - Ed) is presented to them they have a range of stock responses. We’ve been wondering if there is a standard Whitehall crib sheet for ministers. Well by sheer chance, we’ve been sent what looks like the housing and welfare crib sheet in a plain brown envelope.
In the interests of open government, here it is…
Say the cuts are avoidable. This is Eric’s favourite. The trick is to give the impression that all the cuts can be made painlessly by eliminating luxuries and sacking backroom staff. You can use his little list. Even the Prime Minister makes this excuse: at PMQs last week he accused councils of making high-profile cuts ‘to try to make a point’, not because they need to. Some people will believe him.
Blame the victims. This works well too. Extravagant housing benefit claims may only happen in a few isolated cases, but even so the press will lap them up, especially if they are large families, unemployed, migrants or – even better – all three. Give the impression that such claims make up most of the welfare budget. Whatever you do, don’t admit that over half of welfare spending goes to older people as they are seen as deserving of it. If talking about housing benefit, try to give the impression that it’s spent by the tenants themselves to fund their indolent lifestyles – whatever you do, don’t admit that the money goes to landlords who are pushing up rents because there are insufficient houses.
Use the keywords. We know it sounds boring, but you have to repeatedly refer to ‘scroungers’, ‘strivers not skivers’ and talk about ‘subsidised housing’ not council homes. This helps confirm the impression that most welfare spending is a waste of money. Suggestions for new and even more derogative terms are always welcome. IDS has made a good attempt to link welfare recipients in the public mind with drug addicts and alcoholics. Follow his lead.
Blame the previous government. It’s their fault we have too few homes. Focus on the fact that housebuilding in Labour’s last year was the worst they achieved, even though we know that was because of the credit crunch. Don’t admit either that (a) housebuilding under the coalition is on average 45,000 homes less per year than the output under Labour, or (b) that 2010/11 and 2011/12 were the two worst years since the war for English housebuilding.
Blame local government. So Westminster’s putting homeless families up in expensive hotels and Camden’s sending them to Coventry (or Leicester, or somewhere else absurdly far from London). Brilliant: we can say how stupid this is and tell them to stop, even though we know they can’t.
Don’t admit that policies to cut the welfare budget affect anything else. For example, some academics argue that cuts in benefits for private tenants mean that more of them will become homeless, or that more people will need accommodation with lower rents in the social sector. Deny that this will happen. If any evidence emerges that shows you’re wrong, under no circumstances must you agree with it. Better still, don’t read the evidence then no one can accuse you of knowing the facts but ignoring them. Alternatively, officials may be able to find an obscure or outdated source that on the surface appears to contradict the evidence: use it!
Deny that cuts are taking place. For example, is there any part of your budget that you have decided to protect, however small? Grossly exaggerate its importance. Take a lesson from Grant Shapps: every time someone said funding for homelessness was being cut and decimating services he would point to his department’s small fund for homelessness prevention, and claim that because it hadn’t been reduced then either services had been unaffected or – yes! – any cuts were local councils’ fault.
Apply a sticking plaster. It’s obvious to a fool that the scale of the welfare cuts must – in reality – mean massive hardship. Furthermore, Labour will find deserving cases (people dying of cancer, homeless ex-servicemen, that sort of thing). First, always offer to investigate the particular case, implying you might do something (even if you won’t). Second, point to the money that’s been set aside for special cases (e.g. discretionary housing payments). Never fail to give the impression that this is sufficient to deal with any genuine hardship. Mention the amount e.g. DHPs total £60 million in 2012/13. This will seem a large sum to the public even though it’s only a tiny fraction of the cuts taking place.
We’re dealing with it. Unfortunately some problems are so big and so obvious that you’ll have to pretend you’re doing something about them. For example, every fool knows builders have virtually stopped building. Given that the housing budget had one of the biggest cuts of all in the Spending Review there’s precious little we can do, but you must pretend otherwise. First, argue that output is going up even when it’s going down (NB. Don’t appear on Sunday Politics, choose programmes where they don’t do their research). Second, have some useful initiative available that sounds like it might solve the problem even if it’s far too small to make any difference. Grant gave us NewBuy and FirstBuy, which both sound sufficiently impressive, but we might need to invent one or two more when people realise how inconsequential they are. Say we are selling more homes under right to buy as if this helps solve the problems, even if we aren’t and it doesn’t.
Joking aside, Richard Vize made the excellent point in the Guardian last week that Cameron and Co. are undermining local government and failing to prepare people for the depth of the cuts that are now hitting them – with much worse still in the pipeline. He says that ministers are ‘giving the impression that public services can indeed manage cuts without pain or profound change. They can’t.’ How can the coalition expect to be taken seriously as a government, if they make cuts on an unprecedented scale over a dangerously tight timescale, but refuse even to admit there might be consequences for public services?